An extraordinary article by Leena Gita Reghunath. Reghunath interviewed prominent Hindutva terrorist, Swami Aseemanand who is extremely proud of the violence he has wrought.
By LEENA GITA REGHUNATH (The Caravan)
“SWAMIJI KO BULAO,â€?Â the jailer ordered. Call the Swami. Two police constables scurried out of the jailerâ€™s office and onto the grounds of the prison. A deafening noise reverberated through the room, as if a hundred men outside the walls were howling at the same time. It was visiting hours in late December 2011 at Ambalaâ€™s Central Jail.
After a few minutes, Swami Aseemanand, the Hindu firebrand accused of plotting several terrorist attacks on civilian targets across the country between 2006 and 2008, stepped into the doorway of the jailerâ€™s office. He wore a saffron dhoti and a saffron kurta that hung down to his knees. The clothes were freshly ironed. A woollen monkey cap was pulled down over his forehead, and a saffron shawl was wrapped around his neck. He looked bemused to see me. We exchanged namastes, then he ushered me through a door into an adjoining room, where clerks in white dhoti-kurtas were poring over titanic ledgers. He sat on a large wooden trunk behind the door, and instructed me to pull a chair from a nearby desk. He was informal, like a good host, and asked me about my visit. â€œSomebody has to tell your story,â€? I said.
This was the beginning of the first of four interviews I had with Aseemanand over more than two years. He is currently under trial on charges including murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy and sedition, in connection with three bombings in which at least 82 people were killed. He could also be tried for two other blast cases; he has been named in the chargesheets, but not yet formally accused. Together, the five attacks killed 119 people, and worked as a corrosive on the bonds of Indian society. If convicted, Aseemanand may face the death penalty.
In the course of our conversations, Aseemanand became increasingly warm and open. The story he told of his life was remarkable and haunting. He is fiercely proud of the acts of violence he has committed and the principles by which he has lived. For more than four decades, he has loyally promoted Hindu nationalism; during much of that time, he worked under the banner of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghâ€™s tribal affairs wing, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), spreading the Sanghâ€™s version of Hinduism, and its vision for a Hindu Rashtra. Through all this, Aseemanand, who is now in his early sixties, has never diluted the intensity of his beliefs.
After the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Nathuram Godse and his accomplice Narayan Apte were executed by hanging and cremated at the Ambala jail, in 1949. Their co-conspirator, Godseâ€™s brother Gopal, was sentenced to 18 yearsâ€™ imprisonment. â€œIâ€™m kept in the same cell as Gopal Godse,â€? Aseemanand proudly told me. Today, Aseemanand is perhaps the most prominent face of Hindu extremist terrorism. Journalists who met him in the years before the bombings described him to me as an extraordinarily arrogant and intolerant man. What I saw in the dark records room of the jail was a man subdued by his imprisonment, but void of remorse. â€œWhatever happens to me, itâ€™s a good thing for Hindus,â€? Aseemanand told me. â€œLogon me Hindutva ka bhaav aayegaâ€?â€”it will stir Hindutva among the people.
ON THE NIGHT OF 18 FEBRUARY 2007,Â the Samjhauta Express started on its usual course from platform 18 of the Delhi Junction railway station. The Samjhauta, also known as the â€œFriendship Expressâ€?, is one of only two rail links between India and Pakistan. That night, almost three-quarters of its roughly 750 passengers were Pakistanis returning home. A few minutes before midnightâ€”an hour after the train started its journeyâ€”improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated in two unreserved compartments of the 16-coach train. Barrelling through the night, the train was now on fire.
The explosions fused shut the compartmentsâ€™ exits, sealing passengers inside. â€œIt was awful,â€? a railways inspector told theÂ Hindustan Times. â€œBurnt and half burnt bodies of the passengers were all over in the coaches.â€? Two unexploded IEDs packed into suitcases were later discovered at the scene; the devices contained a mixture of chemicals including PETN, TNT, RDX, petrol, diesel and kerosene. Sixty-eight people died in the attack.
