By Praveen Swami
Eight hundred years ago, the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti described what he called the highest form of worship: “to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.”
Back in October, 2007, bombs ripped through the courtyard of what is without dispute South Asia’s most popular Muslim religious centre — the shrine that commemorates Chishti’s life at Ajmer Sharif, in Rajasthan. For months, Police believed the attacks had been carried out by Islamist groups, who oppose the shrine’s syncretic message. On April 30, 2010, however, Rajasthan Police investigators arrested the man they say purchased the mobile phone subscriber-identification modules (SIM) used to trigger the attack. Devendra Gupta, a long standing worker of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was held along with his political associates Vishnu Prasad and Chandrashekhar Patidar. All three men are now also thought to have participated in the bombing of the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Rajasthan Home Minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal said the men were backed by an “organisation which tries to incite violence between Hindus and Muslims”, adding that authorities were “investigating the links of the organisation with the RSS.”
The arrests in Rajasthan mark progress in resolving some of the most opaque and contentious terrorist attacks India has seen in recent years — but have also focussed attention on the little-understood threat of Hindu-nationalist or Hindutva terrorism.
Evidence that Hindutva groups were seeking to acquire terrorist capabilities began to emerge late in 2002. In December that year, an improvised explosive device was found at Bhopal’s railway station, evidently intended to target Muslims arriving in the city to attend a Tablighi Jamaat gathering. Exactly a year later, a second bomb was found in the Lamba Khera area, on the outskirts of Bhopal, on the last day of a Talblighi Jamaat meeting. Both devices were made with commercial nitroglycerine-based explosive, packed inside a four-inch long section of grooved pipe — the kind used, for example, in tube-wells. The explosive was linked to a detonator controlled by both a quartz alarm clock and a mobile phone. Investigators would, in coming years, become familiar with the device: it would be used, with only minor modifications, at Mecca Masjid and at the Ajmer Sharif Shrine. Police in Madhya Pradesh soon developed information linking the attempted Bhopal bombings to local Hindutva activists Ramnarayan Kalsangram and Sunil Joshi. Both suspects were, Police sources said, questioned. No hard evidence linking them to the attempted bombings, however, emerged. Nevertheless, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh announced that he had evidence of the involvement of members of the Bajrang Dal, an affiliate of the RSS, in acts of terrorism. For reasons that are unclear, though, this evidence was not used to prosecute members of the organisation or any other suspects. Nor were Kalsangram and Joshi placed under sustained surveillance, a failure — regrettably common in Indian policing — that was to cost many lives in coming years.
From 2006, more evidence began to become available that Hindutva terrorist groups were seeking to enhance their lethality. That summer, Bajrang Dal activists Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Panse were killed in a bomb-making accident in Nanded, Maharashtra. Police later discovered that the two men had been responsible for bombing a mosque in the Parbhani District in April 2006. Bajrang Dal activists linked to the Nanded cell, the Police also found, had bombed mosques at Purna and Jalna in April, 2003, injuring 18 people.
Few in India’s intelligence services saw these activities as a serious threat. In New Delhi, where two low-grade bombs went off at the historic Jama Masjid at the same time, Police made almost no serious effort to investigate the case. However, the Maharashtra Police — who had better reason than most to rue the fact, after all, that the Indian jihadist movement flowered because inadequate attention had been paid to a handful of obscure Islamists staging parades in a Mumbai slum — made clear its disquiet. In a 2006 interview to the Mumbai-based magazine Communalism Combat, former Maharashtra anti-terrorism Police chief K.P. Raghuvanshi noted that the Nanded cell’s operations could have “frightening repercussions”, adding further that “bombs were not being manufactured for a puja [prayer ceremony]”.
Raghuvanshi’s concern was likely driven by information that Hindutva groups could gain access to more lethal explosives. In September 2006, the Police seized a 195-kilogram cocktail of military grade explosives from an Ahmednagar scrap dealer, Shankar Shelke. Shelke, investigators found, retrieved the material — more than enough to execute all terror strikes across India since 1993 — from a decommissioned Indian Army ordinance store which had sold it as scrap. From Shelke’s telephone records, the investigators established the existence of a huge underground market for high-grade explosives — in the main industrial users who found legally available ammonium nitrate-based slurry explosives a nuisance to store and use.
In May, 2007, a high-intensity bomb went off under a granite slab in an open-air area of the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, killing nine people and injuring at least 50; another five people were shot dead when Police fired on violent mobs who protested against the attack. Police then said the attack was likely carried out by the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI); State Home Minister K. Jana Reddy attributed it to “foreign elements”. Police in Hyderabad have, rightly, been criticised for jumping to conclusions. It is worth noting, though, that — some media accounts notwithstanding — no arrests were made in the case, which was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigations. More than a dozen Hyderabad Muslims were, indeed, held after the 2008 bombings at Gokul Chaat and Lumbini Park, now believed to have been carried out by a jihadist group, the Indian Mujahideen (IM). None of the men, however, were charged with involvement in either the 2007 or 2008 attacks; they were, instead, accused, and eventually acquitted, on unrelated charges of conspiring to execute acts of terror, based on their alleged possession of fake identification and pseudonymously-acquired mobile phones. Police in Hyderabad have, in the course of the Hindutva terrorism allegation, frequently been accused of communal bias. While the force no doubt suffers from prejudices endemic to Indian society as a whole, there is no empirical basis to suggest communalism coloured its investigation of the Mecca Masjid bombing.
