Of saffron variety

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST



The Malegaon blast probe points to the existence of Hindu extremist outfits in Maharashtra.

November 2003: A bomb explodes at the Mohammadiya Masjid in Parbhani, Maharashtra. Several injured.

August 2004: Bomb blast at the Quadriya Masjid in Jalna, Maharashtra. Several injured.

August 2004: Bomb blast at Merag-ul-Uloom Madrassa in Purna, Maharashtra. Several injured.

April 2006: Two Bajrang Dal activists die while making a pipe bomb in Nanded, Maharashtra. Investigations reveal that the house belongs to a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) worker.

January 2008: Bombs explode at Gadkari Auditorium, Thane, Maharashtra. Perpetrators turn out to be members of the Sanatan Sanstha, which is linked to the Hindu Jan Jagran Samiti, a well-known extremist organisation in Maharashtra.

September 2008: A bomb explodes at Bhikhu Chowk in the largely Muslim-populated town of Malegaon in Maharashtra. Five people die and 89 suffer injuries.

EVIDENCE emerging from the investigation into the Malegaon bomb explosion led the police to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and two associates, Shivnarayan Singh Kalsangra and Shyam Bhawarlal Sahu. With their arrest on October 23, they became the first to be picked up in connection with the incident. Subsequently, Maharashtras Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested six other people, including two Army officers, one serving and the other retired. The ATS believes that a couple of top Hindutva leaders and right-wing politicians may be involved in the blast. Informed sources say that the mastermind, a Ramji, is still at large and once he is found the entire Hindu fundamentalist plot to avenge the recent blasts perpetrated by jehadi groups in India will be unravelled.

The sadhvis arrest is the first case of a Hindu right-wing member being taken into custody and held responsible for a bomb explosion. Although the police are yet to make a statement about radical Hindu groups being responsible for other blasts in the State, they say there are enough facts to indicate that these groups are involved in those strikes.

As the investigation progresses, what seems to be emerging is that there are several Hindu extremist outfits in Maharashtra, some of them linked to one another, and they all have a single-point agenda combating jehadi terror with terror. Political observers and secularists believe that the saffron brigade, which is known to cause terror through communal rabble-rousing, has now adopted a different form of violence. They say that the establishment must, in the same way it cracks down on jehadi terror cells, pay attention to the rising saffron movement and suppress it before it is too late.

Until now, the police were under the assumption that only Muslim groups would carry out terror attacks. Ever since the Parbhani blast and the Nanded incident, we [human rights groups] have been asking them to look elsewhere, too. Why would a jehadi group place a bomb in a mosque on a busy prayer day where a number of Muslims would be killed? They do not gain anything by this, said Asghar Ali Engineer, a Muslim scholar and human rights activist.

He added: I am certain that the arrest of the sadhvi and others is just the tip of the iceberg. We will soon see exactly what these so-called Hindutva groups are responsible for. If the police are left to do their job without any pressure, much more will be revealed and hopefully the real culprits will be caught.

Pragya Singh Thakur, 36, was arrested in Surat after the police traced the ownership of a motorcycle used in the Malegaon blast to her. A telephone conversation, transcripts of which were presented in court, confirmed that she did not only own the bike but was involved in the terror strike in the town. She says in the phone call to one of the accused: Why did so few people die? Why didnt you park [the bike] in a crowded area? While arguing her own case, she told the court that she and the two others arrested along with her were innocent and were being implicated as part of a larger game to defame the Hindutva movement. Originally from Indore and operating largely out of there, Pragya Singh was once an active member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Janata Partys (BJP) student wing. She was also a member of Durga Vahini, the Vishwa Hindu Parishads (VHP) womens wing.

As a student, the motorbike-riding Pragya Singh was known to beat up roadside Romeos. She took up sanyas in 2006. In the past few years, she has allegedly been a member of various right-wing organisations and has been networking with godmen, Hindu spiritual leaders and those inclined towards Hindu extremism, with the aim of advancing the Hindutva agenda.

The other two arrested with Pragya Singh were also from Indore. Shivnarayan Kalsangra allegedly assembled the timer device for the bomb used in Malegaon. Shyam Bhawarlal Sahu reportedly was one of its planters. Five days after their arrest, Sameer Kulkarni was picked up for his alleged role in arranging the chemicals for the bomb.

He was a member of the ABVP and is now an active member of the Abhinav Bharat, a Maharashtra-based right-wing organisation. Retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay was also held that day for allegedly training the accused in bomb making. A few days later, three other members of the Abhinav Bharat were taken into police custody.

On November 5, the police had a major breakthrough when they arrested a serving Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Prasad Purohit. He apparently provided the RDX (Research Department Explosive) for the bomb and along with Ramji masterminded the operation. This sent shockwaves across the country. He is the first officer from the Indian Army to be arrested in connection with a terror attack. The Army was quick to defend itself by saying Purohits arrest did not mean everyone in the forces was communally inclined. Should he be found guilty, he would be punished, the Army said.

Ever since the Nanded incident, there have been murmurs that right-wing organisations affiliated to political parties were being active in forming terror modules. In April 2006, Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse of the Bajrang Dal were killed while making bombs in Nanded, a small town in Maharashtra. Investigations revealed that the owner of the house in which the bombs were being made was an RSS member.