This was the second, and deadliest, of the five attacks in which Aseemanand is implicated. He is now accused number one in the Samjhauta train blasts; accused number three in a bombing at Hyderabadâ€™s Mecca Masjid that killed 11 people, in May 2007; and accused number six in a blast at the dargah in Ajmer, Rajasthan, that killed three people, in October 2007. He is also named, but not yet charged, in two attacks in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in September 2006 and September 2008, that together took the lives of 37 people.
Many of these cases have been investigated by multiple agencies at different points in timeâ€”including the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), the Rajasthan ATS, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). At least a dozen chargesheets have been filed in the five cases. Thirty-one people have been formally accused, and two of Aseemanandâ€™s close associates are among themâ€”Pragya Singh Thakur, who was a national executive member of the BJPâ€™s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP); and Sunil Joshi, who was a former RSS district leader in Indore. All of the investigative agencies determined that Aseemanand played a central role in plotting the attacks. Aseemanand, by his own account, hosted planning sessions, selected targets, provided funds for the construction of IEDs, and sheltered and otherwise aided those who planted the bombs.
In December 2010 and January 2011, Aseemanand made two judicial confessions, to courts in Delhi and Haryana, in which he admitted to planning the attacks. At the time of his confessions, Aseemanand refused legal representation. He spent 48 hours in judicial custody, insulated from investigating agencies, before making each statement, thereby giving him an opportunity to change his mind. Both times, Aseemanand resolved to confess, and had his statements recorded in court. His confessions, and the confessions of at least two of his fellow conspirators, allege that the attacks were planned with the knowledge of at least one senior member of the RSS.
On 28 March 2011, Aseemanand accepted legal representation. The next day, he retracted his confessions, claiming that they were coerced by torture. An application he submitted before the trial court read, â€œthe leak of Aseemanandâ€™s alleged confession to the media, which is shocking and deliberate, is a part of the design to politicise and hype the case, conduct and conclude a media trial, and to create, at the global level, the notion of Hindu terror for the political purposes of the ruling party.â€? Aseemanand and several of the defence lawyers working on the Samjhauta case told me that the lawyers are all members of the Sangh; one of them said that they manage the case in meetings of the Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad, the RSSâ€™s legal wing.
When I interviewed him, Aseemanand denied being tortured, or that his confessions were coerced. He said that when he was arrested for the bombings, by the CBI, he decided it was â€œa good time to tell all about this. I knew I could be hanged for it, but Iâ€™m old anyway.â€?
Over the course of our conversations, Aseemanandâ€™s description of the plot in which he was involved became increasingly detailed. In our third and fourth interviews, he told me that his terrorist acts were sanctioned by the highest levels of the RSSâ€”all the way up to Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, who was the organisationâ€™s general secretary at the time. Aseemanand told me that Bhagwat said of the violence, â€œItâ€™s very important that it be done. But you should not link it to the Sangh.â€?
Aseemanand told me about a meeting that allegedly took place, in July 2005. After an RSS conclave in Surat, senior Sangh leaders including Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar, who is now on the organisationâ€™s powerful seven-member national executive council, travelled to a temple in the Dangs, Gujarat, where Aseemanand was livingâ€”a two-hour drive. In a tent pitched by a river several kilometres away from the temple, Bhagwat and Kumar met with Aseemanand and his accomplice Sunil Joshi. Joshi informed Bhagwat of a plan to bomb several Muslim targets around India. According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, â€œYou can work on this with Sunil. We will not be involved, but if you are doing this, you can consider us to be with you.â€?
Aseemanand continued, â€œThen they told me, â€˜Swamiji, if you do this we will be at ease with it. Nothing wrong will happen then. CriminalisationÂ nahin hogaÂ (It will not be criminalised). If you do it, then people wonâ€™t say that we did a crime for the sake of committing a crime. It will be connected to the ideology. This is very important for Hindus. Please do this. You have our blessings.â€™â€?
