I decided to dedicate my new book to the memory of those who had contributed most for justice against hate, who are no longer with us. Heading the dedication of my book – titled Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years – is the name Hemant Karkare.

Who is Karkare, who Pragya Singh Thakur says she cursed in 2008, which is the reason, she claims, he was killed less than two months later? And who is Thakur, hand-picked by the Bharatiya Janata Party as its candidate from Bhopal?

Karkare, a senior police officer, died after being shot in his chest fighting armed terrorists in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Applauded by leaders of the BJP who surrounded her during a press-conference she held on April 19, Thakur described Karkare as “anti-national” and “dharamvirudh” (anti-religion).

“You won’t believe but I said, ‘tera sarvanash hoga’ [You will be destroyed],” she said. “Just after sawa mahina [one and a quarter months], terrorists killed him. The day I cursed him, a sutak [inauspicious period] descended on him. That sutak ended the day he was killed.”

Through her comments, Thakur compared Karkare’s fate to villains and demons in Indian mythology who were destroyed by the curse of saints.

Thakur’s unusual candidature to fight elections on a BJP ticket was defended by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday. Speaking to Times Now, he said, “Samjhauta Express verdict came. What came out? Without any evidence, a rich civilisation as old as 5,000 years, which gave the message of ‘the whole world is one’ ... You called such a civilisation terrorist? To give a fitting reply to all such people, this [Thakur’s ticket from Bhopal] is a symbol and this symbol will cost the Congress dearly.’

When Modi denied the reality of Hindutva terror, he was being duplicitous.

Thakur is among the alleged conspirators in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, where explosives hidden in a motorcycle killed six people and injured more than 100 others in Maharashtra. She is only out on bail on health grounds. She has not been acquitted of charges of participating in a terrorist conspiracy.

As I have argued in another article in Scroll.in on the Samjhauta Express train bomb blast terror case acquittal, Modi ignores firstly that while it is true that Aseemanand and some of his co-accused did get acquitted last month in the 2007 Samjhauta train bomb blast case on grounds that the prosecution did not build a convincing case, other Hindutva subversives have been convicted in the larger terror conspiracy.

In 2017, the special court had also acquitted Aseemanand and six others in the 2007 Ajmer Dargah blast case, giving them the “benefit of doubt”. But it convicted three others for conspiracy, planting bombs and inciting religious sentiments. The court awarded life sentences to two of them – Devendra Gupta and Bhavesh Bhai Patel, along with the late Hindutva activist Sunil Joshi.

Sandeep V Dange and Ramchandra Kalasangra, both RSS functionaries and accused as conspirators in the blast cases, continue to be absconding.

The Malegaon blasts

Thirteen years have passed since September 6, 2006, when two bombs planted on bicycles exploded in Malegaon, a communally sensitive town 300 km from Mumbai. A large number of its residents are power-loom workers.

The bicycles on which the bombs were located were parked near a prominent mosque. On the day of the explosions, large crowds had gathered for prayers for the sacred festival Shab-e-Baraat. The blasts killed 37 people, leaving more than 100 others injured.

The location of the blasts and the fact that it went off during a Muslim festival indicated that its targets were Muslim. Even so, it is remarkable that the police took little time to declare that the blasts had been engineered by international Islamist terror groups Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, with Indian collaborators from the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.

The police arrested nine men for these crimes, all of them devout practicing Muslims. They were pronounced innocent of terror crimes in Malegaon only 10 years later, on April 25, 2016, in Mumbai.

The eight men wept in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered. The ninth man had died before his innocence was confirmed. With this, the curtains came down on their ten-year long nightmare. They spent more than half these years in prison; the remainder fighting a protracted court battle to prove their innocence.

Two years later, in September 2008, explosives concealed in a motorcycle parked outside a transport company in Malegaon detonated, this time killing eight people and injuring 80. Once more five Muslim men said to belong to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Students Islamic Movement of India were initially held guilty.

My colleagues in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Abdullah Zakaria, Aparna Roy and Natasha Badhwar, have made a short film profiling three of the men who had been incarcerated and interrogated for the Malegaon blasts by the National Investigation Agency, Central Bureau of Investigation and Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad.

