The Malegaon blast probe threw up 37 audiotapes in which ultra-Hindu groups plot terror attacks. These tapes expose a shocking nexus between Military Intelligence men and the outfits. Two years later, why is this still unexplored, asks RANA AYYUB
Lt Col Shrikant Purohit
Military Intelligence officer
The man who procured the RDX that was used for the Malegaon blast. He is the first serving officer to be arrested in a terror case
HATE IS one of the obvious and evident yields of the Hindutva worldview. But few had imagined it could spawn a terror network until investigations into the 2008 Malegaon blast led to a series of startling arrests that included Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Lt Col Shrikant Purohit of Abhinav Bharat, an ultra-right Hindu group. Since then, the issue of ‘saffron terror’ has entered national discourse as a fractious and heated debate.
Last week, the issue erupted once again, triggering livid responses across the political spectrum. First, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh claimed that Maharashtra Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare – who had been investigating the Malegaon blast – had called him hours before he died on the fateful night of 26/11, saying he was being threatened by those opposed to his probes. Singh was speaking at the launch of a book by Aziz Burney, controversially titled 26/11 – A RSS Controversy? and both sections of his own party and the BJP were dismayed that his “irresponsible” remarks would play into Pakistan’s hands.
A few days later, in its ongoing exposé, WikiLeaks released a cable in which US Ambassador Timothy Roemer claimed that Rahul Gandhi had told him that ultra-Hindu terror was probably a greater threat to national security than Islamist terror. In all the furious exchanges that have followed, a crucial issue was overlooked. With the capture of Ajmal Kasab, it is undoubtedly an absurd stretch of imagination to believe 26/11 was engineered by ultra-Hindu groups, but the truth is the ‘saffron terror’ story is indeed far from being a closed book.
Maj (retd) Ramesh Upadhyay
Military Intelligence officer
He is suspected of training those who assembled the bomb that went off in Malegaon. He also headed BJP’s ex-servicemen cell
TEHELKA has found that, in the two years since the Malegaon blast, investigators have left many leads unexplored. Most alarmingly, they have failed to pin down eight Indian Army officers allegedly involved with the terror network. Why haven’t they been questioned by the army or sufficiently tracked? How far has the network penetrated sections of the army? To understand the full implication of this, it is important to recall the whole story.
IT WAS a low-intensity bomb fitted in a motorbike, but its impact was powerful. It exploded in the small town of Malegaon in Nashik district, Maharashtra, on 29 September 2008, leaving six dead and several injured. The only clue was a mangled number-plate. Forensic lab officials used a 25 MP camera for a magnified view of the number-plate. They managed to get three sets of possible numbers. Then the ATS began the chase. The first combination took them to Badayun, Uttar Pradesh, where the vehicle bearing the number still existed. The second was tracked down to Gujarat. Here too the vehicle was still in use. In October 2008, the last number-plate took them to the bike owner, a self-styled godwoman called Sadhvi Pragya Thakur
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur
Her cell phone call records proved to be a minefield of information about those involved in the Malegaon blast
Pragya’s interrogation and call information from her cell phone opened a pandora’s box. Shamlal Sahu, 42, a commerce graduate, was first to be arrested on charges of planting the bomb. Shivnarayan Kalangasara Singh, 36, a science graduate, was arrested for setting a timer device in the bomb. Another science graduate, Sameer Kulkarni, 32, was arrested for his role in procuring chemicals for the bomb.
But the story did not end with these arrests. Five days after Pragya’s arrest, the ATS caught a major fish: Maj (retd) Ramesh Upadhyay, 64, a resident of Pune. He had worked in the Indian Army’s Military Intelligence (MI) unit and was suspected of training those who had assembled the bombs. He had also headed the BJP’s ex-servicemen’s cell in Mumbai.
On 2 November 2008, three more arrests were made – Ajay Rahirkar, 39, for raising funds for Abhinav Bharat; Rakesh Dhawde, 35, a weapon consultant in the movie The Rising; and Jagdish Mhatre, 40, who had paid money to Dhawde for buying weapons. All these men were from either Nashik or Pune. Then came the biggest arrest. On 5 November, the first ever serving army officer, Lt Col Purohit, 37, was arrested for procuring the RDX used in the blast. The MI officer was posted at the Army Education Corps Training Centre and College in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh, where he was studying Arabic at the time of his arrest.
