The eight have been charged with planning and executing a terror attack on the Ajmer Sharif Dargah on October 11, 2007. Two bombs were planted outside the shrine. While one bomb failed to go off, the other exploded at 6.14 pm, killing three men and injuring 15 others. According to the investigators, this was one of six attacks carried out between 2006 and 2008 by Hindutva activists, many of whom were workers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The case was first investigated by the anti-terrorism squad of Rajasthan Police and later transferred to the federal National Investigation Agency in April 2011.
The trial began in June 2014, a month after the BJP formed the government at the centre.
So far, 93 witnesses have been summoned by the prosecution to give evidence in court. Most of them are people whose statements were recorded by policemen in the course of the investigation. Such statements are not counted as evidence. In some cases, however, the statements were recorded by a magistrate under Section 164 of the Indian Penal Code, which means they can be used as evidence in the case. If the witness retracts the statement in court, which amounts to "turning hostile", the court must decide on the basis of the circumstances whether to treat it as evidence.
Nineteen key witnesses in the Ajmer blast trial have either denied making the statements attributed to them or have said they were made under duress. At least six of them have retracted statements recorded by a magistrate.
In the last held hearing on July 10, of the five witnesses who deposed, only two, who were government employees, stuck to their statements, while the others did not. They were declared hostile by the public prosecutor.
One of them was a scrawny man named Lal Krishna Joshi, a resident of Jhalawar, who the police claimed had known several of the accused while he was a student in Indore. In the court, however, Joshi denied speaking with the police. He said he knew Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, an associate of the accused, but not the accused directly. Yet, minutes after he stepped down from the witness box, he smiled in their direction and exchanged a silent greeting.
As the hearing wound up in the afternoon, the public prosecutor Ashwini Sharma walked out with a sense of resignation. "The defence lawyers are bringing the prosecution witnesses to the court," he said. "I get to see them directly in the witness box."
Witnesses being influenced
Since several witnesses were acquaintances of the accused, they were liable to be influenced by the defence lawyers, said Sharma, a short man in his forties. But it was the task of the investigating agency to ensure that did not happen, he added. At the very least, it could gather evidence to show the witnesses were being influenced by the defence.
For instance, during their cross examination, Sharma had asked the witnesses for their mobile numbers. "The NIA could have procured their call records which would show that they were in touch with the lawyers of the accused," he said.
He passed on the name of the hotel where he heard a group of witnesses had been lodged by the defence. In their cross-examination, the witnesses had claimed to have spent the night in Jaipur at the railway station. "If the NIA got a copy of the hotel register, it would show that the witnesses were lying," he said.
He even suggested that the NIA obtain copies of the CCTV footage of the court building to "show the witnesses were meeting the defence lawyers and discussing the case with them".
But his suggestions were ignored.
The investigating officer of the case, Vishal Garg, declined to respond to Scroll's queries. He said he was not authorised to speak with the press. Senior officers designated as the agency's spokespersons were unavailable for comment.
The defence lawyers refused to respond to the allegation that they were influencing the witnesses. JP Sharma, who is assisting JS Rana, the counsel for Aseemanand, said that they had decided not speak to journalists because they had been previously let down by "TRPs-seeking media".
Last month, a senior NIA official, speaking unofficially, maintained that the agency's job was limited to investigating the case and gathering evidence. What transpires in the court is outside its purview.
Sharma dismissed the argument. He represents the Central Bureau of Investigation in several cases and its officers put more effort in safeguarding witnesses, he claimed.
The government lawyer denied facing pressure from the NIA to go soft on the case in the way Rohini Salian, his counterpart in the Malegaon case, another alleged Hindutva terror conspiracy, claimed to have, in an interview with the Indian Express. But he expressed disappointment with the lack of interest shown by the NIA during the trial. "The IO [Investigating Officer] hasn't even come once for the hearing," he said. "When I called and told him that the witnesses are turning hostile, he said 'Panditji, what to do, I have many other cases.'"
Further proof of the NIA dropping the ball in the Ajmer case could lie in its failure to appeal against the bail order of one of the accused. In 2011, the Rajasthan High Court gave bail to Chandrashekhar Leve, an RSS worker charged with hiding mobile phones used to activate the SIM cards used in the terror attack. At that time, since the case was still with the Rajasthan anti-terrorism squad, the state government filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court appealing against the order. Subsequently, the case was transferred to the NIA. The Rajasthan government asked the court to allow it to withdraw the petition since it was no longer conducting the investigation. On January 17, 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition. The NIA could have stepped in. But it did not.