Hemant Karkare was killed during the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai. Credit: PTI
Hemant Karkare was killed during the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai. Credit: PTI

Speaking to Zakaria, who met them in their homes and workplaces in Malegaon, the men spoke of their lost years and the sheer terror of being falsely implicated and tortured in custody. They recounted instances of being beaten, especially on the day of Eid, of narco-tests administered without permission, and being made to sign on confessions that they had not even read, leave alone dictated. Despite the injustices that have destroyed their lives, they speak with dignity and self-respect as they struggle to return to the lives they deserve.

The investigations

Investigations led by a police officer of most exceptional courage and fairness, Hemant Karkare, blew the lid off a form of terror that investigating agencies and the popular imagination had failed to acknowledge until then: terror attacks by persons inspired by not Islamist but Hindutva ideologies.

The initial breakthrough was achieved by tracing the owner of the golden-coloured LML Freedom motorcycle on which the bomb that went off in Malegaon in 2008 was planted to Pragya Singh Thakur, a former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist. Even more sensational was the alleged role of a serving Army officer Lt Col Shrikant Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay in the conspiracy. Others indicted were sadhus and mahants, as well as persons associated with Sangh affiliates like the Bajrang Dal, belonging to a shadowy organisation called Abhinav Bharat, named after the terror-based formation established by Vinayak Savarkar in 1904, a man whose portrait hangs in Parliament.

These arrests and investigations led further to the uncovering of the stunning role of the Abhinav Bharat and Hindutva organisations in several other terror attacks, including the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and the explosions in 2007 in the Samjhauta Express to Pakistan, the Hyderabad Mecca Masjid, one of the oldest and biggest mosques in India where thousands of Muslims were present for Friday prayers, and the blast inside Ajmer Sharif Dargah on the eve of the last Friday of Ramzan.

Bajrang Dal activists were found manufacturing bombs in makeshift factories in Nanded, Kanpur, Bhopal and Goa.

What lay exposed was a deeply worrying communal mindset in India’s police and security establishment. In all of these episodes, despite the fact that the locations of the blasts indicated they were clearly targeted at Muslims, who also comprised the majority of the victims, investigators still assumed immediately that the perpetrators were Islamist militants.

In the Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blasts, for instance, police claimed that the blasts were set off by a cell phone in Bangladesh involving Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and arrested several young Muslim men who were tortured and forced to confess. The same pattern was followed in all the other cases as well. Clear leads pointing to Hindutva terror groups were ignored; instead trans-border Islamist groups were blamed, and Indian Muslim men arrested under terror laws, tortured and forced to sign confessions.

The cases weakened

In cases where Islamist organisations are responsible for terror attacks, like the Bombay blasts of 1993 and the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the police, prosecution, the judiciary at all levels, the government and public opinion, all combined to ensure the highest punishment for those charged for even abetment of these crimes.

By contrast, after Karkare was tragically killed during the Mumbai terror attack on November 26, 2008, almost no further evidence against Abhinav Bharat and Hindutva terror groups was collected by his successors, or by the CBI, or National Investigation Agency constituted after 26/11 to investigate terror cases.

These biases were aggravated further by the election of a BJP-led government at the Centre in 2014.

Rohini Salian, a respected and credible law officer appointed special public prosecutor in the Malegaon matter at the insistence of Karkare, made sensational revelations in a 2015 interview to The Indian Express. She charged that officers of the National Investigation Agency were pressurising her to “go slow” with regard to accused persons from radical Hindutva nationalist organisations in the 2008 Malegaon case, in order to facilitate their eventual discharge.

Witnesses turned “hostile” one by one. And then the National Investigation Agency claimed that Karkare’s investigations were dubious, that fake evidence had been “planted”, and that Thakur was innocent even though she owned the motorcycle used in the blasts. The case was rapidly crumbling. Since earlier investigations pointed to her being the fulcrum of the conspiracy, the fact that the investigative agency itself was now alleging she was innocent weakened the case against all other accused. It was only a matter of time before Purohit and other accused persons would walk free.

Contrast this with the determination at the highest levels of the executive and judiciary to hang persons accused of terror crimes if they are Muslim, on far thinner evidence.