Purohit’s role as a prime conspirator became clearer with the arrest of selfstyled seer Swami Dayanand Pandey alias Shankar Acharya alias Shukhakar Dwivedi, 40, on 14 November. Pandey had a habit of recording all his conversations with his co-conspirators on his laptop.
Terror on board The Samjhauta Express blast in 2007 killed 68 people
The ATS retrieved three videos and 37 audiotapes. These proved to be an unprecedented source of information. On 21 November, Karkare questioned Pune’s RSS leader Shyam Apte, named in the tapes.
Purohit himself wasn’t an easy case to crack. During his interrogation, he asserted that his job as an MI spy included interacting with both Hindu and Muslim extremists. At first, the army seemed to rally behind him. Soon after his arrest, the army spokesman claimed he had only been detained, not arrested. Pragya, however, disclosed that she had met Purohit in Pachmarhi, where Purohit had told her that he had executed two blasts in the past. The ATS officials suspected Purohit was hinting at the Samjhauta Express and Ajmer Sharif blasts, but this was not made public because of its diplomatic implications.
Cycle of violence The Malegaon blast in 2008 left six people dead
THE AUDIOTAPES revealed a chilling landscape. A godwoman, a seer, political bigwigs and retired and serving army officers all seemed part of the conspiracy. They spilled vitriolic hate for Muslims and even Hindus who did not subscribe to their ultra right-wing communal vision. They had set up Abhinav Bharat with the intention of infiltrating and subverting every institution in the country. This, for instance, is an excerpt of what Purohit says on the tapes about the nation they dreamed of creating:
“We must aim for militarisation of the organisation (Abhinav Bharat). Every member at all levels must have a basic knowledge of weapons. We haven’t done it so far. We should indoctrinate them with our ideology. We should establish an academy for ideological indoctrination. At the end of the course, each member will be tested and only those who pass will be finally admitted to the organisation. The level of testing is when he will be tried in ‘action’. Then our organisation will propagate establishment of all-India Hindu rashtra called Abhinav Bharat. There will be a uniform code of conduct irrespective of any caste. Reporting channels like those in the armed forces will be established. This will ensure the smooth flow of information and passing of orders. An Honour Court Committee will exist at all levels. This will ensure strict adherence to moral and ethical behaviour as decided by the core group by all the members based on our Vedas.”
The conversations were alarming. The then Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil was briefed by senior ATS officials. Other national agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and, later, the National Investigating Agency (NIA)were brought in. Initial investigations suggested that Purohit was an aberration. The investigators found it odd that despite their mentors in the army, the attackers behaved like novices. “They were so dumb they used their own motorcycle to plant the bomb. It took us just a month to catch all of them. The police have never taken such a short time to arrest terrorists,” says a senior home ministry official, requesting anonymity. How could anyone take them seriously? he asks.
Ground zero Fourteen people died in the 2007 Mecca Masjid bombing
So the sleuths deemed the Malegaon blast to be a freak incident. Over the next two years, however, a larger pattern began to emerge. First Malegaon. Then Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif. The Abhinav Bharat cell was found to have a hand in all these blasts. It obviously had deeper roots.
After Purohit’s arrest, there was a lot of pressure to downplay the role of the army, reveals an ATS officer
TEHELKA first scooped and wrote about the tapes in 2008. Subsequently, a few other media organisations accessed and published parts of the tapes. However, through all this, at no point has there been sufficient focus on the army officers who figure on the tapes. They remain the big unturned stone in the investigation.
There are a total of eight army officers, retired and serving, named in the tapes. At least four of them have an MI background. Apart from Lt Col Purohit and Maj Upadhyay, who are now in jail, topping the list is Col (retd) Hasmukh Patel. A JNU graduate, Patel was commissioned into the Infantry Jat Regiment and later detailed with the MI. After 25 years in service, he retired in 2007 and joined Reliance. His LinkedIn profile says he is a specialist in threat analysis, background checks, physical- electronic-aviation security, vigilance, investigations, disaster management, negotiation and loss prevention. The NIA is understood to have questioned him recently but let him off under surveillance.
Col Shailesh Raikar is a retired commandant. He is said to be a brilliant officer who belonged to the Maratha Regiment. According to the tapes, Raikar was commander of the Bhosla Military Academy in Nashik. He allegedly provided academy facilities to Purohit and other Abhinav Bharat members for weapons training. He too is under the NIA scanner.