Police in Rajasthan proved just as clueless when bombs went off just outside the famous shrine at Ajmer, killing two people. However, some critical pieces of evidence did emerge. The SIM cards for mobile phones used to activate the bombs at both Mecca Masjid and Ajmer, it turned out were among a set of seven purchased by the perpetrators from West Bengal and Jharkhand in April 2007. The bomb maker had linked the phone’s speaker to a detonator, and packed explosives inside grooved metal pipe — just as they had in the earlier attempts in Bhopal.
In September, 2008, when bombs went off at Malegaon in Maharashtra and Modasa in Gujarat, killing eight and injuring over eighty, Police in Maharashtra were well-poised to develop the leads they had been gathering since 2006. Within weeks, investigators had arrested several key figures in a Pune-based Hindutva cell they believed had carried out the Malegaon attacks — among them, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a Madhya Pradesh-based Hindu nun with deep links to the Hindutva movement, Jammu-based cleric Sudhakar Dwivedi, and a serving Indian Army Lieutenant Colonel, Shrikant Prasad Purohit, linked under the umbrella of Abhinav Bharat.
Founded in the summer of 2006 (on June 12), Abhinav Bharat had been set up as an educational trust with Himani Savarkar — daughter of Gopal Godse, brother of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin — as its President. But, documents filed by Maharashtra prosecutors in the Pune court where Malegaon suspects are being tried, showed that members of the group were soon discussing terrorist activity. In June 2007, Purohit allegedly suggested that the time had come to target Muslims through terrorist attacks — a plea others in Abhinav Bharat rejected. But, evidence gathered by the Police suggests, many within the group were determined to press ahead. At a meeting in April 2008, key suspects including Thakur Dwivedi, also known as Amritananda Dev Tirtha, met Purohit to hammer out the Malegaon plot. Explosives were later procured by Purohit, and handed over to Ram Narayan Kalsangram, in early August 2008.
Abhinav Bharat’s long-term aims, though, went far beyond targeting Muslims: its members wanted to overthrow the Indian state and replace it with a totalitarian, theocratic order. A ‘draft constitution’ spoke of a single-party system, presided over by a leader who “shall be followed at all levels without questioning the authority.” It called for the creation of an “academy of indoctrinization [sic].” The concluding comment was stark: “People whose ideas are detrimental to Hindu Rashtra should be killed.” Purohit’s plans to bring about a Hindutva state were often fantastical — bordering, even, on the pathological. He claimed, prosecutors say, to have secured an appointment with Nepal’s former monarch, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 2006 and 2007, to press for his support for the planned Hindutva revolution. Nepal, he went on, was willing to train Abhinav Bharat’s cadre, and supply it with assault rifles. Israel’s Government, he said, had agreed to grant members of the group military support and, if needed, political asylum. No evidence has ever emerged that Purohit had, in fact, succeeded in developing transnational patronage or linkages.
The son of a bank officer with no particular political leanings, Purohit seems to have first encountered Hindutva politics in his late teens when he attended a special coaching class for Short Service Commission officer-aspirants at the Bhonsala Military School in Nashik. Founded in 1937 by B.S. Moonje, the controversial school drew on fascist pedagogical practices the Hindutva ideologue encountered on a visit to Europe. Moonje, who had earlier served with the British Indian Army as a doctor during the visit, had met with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and studied fascist institutions.
Purohit’s military career itself was undistinguished. In 2002, he participated in 15 Maratha Light Infantry’s counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir, but won no special honours. Later, he was given an administrative job linked to the raising of 41 Rashtriya Rifles, a dedicated counter-terrorism formation that operates out of Kupwara, in northern Kashmir. His tenure in Jammu and Kashmir ended in January, 2005, while serving in the Awantipora-based 31-Counter Intelligence Unit of the Military Intelligence Directorate, an assignment not considered among the most prestigious.
Investigators suspect Purohit’s decision to set up Abhinav Bharat germinated soon after he moved to Maharashtra in 2005. Purohit was assigned charge of an Army Liaison Unit, a Military Intelligence cell responsible for developing and maintaining links between the Army and local communities. The job provided a perfect cover for developing contacts with his old school, and the circle of Pune-region Hindutva activists who were connected to it. School commandant Colonel S.S. Raikar, investigators say, played a key role in putting Purohit in touch with the activists who went on to form Abhinav Bharat. Raikar, who retired from the Indian Army as head of a Military Intelligence detachment in Manipur, is not charged with criminal wrong-doing. In the summer of 2006, though, Abhinav Bharat held the first of what was to be a series of meetings in rooms provided by the Bhonsala Military School. From the outset, it made no secret of its objectives. Abhinav Bharat drew its name from a terrorist group set up by Hindutva activists in 1904 to fight colonial Britain. Himani Savarkar, grandniece of the Hindutva movement’s founding patriarch Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and niece of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, was appointed the organisation’s President.