Chargesheets filed by the investigative agencies allege that Kumar provided moral and material support to the conspirators, but they donâ€™t implicate anyone as senior as Bhagwat. Although Kumar was interrogated once by the CBI, the case was later taken over by the NIA, which has not pursued the conspiracy past the level of Aseemanand and Pragya Singh. (Joshi, who was allegedly the connecting thread between several different parts of the conspiracyâ€”including those who assembled and those who planted the bombsâ€”was killed under mysterious circumstances in December 2007.)
Since allegations first emerged in late 2010 that Kumar had a role in the attacks, the RSS has closed ranks around him. Bhagwat, in an unprecedented act for an RSSÂ sarsangh-chalak, participated in a dharna to protest the accusations against Kumar. The BJP has also defended him, and the BJP national spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi was his lawyer at the time he was named in the chargesheets. A lawyer for one of the accused told me that Kumar is â€œhighly ambitiousâ€?, and â€œin waiting to be the sarsanghchalakâ€?.
An officer at one of the investigating agencies, on the condition of anonymity, allowed me to inspect a secret report submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The report requested that the MHA send a show-cause notice to RSS authorities, asking why the organisation should not be banned in light of the evidence against them. The MHA has not yet acted on the recommendation.
The fear of being bannedâ€”as the organisation briefly was after the assassination of Gandhi, in 1948; during the Emergency, in 1975; and after the demolition of Babri Masjid, in 1992â€”looms over the RSS leadership. Whenever terrorist violence has been attributed to its members, the Sangh has taken a tack similar to the one they used with Nathuram Godse: there is no question of owning or disowning the perpetrators, the RSS says, because they have all previously left the Sangh, or were acting independently of the organisation, or alienated themselves from it by embracing violence.
Aseemanand poses a serious problem to the RSS in this regard. Since it was founded in 1952, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been in the nucleus of the Sangh family, and Aseemanand has dedicated almost his entire adult life to serving the organisation. At the time he planned the attacks, he had been the national head of the VKAâ€™s religious wingâ€”a position created especially for himâ€”for a decade. Even before the inception of the terrorist plot, organised violence (including coordinated communal riots) was a well-known part of his methods.
Bhagwat and Kumar were allegedly aware of Aseemanandâ€™s involvement in the plot by mid 2005. Aseemanand was not excommunicatedâ€”far from it. In December of that year, according to a report inÂ Organiser, the RSSâ€™s weekly mouthpiece, he was honoured with aÂ Rs.Â 1 lakh award marking the birth centenary of MS Golwalkar, the RSSâ€™s second and most venerated chief; the veteran BJP leader and former party president Murli Manohar Joshi gave the ceremonyâ€™s keynote address. Even if Kumar remains insulated from a full inquiry into the allegations against him, there can be little question of the RSS convincingly denying its brotherhood with Aseemanand.
Denouncing terror attacks launched in the last decade by members of the Sangh, Swami Agnivesh, a prominent Hindu reformist, told me that the RSS â€œwill harm themselves and others of the Hindu societyâ€? through militant Hindutva. â€œIt is deplorable,â€? he said. The political scientist Jyotirmaya Sharma, who has authored three books on Hindutva, said, â€œthe RSS involves itself in both covert and overt functions. But the organisationâ€™s central premise is the sort of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare advocated by Ramdas, the guru of Shivaji. And the problem is that we donâ€™t have enough liberal institutions within the countryâ€”from political parties to even strong enough mediaâ€”to counter such acts of terror waged so blatantly in the name of Hindu religion.â€?
Despite such condemnations, the Sangh has come a long way since the ignominy of 1948. Through their efforts at man-making and nation-building, the RSS and its affiliates, particularly the BJP, now seem to represent a major current in the mainstream of Indian society. Aseemanand, too, is in many ways a product of those efforts, and he shares the RSSâ€™s aimsâ€”albeit in magnified form: his vision for the future, he told me, is a global Hindu Rashtra.