Others named in the tapes are Col Aditya Bappaditya Dhar (Parachute Regiment, now retired); Brig Mathur (full name not known, but he was apparently posted at Deolali Cantonment near Nashik); Maj Nitin Joshi and Maj Prayag Modak (in both cases, regiment not known).
The NIA has reportedly established contact with Col Dhar; it is yet to initiate investigations against the rest. Apart from these men, there is a Brig Lajpat Prajwal, apparently posted with the Nepal Army. According to the tapes, Purohit and he had trained together at IMA and that Purohit was in constant touch with Prajwal for logistic support. In one of his conversations with Col Purohit on the tapes, Col Dhar asks: Did you see one of my messages?
LT COL PUROHIT: Yes… About how this country should be taken over by the army?
COL DHAR: Yes, yes. I have written three lakh letters… I distributed three lakh letters among the jawans… It is not a political stunt… And I distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat among the jawans on 26 January… It is my humble attempt to sow the seeds.
Given these alarming ambitions and self-confessed acts of sedition, why haven’t their roles been probed more seriously yet? Why has the army itself not acted on them?
Maharashtra ATS chief KP Raghuvanshi, who was accused of going slow on the Malegaon probe, says: “We acted on the basis of evidence. The case against these armymen was not watertight. We did call some of them in, including Col Dhar, for questioning but there was nothing on the basis of which we could detain or arrest them.”
Interestingly, Raghuvanshi admits to a major handicap while interrogating the officers. “A MI official was always around monitoring our questioning. In the beginning, in fact, it was difficult to get hold of Lt Col Purohit because even though we presented a dossier of evidence against him the army insisted it’s their internal matter and they’d look into it themselves,” he says.
‘I gave 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat to the jawans. It is my humble bid to sow the seeds,’ says Col Dhar
Finally, pressure from the home ministry worked and Purohit wa arrested. The army, however, has still not initiated action against its officials and court martial proceedings against Lt Col Purohit are yet to take off. Sources say the proceedings have been postponed under Section 7 of the Indian Soldiers Litigation Act, 1925. Since Purohit was serving under ‘special conditions’, the Act says a postponement is necessary in the interests of justice.
ANOTHER ATS official says, “Most of what Purohit says on the tapes about sending people to Nepal and Israel for training wasn’t taken seriously. That is the biggest blunder. The job of a MI officer posted along the Jammu & Kashmir border is to spread his net of informers, spies and get crucial information. Imagine what damage Purohit has already done while posted there. The entire truth on Purohit is still not out.”
Terror taint RSS’ Indresh Kumar was linked to Ajmer blast
That seems a very disturbing probability. The armymen named on the tapes are not mentioned casually. Sample snatches of this conversation between Lt Col Purohit, Maj Ramesh Upadhyay, Col Dhar, Dayanand Pandey, BL Sharma Prem, a twotime BJP MP, and RP Singh, an endocrinologist at Apollo Hospital and president of the World Hindu Federation.
LT COL PUROHIT:We have done two operations which have been successful and I got material support for them. On 24 June 2007, Col Lajpat Prajwal, now a Brigadier, had arranged our meeting with King Gyanendra Nobody in this country will be able to figure who is doing the work. If Major Saheb (Upadhyay) has 20 people, we (read Prajwal) will train them.
RP SINGH: King Gyanendra’s close relative sat with us in Gorakhpur… We are constantly in touch with them… Maj Prayag Modak was the one who came to our meeting. There are Col Raikar and Col Hasmukh Patel, who are helping us in the training. Prajwal is from the side of Rani Aishwarya.
Col Dhar enters the room…
LT COL PUROHIT: Namaskar Dharji… (To the others) He has been in the army since 23 years and has been with me. He’s with the Parachute Regiment. I was also posted with him. Dhar sahib, let me introduce you to the people here. We are all on the same plane, Hindu rashtra…
LT COL PUROHIT:We also have General JJ Singh, he’s from the Maratha Regiment. As you know I have also been part of the Maratha regiment…
LT COL PUROHIT: Swamiji, we haven’t spoken about certain things, but two operations have been done by us. One of our own captains has visited Israel for training and meeting and there was a very positive response… We demanded four things from Israel – continuous and uninterrupted supply of arms and training, our office with a saffron flag in Tel Aviv, political asylum and support for our cause of a Hindu Nation in the UN. Israel has asked us to show something on the ground and have promised at least a supply of arms and political asylum… I have a state-wise population of Muslims in each state but I have only three AK-47s. We couldn’t buy much earlier because we didn’t have funds.