This isn't surprising. As the Economic Times reported, the NIA has decided not to challenge the Punjab and Haryana High Court's August 2014 order granting bail to Swami Aseemanand in the Samjhauta Express case, in which 68 people were killed. The agency has also not filed an appeal against the bail given in April last year to three accused in the Mecca Masjid case.
Little direct evidence
What makes the NIA's neglect of the cases damaging, Sharma said, was the challenge posed by terror conspiracies, which are often marked by "little direct evidence". Securing witness testimonies is crucial, he said.
Combing through more than 1,000 pages submitted by the investigators in the Jaipur court, this certainly appears to be the case with the Ajmer blast trial.
According to the chargesheets filed by the Rajasthan anti-terrorism squad, and subsequently by the NIA, a group of Hindutva activists plotted terror attacks on Muslim pilgrimage sites to avenge terror attacks on Hindu temples. The locations they aimed to target were the Jama Masjid in Delhi, Dargah Sharif in Ajmer, Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, Malegaon in Maharashtra and the Samjhauta Express which runs between Delhi and Lahore.
The chargesheet says the leader of the group was Naba Kumar Sarkar, better known as Swami Aseemanand. Then in his mid-fifties, the long-time RSS worker was a key figure in its affiliate, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which aimed to spread the Sangh's ideology among adivasis. He lived in the Sabari Ashram in Gujarat's Dang district, where several of the meetings of the group were allegedly held.
The other key figure in the group was Sunil Joshi, the former district head of the RSS in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He collaborated with other RSS workers to arrange funds and explosives, and divided tasks among them.
Two RSS workers in Madhya Pradesh, Sandeep Dange and Ramji Kalsangra, were tasked with procuring explosives. Both are absconding.
Devendra Gupta, the RSS head of Jamtara district of Jharkhand, who had earlier worked with Joshi in Indore, was asked to arrange for SIM cards and mobile phones, which would be used as timer devices. For this, Gupta allegedly forged identity documents.
Lokesh Sharma, a property dealer and RSS worker in Indore, pitched in with getting mobile phones and ferrying explosives.
Chandrashekhar Leve, an RSS communication head in Shajapur district, played a role in hiding the mobiles.
Bharat Rateshwar, a merchant in Gujarat, gave financial support and provided shelter to the others.
A group of men drawn from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were assigned the task of planting the bombs. Some of them like Mehul and Bhavesh had been earlier implicated in the Best Bakery riot cases.
According to the chargesheet, the same group also planted three bombs in Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad on May 18, 2007. Two failed to go off, while one that exploded left 11 dead.
The bombs in Hyderabad and Ajmer were similar in material and in the way they were made. All four bombs used mobile phones as timer devices. The devices formed the first lead in the case.
The SIM card in the phone that exploded in Ajmer was traced to a mobile shop in Dumka, Jharkhand. Records showed it had been sold to Babulal Yadav, a resident of Mihijam village. Investigators found no man by that name in the village. The identify proof furnished with the customer application form was a voter identity card issued in Jamtara district next door to Dumka. The picture on the card was found to tally with one in the Hindi edition of Outlook ‒ it was that of the magazine's health columnist, Taraknath Pramanik.
The SIM card from the unexploded bomb also led investigators to Babulal Yadav, except in this case, the records showed he was a resident of Asansol in Burdwan district in West Bengal. The picture on the driving licence furnished as proof, however, remained the same.
Eventually, investigators found that Pramanik's picture has been used to obtain 11 SIM cards between May and November in 2006. These included the SIM cards used in the Mecca Masjid attack.
At that time, Devendra Gupta was the head of the RSS in Jamtara. The police claims he was instrumental in forging the cards and licences.
As proof, they say they found two driving licences on him at the time of his arrest. Both were made on the basis of forged school transfer certificates. In court, a school official has corroborated that the transfer certificates belonged to another student. But the transport agents have denied helping Gupta, turning hostile in court.
There is no material evidence in the form of computer records to show Gupta forged the same driving licences by pasting Pramanik's picture and adding Babulal's name to them.
As for the voter identity card, the police claim that Gupta forged the card of Sugandhi Pandey, the mother of an RSS worker, fell flat when mother and son turned hostile in court, denying that Gupta took the card from them.
