August 03, 2020
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The Confessor In Saffron

Swami Aseemanand startles, and raises many questions

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The Confessor In Saffron
The Confessor In Saffron

ON a low plateau in the hills of the Dangs district, Gujarat, stands the Shabarimata temple complex. In the temple itself, devotees file in and out, rituals take place at the appointed hours. In the adjoining part, simply called the ashram, life and time have been more or less at a standstill over the last two years, after furious activity in the preceding five-six years. Temple-goers who have heard of the ashram’s ‘swamiji’ do not fail to glance its way as they descend the temple steps. Some are in awe of what it now represents; the local tribals pretend they don’t see it.

This is where Swami Aseemanand lived and worked till he mysteriously disappeared about two years ago. This is the temple he built to Lord Ram’s tribal devotee, Shabari, after he made the Dangs his home in the late 1990s. On December 14, eyewitnesses say, a convoy of some 20 vehicles brought the swami back for a brief hour or so, accompanied by hundreds of policemen. That day, National Investigation Agency (NIA) officials had brought Aseemanand—arrested on November 19 from a hideout in Haridwar—for verification of the place where the “bomb-for-bomb” theory took shape.

In the Kangadiamal-Subir-Jarsod belt that the temple-ashram overlooks, hardly any local wants to talk about the swami. They are aware that his disappearance is significant, but claim not to know of recent developments, including his much-discussed confession statement of December 18, 2010. Made under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure before a magistrate, it is admissible as evidence. In the statement, the swami mentions the existence of many radical Hindutva outfits, their networking, their involvement in various unresolved or partly-resolved terror attacks carried out from 2006 to 2008 in Muslim-dominated areas, their links to members of the larger Sangh parivar. Besides Malegaon (2006 and 2008), Ajmer (2007), Hyderabad (2007), Aseemanand and comrades he has named in the confession also stand implicated for the blasts on the Samjhauta Express.

Locals say they know nothing about this side of the swami. They’d rather address other issues that affect them. They want to protest against the damming of rivers, and they detest that the area has become a tourist and pilgrimage spot. They want to fight for their land rights. Nevertheless, as Father Xavier, a Jesuit teacher, says, “Tribals here are fed up and confused; tensions between Christian and non-Christian tribals increased after the swami arrived. His ideology is spreading, and the government is helping him by handing over schools to his Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. The blasts are not an issue here.”

Aseemanand has come a full circle. In November 2008, he had given the slip to the late Hemant Karkare, then chief of Maharashtra’s anti-terrorist squad, who was slain in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Karkare closed in on the swami by tracking the cellphone of his driver Sunil Dahod, which was used to communicate with Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in the 2008 blast in Malegaon. The confession appears to validate Karkare’s leads on the involvement of Hindutva groups in the Malegaon and Samjhauta Express blasts.

The murder of Sunil Joshi, who according to Aseemanand is a key person in the terror plot, leaves a dead end.

The confession helps fit together several pieces in the 2006-2008 terror jigsaw. But seasoned cops say it would be an oversimplification to see this as irrefutable evidence of Hindutva terror. The confession is the first direct assertion made by an involved Hindutvawadi in the larger game of targeting Muslims. As Arvind Inamdar, a former director-general of police of Maharashtra, says, “This confession is serious, because it talks of over 100 people killed and also the involvement of army officers. But this isn’t definitely the only evidence in the cases.” And M.N. Singh, a former police commissioner of Mumbai, says, “The NIA still has to gather evidence and put up a credible case before the court”.

Aseemanand’s statement takes the terror ideology right to the RSS when he talks about Indresh Kumar, member of the national executive, having met him in Shabaridham in 2005 with “many top RSS functionaries.” He details how Indresh Kumar had deputed Sunil Joshi for this job (terror attacks) and would extend Joshi “whatever help was required”, especially by providing finance and men. Indresh Kumar has refuted this; his lawyer sent a notice to the NIA for “leaking” the confession.

Hot brick? Indresh Kumar with TV crew. (Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook, January 24, 2011)

Without taking away what the confession discloses, there are areas, former police officers say, where Aseemanand appears to have “revealed something but not conclusively enough”. Consider two examples:

  • In the Samjhauta Express case, the swami talks of the June 2006 meeting at textile trader and RSS sympathiser Bharat Riteshwar’s bungalow in Valsad with Riteshwar, the sadhvi and Sunil Joshi of the RSS, who had brought with him three “committed” people, Sandeep Dange, Ramji Kalsangra and Lokesh Sharma. It was at this meeting that the Malegaon 2006 and Samjhauta attacks were planned. Aseemanand talks of handing over Rs 25,000 to Joshi, and Joshi detailing three different and independent teams working on the Samjhauta blasts. Nailing him and the others in these cases will be difficult; Joshi was suspiciously murdered in December 2007.
  • In the 2008 Malegaon case, Aseemanand talks of picking up Dange and Kalsangra at Vyara in his car and dropping them off at the Rajpipla-Baroda junction, and he found them “not coherent.” He learned later that bombs had gone off in Malegaon a day earlier. This is still circumstantial. Presumably, the two were the bombers and were fleeing. As it happens, Dange and Kalsangra—believed to be the lynchpins of Joshi’s core group—are yet to be nabbed.

Then, there’s the complication of the Maharashtra ATS having filed a chargesheet accusing some Muslims for the Malegaon 2006 attacks. Even as the cry to release them and compensate them for incarceration gets stronger after Aseemanand’s confession, ats officers  say they stand by their chargesheet in the case, which is now with the CBI.

A part of the incontrovertible evidence about the involvement of Aseemanand and others in the Malegaon, Hyderabad, Ajmer and Samjhauta blasts apparently lies in his own papers. Those who knew him say he was in the habit of writing meticulous diaries. Within days of his arrest in November last year, locals claim, something was burnt in the ashram kitchen. The NIA found little material evidence in Shabaridham. Now, the focus is on Joshi’s dairies and notings. If found to be valid, they will add to the tapes and laptops seized from self-styled guru Dayanand Pandey, the sadhvi’s motorcycle used in the Malegaon 2008 blast, Lt Col Shrikant Purohit and Rakesh Dhawde’s money trails to bring together the multiple strands and paint a complete picture of Hindutva terror.

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