Despite the weakening of evidence by the National Investigation Agency, the special court refused to discharge Thakur, stating that there was prima facie evidence about her role in the blast.

Thakur was granted bail by the Bombay High Court in April 2017 on health grounds. The order states that it is satisfied that she “is suffering from breast cancer. The medical report of the Appellant indicates that she has become infirm and cannot even walk without support. The medical certificate further shows that Appellant is being given treatment in Ayurvedic hospital. In our opinion, Ayurvedic Hospital cannot give proper treatment to the Appellant, who is suffering from cancer.”

In this way, Thakur was granted bail because she was said to be so enfeebled by breast cancer that she could barely walk. Her vigorous public appearances prove this too to be a lie.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah observed in a tweet: “A person, an under-trial, who stands accused of terrorism; out on bail on health grounds but clearly healthy enough to fight elections in the crippling summer heat. Hindutva rules!”

He also asked, “If her health condition doesn’t permit her to be in jail, how does it permit her to contest polls?”

The Congress district committee in Malegaon, Maharashtra, organised a demonstration on Friday in protest against BJP leader and blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur's comments about Mumbai police officer Hemant Karkare. Credit: IANS
The Congress district committee in Malegaon, Maharashtra, organised a demonstration on Friday in protest against BJP leader and blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur's comments about Mumbai police officer Hemant Karkare. Credit: IANS

In defence of Karkare

Many police officers who worked with Karkare are appalled and outraged at the denigration of his reputation. Speaking to the Indian Express, former Maharashtra Director General of Police A Roy said: “[Thakur’s] comments have really hurt me and hence I am talking to you to defend someone who is not alive to defend himself. As the ATS [Anti-Terrorism Squad] reported to me, I was involved in the overall supervision of the investigation and stand by the chargesheet, which was done in a professional manner and without any extraneous influence or pressure. The chargesheet stands vindicated as the accused were not discharged and the trial court has framed charges and the trial is underway.”

Roy described Karkare as “an absolute professional who did not have any political leanings. The man is no longer there to defend himself and as a service colleague, it is hurtful to hear such statements.”

Former police officer Meeran Borwankar, said of Karkare, “I knew him for more than 20 years. He was a gentleman to the core and one of the most professionally sound police officers I have interacted with. Just because he is no more to defend himself, what right does Pragya Thakur have to smear his name? It is most unethical and against the Indian culture that the lady professes to believe in. I condemn her statement.”

Former Mumbai Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro said to The Indian Express, “Karkare was one of our finest officers and it is so annoying to see such statements being made about him.”

On Karkare’s role in the case involving Thakur, Ribeiro said: “He did what Krishna told Arjun on the battlefield: To do one’s duty. Karkare did his duty like a good Hindu.”

For his role in the Mumbai terror attacks, Karkare was awarded India’s highest civilian award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra, for displaying “courage and leadership of the highest order by leading from the front against grave odds”.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi offered an award of Rs 1 crore to Karkare’s widow Kavita Karkare. Significantly, she refused to accept the money, and also refused to meet any politician.

Hindutva terror

Apologists suggest that Hindutva terror is only a recent development, a retaliation to Islamist terror. This obscures the fact that it was Hindutva terror and violence that took Mahatma Gandhi’s life in 1948, demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, which led to the bloodiest communal clashes in post-Independent India, and organised many communal massacres of minorities.

Hindutva terror banks on majoritarian prejudice in the criminal justice system as much as larger public opinion, which assumes that Muslims are guilty even of terror attacks that clearly target their own community. Despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence, Muslim men charged with these terror crimes – such as for the Malegaon blasts – still have to battle bias for years before they are able to establish their innocence. Institutional biases result in attempts to protect rather than act decisively and fairly against Hindutva organisations even when all evidence points to their culpability.

To deny that Hindutva terror also looms over this country, in the way Prime Minister Modi has done, despite all the evidence that brave officers like Karkare marshalled, and to then valorise people charged with these terror crimes, is a profound betrayal of constitutional principles.

Islamist terror is indeed a grave threat to the Indian people. But so is Hindutva terror and communal pogroms. Both entail impartial, fair, just investigation and trials.