It was found that Kondwar and Phanse were responsible for bombing a mosque in Parbhani in 2003. The police also established that members of the Bajrang Dal cell in Nanded were responsible for the blasts in Jalna and Purna in 2004.

Soon after the Malegaon case arrests, the question people were asking was why Nanded was not taken more seriously. Were the government and the police all too quick to dismiss the incident as a one-off case? Was this not a clear indicator of what was happening?

K.P.S. Raghuvanshi, the ATS chief at the time, said it was taken seriously but the case languished once it was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

He pointed out that the ATS had, in fact, been cracking down on right-wing organisations for their role in some of the attacks. In August this year, it arrested members of the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Jan Jagran Samiti for their role in the Thane and Panvel blasts. The Malegaon arrests have come in the wake of concerted efforts by the ATS, and the police are confident that in the coming days many more will fall into their net.

The arrest of so many right-wing activists by the ATS is enough cause for concern about the rapid growth of extremist groups in Maharashtra. A police officer told Frontline: In the name of protecting Hindutva and the perceived threat to it, these groups are becoming very popular. They attract cadre by making dramatic speeches during Hindu festivals. Clearly, their base is expanding and one has to watch out for them.

The officer said that typically many of its activists were unemployed and had been brainwashed into believing that they could save their country by carrying out right-wing plans. There were vast numbers who believed that this was the best option to combat the so-called war on Hindus, he said. What was disconcerting, he said, was that a sophisticated chemical like RDX was used in the blasts. With adequate support, these groups could have access to even more weaponry and ammunition, thus increasing their strike power, he pointed out.

Among the groups under the scanner is the Abhinav Bharat, which is named after an organisation set up by the Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1904 to strike against the British. Himani Savarkar, who is married to Savarkars nephew (she is also the niece of Mahatma Gandhis assassin Nathuram Godse), has come out supporting the sadhvis innocence in the blast.

The Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Jan Jagran Samiti are reportedly linked to the RSS. In January this year, their operatives attempted to bomb the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane to protest against the staging of Amhi Pachpute, a Marathi satire on the Mahabharata. Other groups include the Durga Vahini; the Hindu Raksha Samiti, which played a role in the recent Dhule riots and is affiliated to the Shiv Sena; and the Rashtriya Jagran Manch, which is also linked to the RSS. The police are monitoring the activities of some VHP and Bajrang Dal members also.

The trend towards extremist behaviour is not new to Maharashtra. In the early 1900s, Bal Gangadhar Tilaks call to fight the imperialists through anything other than peaceful methods found favour not just at the ground level but even among Western-educated upper-class Hindus.

The RSS, which has its headquarters at Nagpur, has deep roots in the State. Generations have grown up on its ideology. In contemporary times the Shiv Senas stunning rise in Maharashtra was to a great extent dependent on the Hindutva ideology.

It must be observed that Pragya Singh and her associates are not from Maharashtra. But the State, owing to its well-organised right-wing extremist cadre, is conducive to carrying out their operations.

Interrogation of Major (retd.) Ramesh Upadhyay revealed that the Bhonsla Military School in Nashik was used as a training ground by the conspirators. While the school has denied its involvement in the blast, it is under the scanner for allowing Bajrang Dal activists to hold training sessions in the use of arms and martial arts.

Incidentally, the school was founded by B.S. Moonje, who was Savarkars close friend and who assisted in creating the RSS. The schools links to the RSS is open knowledge.

It is deeply worrying that Army personnel are involved in such terror activities, said Engineer. It just goes to show how deep the infiltration is in this country.

According to Engineer, constant indoctrination over decades by the VHP, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and the BJP has resulted in this kind of violence, which will be disastrous for India. During the six years of BJP rule, they infiltrated into crucial areas: the police force, the army and the education department. We are seeing the results of that, said Engineer.

Ram Punyani, secretary of the All India Secular Forum and a human rights activist, said that the deep and widespread ideological indoctrination began years ago but was propagated thoroughly during the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] regime. It placed its members in the bureaucracy, particularly in the education department, and in the cultural arena, he said. RSS people who once headed a department may have retired, but they have ensured that the damage continues, as they would have hired a number of like-minded people. So you can imagine how deep the penetration is. It will take generations to root this out, said Punyani.

The emergence of these small radical Hindutva groups has put parties such as the Shiv Sena and the BJP in a spot. Leaping to get some political mileage, the Shiv Sena came out in total support of Pragya Singh. It even said it would offer her legal help, as she was truly a fighter for its people. While the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have not been very vocal, the BJP is doing a bit of flip-flop on the issue. Initially it denied any association with Pragya Singh but later supported her.

It has been saying vociferously that the investigation is biased and lacking in transparency. Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, however, said that those parties that once sought lethal POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) charges framed against suspects from minority communities were now asking the government to go easy on the Hindu right-wing extremists.

With the general elections just round the corner, each party has to play a careful game. For the Congress it will be a tough call. If it lets go of the Malegaon suspects, that will further anger an already seething Muslim community, which believes it is facing severe persecution because of the jehadi terror attacks. Yet, the Congress also has to appease the larger Hindu population.

In the course of time, there will be more arrests and perhaps the whole story will unfold. Or, as in other terror attacks, the true masterminds will never be found and the real story never told.


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