A week after Outlook’s exclusive interview with Lt Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit, an accused in the Malegaon blast case of 2008, it’s still not clear whether the story the first army officer to be charged with terrorism has been telling rings true or not. Outlook reported on details of the army’s Court of Inquiry (CoI), in which some officers vouched for Purohit’s version of events. But the picture that emerges is still confusing. Outlook takes a look at some of the many unanswered questions:
- Who was Lt Col Purohit reporting to when, in his own words, he infiltrated Abhinav Bharat?
Purohit claims he had the requisite permission from his immediate superior Col S.S. Raikar (retd), who has corroborated Purohit’s claims of providing inputs and allegedly cleared his association with Abhinav Bharat.
- So, was Purohit mandated to infiltrate right-wing groups?
That depends on which version you believe. Purohit, of course, says he was following orders. Army sources, however, say board members of the CoI have observed that Purohit appears to have operated independently and without authorisation. Sources also confirm that, on paper, no such operation was sanctioned whereby Purohit would have specifically had to infiltrate Abhinav Bharat or similar right-wing groups.
- Was Purohit then part of a covert army operation?
Sources investigating cases of right-wing Hindutva terror say that Military Intelligence (MI) does not ordinarily have the mandate to infiltrate civilian groups in non-conflict zones. If we believe Purohit’s version, there should have been top-level clearance—which the army denies. Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney (retd), former director-general of military intelligence, says the army relaxes the rules in some cases—but only after a lot of deliberation. “The enthusiasm displayed by this gentleman,” he says, “doesn’t stand the test of scrutiny. If he’s crossed the lakshmanrekha, he’ll have to face the consequences.”
- How often did Purohit go beyond his MI mandate?
According to CoI board members, Purohit seems to have overstepped his brief more than once. For instance, he had no authorisation to attend religious meetings organised by Abhinav Bharat in Faridabad and Calcutta in 2008 and in Bhopal in 2009. These were outside his area of responsibility, especially because he had been posted out of Deolali on October 2, 2007, and was doing an Arabic course with the Army Education Corps. Therefore, as an officer-student, he wasn’t supposed to be performing intelligence duties. Or was this, too, a ruse to conduct a non-official op? Even so, despite many officers speaking up for him before the CoI, army brass say his direct association with Abhinav Bharat goes against him. Purohit’s admission is that he was a trustee of the Abhinav Bharat Trust, and he says this is not the same as Abhinav Bharat, the group allegedly involved in the Malegaon blast. But sources in the army say that, according to rules, neither group is one with which army personnel are allowed to associate as members or otherwise.
- Did Purohit obtain permission from superiors, as he claims?
So far, Purohit hasn’t been able to produce documentation to support his claim that he obtained his superiors’ permission to join the Abhinav Bharat Trust. Neither did he obtain permission to organise an Art of Living camp in Madhya Pradesh or to lecture ncc cadets in Pune on Vijay Diwas. So it does appear he was in the habit of acting independently. The CoI is viewing those actions as dereliction of duty.
- Were these transgressions by Purohit red-flagged by his superiors in his service record?
Purohit’s orientation is evident from the quality and quantity of intelligence inputs he provided during previous tenures: as intelligence officer in the Deolali unit, he sent inputs on Bangladeshi immigrants, on the banned simi and other such groups before focusing on right-wing Hindutva groups such as Sanatan Sanstha and Abhinav Bharat. One of the officers who testified at the CoI, Brig R. Borthakur (former head of military intelligence, Southern Army Command, mentioned Purohit’s eagerness to investigate the Malegaon bombings—completely outside the army’s purview. During Purohit’s cross-examination at the CoI, Borthakur said: “I visited you in January 2007 at Deolali, and you briefed me. I appreciated your work and advised you to concentrate on your charter of duties and not on other cases, which was not your primary task. I told this to you after you showed interest in investigating the 2006 Malegaon blasts.” The brigadier told the CoI he’d asked Purohit to let the civilian investigating agencies do their job.
- Wasn’t Purohit also feeding his superiors with information about saffron extremists?
While it has been corroborated that Purohit provided inputs, there are those who question its quality. Days before his arrest, Purohit had conveyed information about Sadhvi Pragya Thakur’s involvement in the Malegaon blasts; but the National Investigation Agency says Purohit had met her in early 2008. Says a Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad officer formerly associated with the investigation, “If you compare his report and the progress of our investigation, you’ll see that by the time he sent the report, the Sadhvi’s name was already being talked about. Maybe he wanted to safeguard himself by sending the report.” Col S.S. Raikar (retd) had told the CoI he did receive inputs from Purohit after the Abhinav Bharat meetings he attended. But now, doubts are being raised: were the inputs provided selectively, only to ensure that Purohit had a cover? According to anti-terrorism squad sleuths of Maharashtra, there’s a stark difference in the details forwarded by Purohit to his superiors and details gathered by the investigators—but such discerning scrutiny is yet to take place in the special mcoca court trying the case.
- Was Purohit used by the army and then dumped?
It has been asked why Purohit’s actions—especially his apparent transgressions—were not questioned earlier. During the preliminary inquiry by Col R.K. Srivastav—who handed Purohit to Maharashtra’s ats on November 5, 2008—the names of several serving and retired personnel had cropped up. However, none of this was ever substantiated. One theory doing the rounds is that an operation to prop up right-wing groups to counter Islamist terrorism was sanctioned “in principle”, but those who saw the Abhinav Bharat operation going wrong, left Purohit to fend for himself.
Says Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal (retd), who has been in charge of several key military operations: “The army works by a set mandate. Random intelligence-gathering is not the job of an officer. There are coordinated operations, but it never turns out like this. Purohit appears to have flouted set rules of the army. No officer will allow such a man like him to be an undercover operative.”
By Toral Varia Deshpande with Chandrani Banerjee