MAJ UPADHYAY: AK-47 is available at Cox Bazaar in Gorakhpur, but mostly jihadis sell the weapons…
LT COL PUROHIT: You will get very expensive AKs…
PANDEY: Arrey, you get many AK guns.
LT COL PUROHIT: The Israelis ask us to give them proof of our involvement. What more proof do they need? We have completed two successful operations.
MAJ UPADHYAY: The Hyderabad blasts were executed by our man. Colonel will tell you about that.
PANDEY: What if this organisation is banned?
APTE: We will give it an international aspect… and a covert name. We have to fight. See, if you aren’t a Hindu, you are my enemy. I will be unsafe if you are alive…
Obviously, this was not just empty bragging. Purohit goes on to talk of Khetomi Sema, a leader of the banned insurgent group, Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland. Purohit says he had saved his life and Sema has issued a letter to all his generals to support Purohit’s cause. “He has promised to give us seven years of logistic support,” Purohit tells Pandey.
Purohit’s conversations further reveal that he had been using the army machinery to serve Abhinav Bharat. He says he was in the process of indoctrinating like-minded army officers who could serve in Abhinav Bharat. He also admits to catching and killing two Maoists in cold blood in Delhi.
LT COL PUROHIT: “I bought weapons worth Rs. 4 lakh in Assam. A police officer got me the weapons. It costs a lot. I had 3 lakh and I borrowed one more. I kept one pistol with me. I sent some weapons to Nepal. Our study is on… We will soon start action. We have got a list of top 5-6 Maoist financers. We’ll kill them first…You know one Assam DIG had informed me about two Maoists who had arrived in Delhi to kill me. We caught them at the Vasant Kunj Civic Centre. We kept them in a place at Munirka through the night. You know we have encroached upon a property in Munirka that has sewer lid inside the house. We got the information out of them, then killed them and threw them in the gutter.”
PUROHIT’S CONVERSATIONS also suggest an alarming shared mindset among sections of the army. At one point he tells Pandey, “There was a captain and a major posted in Delhi. I managed to do my work with them over the phone. This work otherwise would have taken more than three months. It happened because I belong to Sangh and he was also from Sangh. I didn’t even know him. He was from UP and he did the work in one day. Tapping such people (with Sangh background) is important.”
Sample another chat between them:
PANDEY: I have to attend a programme organised by one editor of Organiser, Deepak Rath, in Orissa on 17 February. This is his personal function.
LT COL PUROHIT: Is it in Bhubaneshwar city? Let me know, I will arrange my Orissa commander to receive you…
PANDEY: Do you know Narendra Modi?
LT COL PUROHIT: I have met him once or twice, but I don’t know him well.
PANDEY:Will you be interested if I arrange your meeting with him?
LT COL PUROHIT: Why not!
PANDEY: In fact, there is one Swami Aseemanandji….
He has good relations with Narendra Modi… I can arrange your meeting through him.
(Swami Aseemanand, a Kolkata native known as Jatin Chatterjee before he donned his ochre robes, came to the Dangs district of Gujarat to start a campaign to bring Christian converts back into the Hindu fold. A RSS man, he is said to be very close to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Aseemanand was arrested recently but the police have not shared any information gleaned from his interrogation.)
Elsewhere in the tapes, Purohit elaborates on other sinister strategies the Abhinav Bharat group plans on adopting against Muslims – including shooting people under false identities to create mayhem.
“I know that the army and the BSF don’t complement each other’s action,” says Purohit. “Nor there is any coordination between the BSF, CRPF and state police. So if I buy two army vehicles from the scrap and paint them with army colours and send them along with our people in army uniform into Meerut, they can just fire and come out of the situation easily. There is so much confusion in this country.”
The conversations on these tapes demand extreme vigilance. These statements were not recorded under police custody or during interrogation. They were voluntarily recorded by Pandey. Therefore, there can be no accusation of coercion or manipulation with regard to them. So the question is, how far did Lt Col Purohit’s influence run in the army? How vast was the network he had succeeded in building? Was he only a small link in a bigger, more dangerous, chain within the army?
In the Mecca Masjid blast, which brought the Abhinav Bharat under the scanner, the accused had used a combination of TNT and RDX. An IB official based in Mumbai raises a pertinent question: “Do you think Purohit can smuggle RDX and weapons from Jammu Army depot on his own? Can he alone sponsor sending men for military training to Nepal and Israel?”