According to investigators, the mobile phone used in the Ajmer blast was bought from a shop in Faridabad by Lokesh Sharma. The RSS worker identified the shop himself, according to the police. Further, a salesman at the shop, Ishant Chawla, identified Lokesh inside the Hyderabad jail. In court, however, Chawla has turned hostile.
The SIM cards used in the blasts in Ajmer and Hyderabad were activated in mobile phones with specific IMEI numbers. One of them was found with Chandrashekhar Leve, the RSS communications head in Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh, while two were recovered from his acquaintance Vishnu Patidar.
The police claims Sandeep Dange, who assembled the bombs, sent the phones to Leve. As proof, it has submitted transcripts of purported intercepted phone conversations where Leve tells Patidar that in the event of questioning by the police, he must say the phones were bought from Pankaj Patidar, a dead villager. It isn't clear if the police have a recording of the conversation. (Intercepted conversations are admissible as evidence in Indian courts provided they meet certain requirements under the Evidence Act).
In court, Patidar swung between denying the conversation and saying he did not remember it. But Sharma said call records showed he had spoken with Leve, which would prove he had lied to the court.
But the link between Leve and Patidar might not be enough. The prosecution would also have to establish that Leve obtained the phones from Dange. "The burden of proof will lie with the accused," said Sharma.
Dange is still absconding. To prove that he was working in tandem with Sunil Joshi, the prosecution is relying on witness statements. Since witnesses are turning hostile, this part of the case could turn weak.
The prosecution faces even greater difficulties to prove how explosive material was obtained and assembled into bombs.
The police claims that Lokesh not only accepted his crime at the time of the arrest, he even identified the spot in Indore where the explosives were collected and assembled into bombs. But the police has no independent witnesses apart from its own personnel for Lokesh's spot identification.
According to the police, the detonators were sourced by Devendra Gupta. To establish this, the prosecution relied on the statement of Rohit Kumar Jha, who lived with Gupta. But Jha has turned hostile in court.
Another witness was Randhir Singh, a politician with the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha party and an acquaintance of Gupta. In his statement to the police, he said he saw Gupta and Joshi fire from a pistol in a village. But Singh went back on the statement in court. An NDTV report pointed out that Singh recently joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and was made a minister in its government in Jharkhand.
Planting the bombs
According to the chargesheet, Sunil Joshi travelled with two young men, Mehul and Sunny, in a car from Indore to Godhra on October 9, 2007. They packed explosives at the house of Mukesh Vasani. The next day, Mukesh, Mehul and Sunny joined Suresh Nair and Bhavesh Patel who were waiting at the bus stop. All five men travelled by bus to Vadodara and further to Udaipur. From there, they travelled by jeep to Ajmer. On the evening of October 11, Sunny left one bag at the Dargah, Mehul left another.
This account is based primarily on the statements of the accused and their acquaintances, some of whom, including the owner of the car, have appeared in court and turned hostile. The prosecution is relying on the government employees who were witness to the spot identification done by Harshad, Mukesh and Bhavesh.
There is no documentary evidence for the travel except the call records of one of the accused that the public prosecutor is still analysing.
The police claim to have arrested Aseemanand from Haridwar. According to the chargesheet, fearing arrest, he left Gujarat and moved to Haridwar where he adopted the name Omkarananda. One of the witnesses, who the police claims helped him get a ration card under the assumed name, has turned hostile in court.
To establish its case against Aseemanand, the prosecution would have to rely largely on the two confessional statements that he made in the presence of a magistrate under Section 164. He subsequently retracted the statements but the prosecution believes the court might overlook the retraction if the magistrates who recorded the statement testify in court.
Much of the case hinges on whether the court gives precedence to the retractions of the accused and the witnesses, or to the testimonies of the magistrates who recorded the statements.
Two video recordings of the questioning of Aseemananda and Bharat Rateshwar have also been admitted as evidence.
Asked what more could the investigators have done to strengthen the case, Sharma said they could have kept more reliable witnesses for seizures, recoveries and spot identification. One of the witnesses for the recoveries of mobile phones from Chandrashekhar Leve is his brother.
Most of all, Sharma said the NIA should have pushed for the Ajmer and the Mecca Masjid blast cases to be tried at a single location. "Both are part of the same conspiracy," he said. "Both have the same accused, the same witnesses, the same evidence."
In fact, some of the documents for the Ajmer case are lying in Hyderabad. "I have asked the NIA people to get the certified copies at least," said Sharma. "Bas bahut ho gaya. I have done enough. I have many other cases and limited time. I might as well leave this one."
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