Acquitting Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and seven others of the murder of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak Sunil Joshi, the court had a few pithy observations to make.

“The contradictory evidences by police and NIA [National Investigation Agency] in the case raised serious doubts in the whole case,” said the court in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.

Additional district and sessions judge Rajiv Madhusudan Apte also censured the police and the National Investigation Agency for not conducting the investigation “seriously”. The investigating agencies, he said, seem to have “acted out of prejudice or reasons best known to them”.

The Dewas court had recorded the statements of 35 witnesses, including that of National Investigation Agency officers and accused-turned-approver Dilip Jagtap, before pronouncing the verdict.

Pragya Thakur is also accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. Lokesh Sharma, Harshad Solanki and Rajendra Choudhary, let off along with her, also face charges in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case.

The acquittals are a significant development, or setback, in a larger legal battle: the fight against “Hindutva terror”, said to be responsible for a rash of bombings in the last decade.

Murder or terror?

Over the course of that decade, the Sunil Joshi case has gone from being simple murder to part of a terror conspiracy and back to plain murder again.

The RSS pracharak was said to be a close aide of Pragya Thakur’s before they fell out. He was shot dead in Dewas on December 29, 2007, by two bike-borne assailants. Joshi was in hiding at the time, wanted for his alleged role in the murder of Congress leader Pyarsingh Ninama. He was gunned down just a few metres from his single-room hideout.

Joshi’s name was also linked to saffron terror cases. According to the Central Bureau of Investigation, he had “played a key role in orchestrating the Ajmer blast”. He was, however, killed two weeks before the blast.

The investigation into his murder had initially hit a dead end, prompting the Madhya Pradesh police to close the case. It was reopened in 2010, after Solanki was arrested by the Rajasthan anti-terror squad. Solanki implicated Ramcharan Patel, a corporator from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Patel’s arrest led the trail up to Pragya Thakur, who had already been arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad in 2008 for her alleged role in the second Malegaon blasts.

In June 2011, the Mumbai High Court accepted the National Investigation Agency’s plea that it should take over the Joshi murder case. It was already probing Pragya Thakur’s role in Malegaon 2008 and Samjhauta 2007. The Joshi murder case, the central agency argued, was part of a larger terror conspiracy.

It produced the first chargesheet against eight persons in August 2014. It said the murder had been planned a fortnight before by Sharma and Rajendra Chaudhary, in connivance with Pragya Thakur. It alleged that Joshi’s sexual advances towards Pragya Thakur had been the primary motive for murder. The National Investigation Agency also said that, on the night of the murder, Pragya Thakur had visited Joshi’s house and collected a briefcase.

This is where a case of murder seems to ripple into widening circles of terror and conspiracy. According to the chargesheet, the briefcase is believed to have contained explosives and bomb-making material. It was later handed over to Ramji Kalsangra, wanted for Malegaon 2008, Samjhauta 2007, Mecca Masjid 2007 and Ajmer Sharif 2007.

‘Plain murder’

But that same year, a National Investigation Agency special court in Bhopal found that it was a case of “plain murder” and did not fall under the agency’s schedule of offences. It filed a closure report and the case was shifted back to the Dewas court, where the Madhya Pradesh police had already filed a chargesheet.

A fresh chargesheet was now produced before the Dewas court that included the charges of murder, destroying evidence, and possessing and using firearms.

According to government prosecutor Girish Munge, confusion arose with the two chargesheets. The prosecution, he said, had failed to connect the dots because the National Investigation Agency and the police named two different sets of charges and accused.

Munge told this reporter that the state would study the judgment and then decide whether to challenge the order.

Pragya Thakur, currently being treated for cervical cancer in Bhopal, was not present in court when the verdict was pronounced. But she hailed it as a “triumph of truth”. She also reportedly expressed confidence that she would get bail in the Malegaon case, termed “another falsehood”.

Melting leads

Pragya Thakur’s bail plea in the 2008 Malegaon case is up for hearing on February 7. Developments over the past year might explain her confidence. The case built up against her seems to have crumbled rapidly.

Pragya Thakur was among 14 people chargesheeted by the Maharashtra Police Anti-Terror Squad under the draconian Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. She had been implicated as her motorcycle was used to strap the bombs that exploded in Malegaon. The Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad also claimed to have found more evidence – transcripts of “conspiracy meetings” attended by Pragya Thakur, intercepts of a phone call between two other co-accused in which she was allegedly identified, and statements by a witness who said he had heard Pragya Thakur volunteer men for the blasts.

But most of this evidence has either melted away or rejected by the National Investigation Agency, which took over the case in 2011. In May 2016, the central agency filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case, dropping all charges against her.

It claimed to have obtained retractions from the witness and accepted Pragya Thakur’s explanation that she had sold the bike to Joshi four years before the blast. In January, it told the court that it did not have transcripts of the damning meeting, and said that it doubted their existence.

Last year, the National Investigation Agency court had rejected Pragya Thakur’s bail plea. This January, just weeks before the plea came up for a hearing again, the investigating agency said that it would not oppose bail for her.

A tracery in saffron

The case against Pragya Thakur joins up with a network of other blast cases in the last decade. Some of them share the same cast of accused. They allegedly bear the imprint of Abhinav Bharti, an extremist Hindu outfit, which counted Joshi and Lt Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit – also accused in the 2008 blasts – among its members.

Together, they seem to form the tracery of Hindutva terror, a term that came into currency after Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare launched investigations into Malegaon 2008. The term marked a significant shift away from the public consensus that had prevailed in India till then: that terror, by definition, was motivated by Islamist agendas.

Seven cases of alleged saffron terror are connected by another similarity. In 2011, they were handed over to the National Investigation Agency for investigation. More than half a decade since, these investigations have barely moved forward, drawing allegations that the investigating agency was deliberately dragging its feet on these cases.

The slowing, according to some journalists, started during the United Progressive Alliance era, but the allegations came out into the open after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014.

Fading trails

In 2015, Rohini Salian, special public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, said in an interview to the Indian Express that after the new government came to power, she had been told by the investigating agency to “go soft” on saffron terror. She said state agencies investigating them did not want “favourable orders”.

Indeed, the investigations of the last decade unearthed a network of terror that runs close to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Pragya Thakur herself had been a leader of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the party’s youth wing. The networks also seemed to reach deep inside the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known for its close ties with the BJP. Apart from Joshi, a number of senior RSS functionaries were implicated. They include Indresh Kumar, national executive member of the RSS, named in the Ajmer blasts case, and Swami Aseemanand, a zealous member of the organisation’s tribal wing, wanted for the Samjhauta Express cases. It has even been alleged that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was in the know.

Kumar was reportedly never even questioned and is now convenor of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch. In September, Aseemanand was granted bail by a special National Investigation Agency court. If Pragya Thakur is granted a reprieve too, the Sangh Parivar’s alleged ties with saffron terror will be all but severed.