On social media, supporters of a particular narrative are ecstatic at the National Investigation Agency’s latest position on the 2008 Malegaon blasts case that there is no proof against the accused.

Labelled as a “Hindu terror” plot, the principal accused in the case are in jail and chances are that they will be allowed to walk free.

While the politics of the case continues to play out, it is the questioning of the role played by then chief of Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad Hemant Karkare, who had led the investigation before it was sent to the NIA, that will continue to haunt India’s global stand on terrorism for years to come.

The 26/11 attacks

Much has been written about the night of November 26, 2008 when 10 terrorists came in from the sea and wreaked havoc on Mumbai.

The Mumbai Police, completely unprepared for such an assault, spiralled into crippling confusion and it was left to a few individuals who rushed out to assume the mantle of leadership. Many of their stories, though recorded in the High Level Enquiry Committee, popularly known as the Ram Pradhan committee, have never been told.

Some names such as Sadanand Date and Hemant Karkare stand out. Date was the Additional Commissioner of police, Central Region of Mumbai police. Karkare, then Maharashtra ATS chief, was in Dadar. Both men, poorly armed with no body armour, marshalling troops wherever they could find them, headed off in the direction of the shootings.

Date went into Cama hospital and took the lift to the sixth floor and found two terrorists, one of them Ajmal Kasab, as they were shooting at people. Date immediately engaged the terrorists around 11.10 pm and kept firing at them till 11.50 pm or so. But he was hopelessly outgunned and as the terrorists continued to lob grenades at him and the team, he began to suffer heavy losses. While bleeding profusely, Date ordered his operator, Sachin Tilekar to go down and get reinforcements.

The injured Tilekar managed to find Karkare. That night Karkare had a rudimentary bullet proof jacket that could only resist 9 mm bullets and a service pistol. His colleagues had some outdated 7.62 mm rifles. And yet three officers – Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Inspector Vijay Salaskar – and a constable got into a police Qualis and headed towards the lane when one of the terrorists, Kasab, stepped out and pumped the car with bullets from his AK-47. Only the constable survived; the three officers died instantaneously.

Despite the lack of equipment, training or even manpower, none of the men had hesitated to rush to help a grievously injured colleague. Why would such a man fudge an investigation to please the ruling dispensation?

Unsung hero

Former Research and Analysis Wing chief AS Dulat, a veteran of decades of intelligence wars in Kashmir, recently shared another story about Karkare. When the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu, Nepal, was hijacked in December 1999, the R&AW was desperate for information, as the aircraft finally landed in Taliban-held Kandahar in Afghanistan, Dulat said.

“For days, we didn’t know what was happening,” Dulat added. “We didn’t have any intelligence assets in Afghanistan and we weren’t talking to any major party there. Suddenly, we went completely blind while the hostages were sweating it out on the tarmac.”

Not getting any insights was frustrating as the Crisis Management Group at the centre met to discuss options. “The breakthrough came from Mumbai when one of our officers, working continuously without a break for days, found a major link. He found a man who had worked with the hijackers to fund and execute the plot and that suddenly opened up an intelligence treasure trove for us. The man was our intelligence commissioner in Mumbai, Hemant Karkare.”

Karkare was then posted as Commissioner, Maharashtra – a rank equivalent to a Joint Secretary to the Government of India, and given to a state head in R&AW. While some of Karkare’s role in the hijacking case is known, the nature of intelligence is such that it will remain largely in the shadows.

But the fact remains that had Karkare’s efforts not come through, the case could have ended very differently. He provided major insights to decision makers to start negotiating with the terrorists and successfully bring back all the hostages unscathed.

Karkare’s investigations and inputs would prove crucial to Ajit Doval, who was then heading the negotiating team on the ground in Kandahar. Not many people would ever know the whole story about how Karkare had been instrumental in saving lives.

Karkare was honoured with the Ashok Chakra, the country’s highest peace-time gallantry award posthumously. Doval, who now happens to be India’s National Security Advisor, was the first police officer to be awarded the Kirti Chakra, India’s second-highest peacetime military award for gallantry decades before that. Doval shared a fact that was not too well known at a conference in 2014 – pointing out how New Delhi had tried for years to get the United Nations to pass a convention against terrorism unsuccessfully. Doval and his colleagues had been instrumental in preparing a draft convention that India presented to the UN, only to be blocked by countries like Pakistan and China.

Shifting stands

While India is already battling opposition from countries with vested interests in getting the world to align on terrorism, its internal record is now proving to be a cause for worry. Constantly changing its stance on terror investigations, be it Malegaon or the Samjhauta train blasts, is beginning to make it look inconsistent and – worse – vulnerable to political directions.

Such dramatic turns in sensitive investigations only weakens India's case on getting international consensus on terrorism. Intelligence officials are beginning to voice concern – as yet privately – on how the twists and turns in these cases are similar to what Pakistan displays when confronted with evidence of its sponsorship of terrorism in India.

Counter terrorism rests on the edifice of behind-the-scenes cooperation between intelligence and investigating agencies globally. It needs trust and faith in each other’s professional conduct to work successfully. The NIA and other security agencies of India are closely tracked by their international counterparts, and once seeds of suspicion about their capabilities are sowed, it will be difficult for India’s efforts to be taken seriously by the international community.

Ironically, those who are now complaining that “innocent” people were jailed in the “Hindu terror” case, never spoke up when scores of Muslim men and women were arbitrarily picked up and jailed for years, only to be let off by courts years later.

Dead men don’t tell tales, and it is easy to spread stories about them. But the world is watching, and the apprehension in the intelligence community is that the global community’s faith in India’s capabilities will be seriously eroded with its shifting stance.

Of course, it’s another matter that Karkare died in combat, serving his country. Had he been in the military, his memory would have been feted forever. Unfortunately, for policemen, they are rarely recognised for what they do.

Saikat Datta is a Visiting Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. All views expressed are personal. He tweets as @saikatd.