This question has even more alarming implications when one recalls that in the narco reports of Nanded blasts accused, Himanshu Panse and Sanjay Bhaurao Chaudhury, first published by TEHELKA in 2006, the men clearly talk of how an army man named Mithun Chakrabarty had trained them to make the IEDs for the blasts at the Sinhagad Fort. The identity of this army man is yet to be established.
A senior ATS Official told this reporter that after Lt Col Purohit’s arrest, there was a lot of pressure on them to downplay the role of the army. “We were told we couldn’t lower the morale of officers posted in sensitive positions. It could have a backlash. But with more cases involving military intelligence officials coming out, we could be overlooking a dangerous trend.”
Going slow? ATS’ Raghuvanshi says the army tried to meddle
The MI is a small but important corps, and a relatively new addition to the army structure. It is currently headed by Gen Lumba. MI officers are tasked to track spies and other security threats and, outside the country, are mostly active in China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Japan, USA and Russia. Many MI cadre officers (Lt Col Purohit was one of them) do not wear uniforms and work in conjunction with the IB, BSF (‘G’ Force) and other intelligence agencies. MI officials work in field formations and report to their respective commanders. Nobody, except the commander, would know they are part of MI.
What makes the story of Lt Col Purohit so dark is that the Indian Army has never been suspected of any communal overtones. But as an IB official says: “There was a time when the army would not think twice about religious identity when they entered the Golden Temple to arrest the terrorists holed inside. But after the 1992 Ayodhya movement, things have changed. The political climate has affected the army too in a big way, especially among officers posted along the border. Look at Lt Col Purohit. His indoctrination happened during his posting in Kashmir.”
THE UNMAPPED SCALE of the army connection, however, is not the only missing piece in the ultra-Hindu terror puzzle. In December 2007, Sunil Joshi, an RSS man suspected of a key role in the Ajmer blast and of being a link between several ultra-right groups like Abhinav Bharat, Vande Mataram and other fringe elements was mysteriously murdered. His family said he had been bumped off by his own organisation. Sadhvi Pragya confirmed this. According to her, a man named Mayank had probably killed Joshi. Despite these clues, the MP Police closed the case.
Earlier this week, however, the MP Police finally accepted that Joshi was murdered by his own friends in the RSS. They charged Mayank, Harshad Solanki, Mehul and Mohan from Gujarat, Anand Raj Katare from Indore and Vasudev Parmar from Dewas with Joshi’s murder. While Mehul and Mohan are still on the run, Solanki was brought before the Dewas court last week and confessed to the murder. (Solanki is also an accused in the infamous Best Bakery case, Gujarat 2002.) This development validates what TEHELKA had reported back in 2008.
Clued in Hemant Karkare pursued the ‘saffron terror’ angle
However, even these arrests don’t join all the dots. The MP Police have claimed internal rivalry as the motive for the murder. The CBI though believes the real culprits in the RSS behind Joshi’s murder are also the men responsible for the blasts. Their hunch is, if Joshi were alive today, most of the masterminds would have been unmasked. Joshi was known to be close to senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar. Their question is why did the two fall out?
The MP Police, Rajasthan ATS and CBI are all looking into the Ajmer, Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta blasts. However, their investigations do not have the same conclusions.
This October, the Rajasthan ATS filed a chargesheet linking Indresh to the Ajmer blasts. They said he attended a secret meeting in Jaipur on October 25, 2005 in which the conspiracy for the Ajmer blast was drawn up. The meeting was allegedly attended by Indresh, Pragya Thakur, Sunil Joshi, Ramji Kalsangra, Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma and Sandeep Dange. The chargesheet hinted the same people were responsible for the Samjhauta blast. The chargesheet, however, did not list Indresh as an accused. And Dange and Kalsangra are still on the run.
The CBI, which is also probing the case, blames the Rajasthan ATS for not making sufficient headway in pinning down the role of the RSS. “They have helped RSS men like Indresh create an alibi by alerting them with witness statements that are not credible evidence in the court of law. This has allowed him time to concoct documents to prove he was not physically present at various places,” says an investigating official.
Confusingly, however, Lt Col Purohit and his co-conspirators on the tapes also curse Indresh as a sell-out and wish they could kill him.
Where, then, does the truth lie? And how far does the network sprawl? Less heated debate and more ground work might provide some real answers.