Purohit is alleged to have told Abhinav Bharat supporters that his military background had equipped him, unlike the political leadership of existing Hindutva organisations, to prepare for what he saw as an inevitable Hindu-Muslim civilisational war. He would often invent stories of heroic covert exploits against jihadi terrorists to impress his recruits. Full-time cadres of the organisation were known by the honorific Chanakya, a reference to the scholar-advisor who is reputed to have helped build the foundations for the rule of the emperor Chandragupta Maurya.
Despite the formidable mass of evidence it gathered, the Maharashtra investigation ran into a wall — a wall from which the recent arrests in Rajasthan may have removed a few bricks. Thakur’s long-standing associate, Dewas-based RSS organiser and Hindutva activist Sunil Joshi, was murdered on December 31, 2008. His political associates claimed he was killed by Islamists; Police, however, believe that his murder was driven both by disputes over funds within the Abhinav Bharat network, and a romantic issue. Police have also been unable to locate Gujarat-based Jatin Chatterjee, an influential Hindu cleric who uses the clerical alias Swami Asimananad. Chatterjee is a key figure in the controversial Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which operates a Hindu-proselytisation programme targeting adivasis (tribals) in southern Gujarat. Police sources say he is likely hiding out in Gujarat’s Dangs area, but claim the State Government has failed to cooperate with efforts to locate the suspect. Ram Narayan Kalsangram, the third key fugitive, is also thought to be hiding out in Gujarat. Lawyers for Thakur say she had sold a motorcycle used in the Malegaon bombings to Joshi who, without her knowledge, passed it on to Kalsangram.
What lessons ought India to be learning from the story of the Hindutva terror network? Key among them is the urgent need to address the country’s dysfunctional communal politics. Thakur and her Hindutva terror cell have deep — and, for some, discomfiting — roots in history. Influenced by the dramatic impact of terrorism in imperial Russia, the Hindu nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, became increasingly drawn to violence as a tool to achieve Indian independence. A year after the searing 1905 revolution, which compelled Czar Alexander II to grant basic civil rights, Tilak exhorted his followers: “The days of prayer have gone… Look to the examples of Ireland, Japan and Russia and follow their methods.” Tilak’s message proved attractive to many young, upper caste Hindu neoconservatives — often the products of western-style education who had found in their re-imagining of Indian tradition a language with which to oppose British imperialism.
Figures like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who went on to lead the Hindu Mahasabha, cast the struggle against Britain as a fight to defend the Hindu faith. In one manifesto, the original Abhinav Bharat’s followers promised to “shed upon the earth the life-blood of the enemies who destroy religion.” Later, the radical right journal Yugantar argued that the murder of foreigners in India was “not a sin but a yagna [ritual sacrifice]”—sentiments that would be entirely familiar to Osama bin-Laden’s jihadi armies today.
Despite the arrests in Rajasthan, investigators probing Hindutva terror groups still have much work to do. First, a number of mysteries remain to be resolved—ranging from the New Delhi bombings, to the unresolved firebombing of the New Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express. Maharashtra prosecutors say a witness heard Purohit linking Joshi to the train’s firebombing. Purohit, the witness claimed, made the claim after a December 29, 2007, phone call, when he was informed of Joshi’s death. “After the phone call,” a senior Maharashtra Police officer disclosed, “our witness says Lieutenant-Colonel Purohit credited Joshi with having executed the Samjhauta Express attack, and hailed him as a martyr.” In 2009, however, the United States Treasury Department attributed the attack to top Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operative Arif Kasmani who, it said, was funded by Karachi-based ganglord Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar.
The arrests over the past weeks notwithstanding, the threat remains real — and must be snuffed out. Last year, in June, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti operatives were held for the bombing of the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane (Maharashtra), to protest the staging of a satire on the Mahabharata, Amhi Pachpute. One of those arrested by the Police, Mangesh Nikam, was facing trial on charges of bombing the home of a Ratnagiri family that had converted to Christianity, and was out on bail. Members of the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha, affiliated to Hindu Janajagruti, were held for staging a bombing in Panani. Earlier, Bajrang Dal-linked Rajiv Mishra and Bhupinder Singh were killed in a bomb-making accident in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh (UP). UP Police sources said there was little to show that the group had links with the terror cells in Maharashtra, but experience shows that even small cells, left untouched, will acquire ever-greater levels of lethality.
Praveen Swami, a guest writer for SATP, is Associate Editor at The Hindu, New Delh. This article was published by the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.