Here’s why no one was convicted for planning a blast that killed 9 and injured 58 people

Here’s why no one was convicted for planning a blast that killed 9 and injured 58 people
**FILE** File photo of Mecca Masjid blast accused Swami Aseemanand who was acquitted by a special NIA court in Hyderabad on Monday.Photo

On April 16th, a special anti-terrorism court in Hyderabad acquitted all five people that were accused of orchestrating a bomb blast at the city’s Mecca Masjid in May 2007 owing to a lack of evidence.

All of the accused had ties to Hindu right-wing organisations, including alleged mastermind Swami Aseemanand (pictured), a former RSS member and godman who has been linked to three other terror attacks. Another one, Devendra Gupta, had been sentenced to life last year for his role in the Ajmer Sharif bomb blasts in October 2007.

Nine people were killed and 58 were seriously injured in the Mecca Masjid blast, in which a improvised explosive device (IED) was triggered by a cellphone. In the ensuing frenzy after the blast, another five people were killed as a result of police firing.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had originally charged 10 people in the case. One, Sunil Joshi, a former RSS leader, was murdered, another two- Sandeep V. Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra, also RSS activists, - are absconding while the investigation against two others, Tejram Parmar and Amith Chowhan, is ongoing.

Over the course of the trial, 226 witnesses were interviewed and over 400 documents were examined, but the NIA and the prosecuting authorities were unable to prove the charges against the accused. In a questionable turn of events, the judge who pronounced the verdict, Ravinder Reddy, submitted his resignation soon after, citing personal reasons.

The verdict, while unfortunate, is not surprising. The case has been plagued by misdirection, questionable decision-making and interference from the outset. Here are the reasons why it fell apart:-

The police initially went after the wrong people

In the aftermath of the blast, the Hyderabad police suspected that a Pakistan-based terror outfit, Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), was behind the attack. Why a Muslim group would target a mosque was apparently beyond them. Given that terrorists were generally assumed to be Muslims up until that point, the narrative gained traction in the media. The police rounded up and interrogated as many as 200 people with supposed links to the HuJI, and eventually charged 21 of them. They were acquitted by a criminal court in Nampally, Hyderabad at the beginning of 2009 due to the lack of any credible evidence against them.

The responsibility for investigating the case was transferred not once, but twice

After the Muslim men were acquitted in January 2009, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the case. The agency spent two years investigating the bombings, pointing out the possible participation of right-wing Hindu extremist groups like Abhinav Bharat, which were said to also be responsible for three other attacks on Muslims between 2006 and 2008 - a spate of blasts in Malegaon in September 2006 that led to 37 deaths, the bombing of the Samjhauta Express in February 2007, which killed 68 Pakistanis and the Ajmer Sharif blast that killed three people. The CBI filed charges against three people in the case - Devender Gupta, a RSS worker, Lokesh Sharma, a property dealer and right-wing activist, and Sunil Joshi, a RSS leader, who was deceased by then. In 2011, the case was transferred to the NIA, which was tasked with investigating all the attacks that were allegedly executed by Hindutva organisations.

While the NIA extended the probe to include Swami Aseemanand and six others, one can’t help thinking about all the pieces of evidence that were overlooked, or communication lapses that took place as a result of the handing over of the cases. For example, a crucial piece of evidence never even reached the NIA. A red shirt, which was found at the blast site and suspected to belong to one of the coordinators of the attack, reportedly disappeared amid the handover.

The repeated handover of the case brings to the mind the 2008 case on the murder of Arushi Talwar. The Noida police initiated the investigation, after which the Delhi police got involved. Following a lack of confidence in the police’s investigation, the government handed over the case to the CBI. After the CBI team was accused of extracting a confession under duress, the investigation was handed to a new unit in 2009, which suggested that the case be closed due to lack of evidence.

An exhaustive confession from the main accused was rescinded

After being arrested by the CBI in November 2010, Swami Aseemanand lodged a 42-page confession in Tis Hazari Court in Delhi the following December. He confirmed the fact that he and some other Hindutva leaders like Indresh Kumar, a national executive member of the RSS, planned the aforementioned bombings as a part of a “bomb for bomb” response to attacks coordinated by Muslim terrorists.

Aseemanand’s testimony, which included details of the plannings and incriminated Sunil Joshi, Sandeep Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra, was legally admissible and threatened to have serious implications for Hindutva groups, as it was the first direct piece of evidence pointing to their involvement. However, in March 2011, Swami Aseemanand retracted his statements, explaining that they were made to investigators under duress. His counsel would also argue later that the statement was coerced by CBI officials as part of ploy to legitimise the concept of “saffron terror” and implicate the RSS.

Another of key accused, Sunil Joshi, who was named as a suspect in 2010, was murdered in December 2007 in Madhya Pradesh, allegedly by his own people for “knowing too much”. Joshi had reportedly been planning to make a confession.

A lot of witnesses turned hostile

Like Swami Aseemanand, a number of witnesses turned hostile and/or retracted their statements against the accused. In fact, out of the 226 witnesses in the trial, 66 turned hostile. As is expected in a trial that takes forever to conclude, a number of witnesses feared for their lives. In November 2016, for example, four key witnesses backtracked on earlier statements, which said that the accused had contacted each other using their mobile phones.

A number of important cases in India have been derailed due to witnesses turning hostile. The ongoing trial for the alleged encounter killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi and his aide, Tulsiram Prajapati, at the hands of the Gujarat Police’s Anti-Terrorist Squad has seen 45 out of 66 witnesses change their statements or profess their inability to recollect events accurately.

Possible interference in the NIA’s investigation

The NIA has routinely been criticised for its protracted and shoddy investigation of cases involving Hindu extremist outfits, which was perceived to be a sign of compliance with orders from the BJP-led government. In June 2015, Rohini Salian, a prosecutor for another bomb blast case in Malegaon in September 2008, said that she had been told by the NIA to “go soft” on the accused. The case, which is still pending, was subsequently transferred to another special court.

In August 2015, the NIA chose not to challenge the bail order granted to Swami Aseemanand in the Samjhauta Express blast case as well as two others who were accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case- Devender Gupta and Lokesh Sharma. In April 2016, the NIA also shifted gears by deciding to probe the possible participation of a Pakistani terror outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba, in the Samjhauta case - an attack in which 68 Pakistanis were killed on Indian soil.

Criminal investigations in India are regularly influenced by politics. In December 2017, a local court dismissed non-bailable warrants against a number of BJP leaders in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots case, likely at the behest of the Yogi Adityanath government. Last month, the Uttar Pradesh government moved to withdraw all 131 pending cases in the riots.

What now?

Following the not-guilty verdict for the accused in the Mecca Masjid case, the NIA said that it would assess the court’s decision before pursuing any further action. The verdict marks another reason to lose faith in the agency after it refused to appeal against the acquittals of seven people, including Swami Aseemanand, in the Ajmer Sharif case in March last year.

However, Swami Aseemanand isn’t completely in the clear. He is still being tried in the Samjhauta Express blast case. However, the trial has much the same makings of the Mecca Masjid one. As many as 42 witnesses, out of 209 deposed, have turned hostile. The NIA is currently seeking the statements of 13 Pakistani witnesses. A guilty verdict, while welcome, is unlikely.

Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, an Islamic party in Telangana, summed up the nation’s reaction to the acquittals in the Mecca Masjid blast. "Our fight against terrorism is weakened after today's acquittals," he said in a statement to media outlets.