When they came in November 2008 they had none of the coyness and reserve typical of new entrants into a prison. Even the more hardened Anda Barrack inmates of Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail were somewhat taken aback at the cockiness of the new lot led by Lt Col Purohit, whose words were soon being passed through the cells in hushed whispers: "We've done it and we'll do it again". Though implicated in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast, this set did not show any of the unease characteristic of other terror accused and were quite willing to wear their guilt on their sleeves like some badge of bravery.
Their bravado had of course a lot to do with the high-level backing that had been generated in their support. There was the present Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, giving them a clean chit and saying, "I'm not ready to believe that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur is a terrorist". Former deputy prime minister and home minister, LK Advani, even met the prime minister to intercede on their behalf. No one in the Anda Barracks then anticipated that this group would remain long behind bars - not the the accused, not the other inmates, not the writers of this piece who were then in prison. Anyone with some experience of the workings of the criminal justice system can tell that those with sufficiently high-level friends championing their cause can find ways to soon get out by arm-twisting the investigating officers or fixing the prosecutors or even influencing the courts.
Cold calculations can however go awry in the face of the tenacity and obduracy of an uncommon individual or two who refuse to bend under the pressures of the powers that be. So it happened with the expectations of a quick bail-out for Purohit and his co-accused.
Hemant Karkare's investigations
Hemant Karkare, the then chief of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), who had reached there after a seven-year stint in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had already created a name for being different. He had bucked the trend among "anti-terrorist" police officers in the country that had seen the implication and arrest of Muslims in all blast cases becoming some sort of a SOP (standard operating procedure). He led the investigations that first identified Sadhvi Pragya's direct role in the 2008 Malegaon blasts and then uncovered the larger conspiracies of the Abhinav Bharat group, led by Purohit, which had planned and executed a number of bomb blasts, including the 2006 Malegaon, 2007 Samjhauta Express, 2007 Hyderabad Mecca Masjid, and 2007 Ajmer Sharif blasts. He had an uncorrupt reputation and was not known to easily submit to unlawful demands of higher-ups.
As the attacks on him from within the ruling classes mounted, he dug his heels in. This was written about by retired Mumbai police commissioner, Julio Ribeiro, whom Karkare met just before he was killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. His was a lonely job with even the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress ministers in Maharashtra not coming out strongly in his support. His rivals in the police force - senior officers in the crime branch and the office of the director general of police (DGP) - were even tapping his telephone conversations to keep track of the Malegaon bomb blasts investigation.
The deeper conspiracy
The concern shown by Karkare's bosses was but natural. It was during the time of his predecessor in the ATS, KP Raghuvanshi, that the Maharashtra Police had even recruited prime terror accused, Purohit, to provide training to its anti-terror personnel. He also received a letter of appreciation from Himanshu Roy (who was till recently the ATS chief) for assistance, cooperation and information-sharing and an educative workshop in Nashik in November 2006 - just two months after a blast in Malegaon in the same Nashik district, which is now revealed to have been executed by Purohit's own terror group. It was clear that Purohit had friends high up in the hierarchy and deeper investigation into the forces behind the blast conspiracy could very well end up at some very senior police officers' doors.
Same is quite likely true of the Army. Purohit, despite being in prison for almost seven years under such grievous offences, has neither been suspended nor dismissed from the Army and his wife continues to receive his full salary.
Contrast this with Delhi University's suspension of Prof Saibaba on half salary within five days of his arrest on a much less serious charge of supporting Maoists. There seem to be at least some among the top brass of the Army who are protecting Purohit. He, on his part, has even claimed that his Army bosses were aware of what he was up to. Thus, though it is obvious that there are more high-level officers involved in the conspiracy, no attempt is evidently being made to delve into the truth.
It is in this background that one must see last week's disclosures by Rohini Salian, the special public prosecutor (SPP) in this case, wherein she has detailed how, soon after the Modi government came to power, the NIA (National Investigation Agency) asked her to go soft on the accused in this case and how, when she did not comply, she was told to stop representing the NIA. She has also related how even Mariar Puttam, the senior counsel for the prosecution in the Supreme Court, was unceremoniously nudged aside in order to thwart the prosecution from obtaining favourable orders.
Salian's disclosures also tell how in 2008 Karkare had, despite her having resigned from public prosecutorship, specially requested her to come back to handle this case. Karkare obviously handpicked her knowing that the other SPPs could not be trusted to stand up to the pressures that were already building up in favour of the accused. She apparently lived up to Karkare's trust in her and did not let go. This is probably why, despite Karkare being killed soon after her appointment as SPP, the evidence collected under his watch was used to file a strong chargesheet, and the prosecution remained firm on it through all the legal twists and turns resorted to by a battery of top notch lawyers for the accused. This obviously will not continue now that Salian has been removed from the scene.
A non-secular state
However it would be a mistake to merely agree with Salian's portrayal that the problem is the Modi government that is soft on Hindutva terror groups. It would also be a mistake to simply concur with post-Salian disclosures and media commentary that links the Modi government's softness to the links of the accused with the Sangh Parivar. While this is undoubtedly true we must recognise that the malaise goes much deeper.
Salian herself narrates how after Karkare's death she had to go to the ATS office and literally shout at the officers to go ahead with the case, to make Karkare's "soul happy". She also recounts how after the case was transferred to NIA in 2011 (by the United Progressive Alliance government) "they have not put in a single paper in court after taking over" and even allowed default bail for three accused by not submitting a chargesheet against them. All this slumber was under the watch of P Chidambaram, arguably India's most hands-on home minister in recent times who, according to Salian, "has seen every paper of the case". Similarly the Army's leniency towards Purohit has been under AK Antony's command.
Thus, though the Modi government has gone proactive in protecting and moving to release the accused of Hindutva terror organisations, this should in no way amount to an endorsement of the secular credentials of the earlier government. More importantly, there remains the nagging question of the commitment (or lack of it) of the various arms of our state apparatus to the idea of a secular state. Time and again our state police forces, central investigative agencies, paramilitaries and even the military have failed to show the required allegiance to the values of a secular India, which we do not tire of loudly proclaiming to the world. But scratch the surface and our state machinery displays slight variance, if at all, from the behaviour of an avowedly non-secular Pakistani state.
Julio Ribeiro has been quoted as saying, "the Hindu terror probe should be carried out professionally. If they are scuttled on religious grounds, India would lose its moral right to take on Pakistan for going slow on Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi... ". The question is whether, going by the practice of its prime organs over the past several years, the Indian state is secular enough to be up to the task.