Ipsita Chakravarty - The main reason the BJP is afraid of saffron terror probes: they seem to point to the RSS

Rohini Salian, special public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, has blown the cover on an open secret ‒ the state’s reluctance to prosecute saffron terror. In an interview to The Indian Express, Salian said that, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power last year, she was instructed by the National Investigation Agency to “go soft” on Hindu extremists accused in the case. This month, just as the case was to come up for a regular hearing before the Supreme Court, she was reportedly told another advocate would appear for the proceedings. The message, Salian says, was that state agencies did not want “favourable orders”.

In a raft of terror cases that emerged in the 2000s and implicated Hindu extremists, state responses followed a familiar pattern, of denial, cover-up and delay. As they swung into action after each blast, state agencies seemed to operate on the assumption that terror, by definition, has a Muslim face, is propelled by jihadist agendas and must be “anti-national”. Malegaon, 2006, Samjhauta Express, 2007, Mecca Masjid, 2007, Ajmer Sharif, 2007, and again Malegaon, 2008, all tell the same story ‒ Muslims rounded up and arrested in a reflex reaction, fingers pointed at terror outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, and then the appearance of an amended list of suspects, mostly Hindu.

The institutional resistance to proceed against Hindutva terror suspects, in a police force and among intelligence agencies that have few Muslim personnel, did not stop there. In the 2006 blast in Nanded, which killed two people suspected of making bombs for a Hindutva terror network, the Central Bureau of Investigations diluted the charges, initially framed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and the terror trail went cold as initial leads were allegedly not followed up.

No convictions: The next year, when another explosive device went off in Nanded, killing two, including a member of the Shiv Sena, the police claimed it was a fire. Last year, the NIA pleaded insufficient evidence to press forward with the seven cases of alleged Hindutva terror that were handed to it in 2011. Nearly a decade after the first bombs went off in Malegaon, there have been no convictions in cases of alleged saffron terror.

Law enforcement agencies may only be taking political cues when dealing with saffron terror. And politically, there has been a curious reticence about it, starting with a refusal to recognise the phenomenon at all. It was not until 2008, when the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad chief, the late Hemant Karkare, launched investigations in the Malegaon blast case, that “Hindutva terror” became part of an accepted lexicon. But the term was still used tentatively, as if it were part of lurid conspiracy theories or as if the Hindutva terrorist, like the manticore, was a chimera to be busted. Political reactions to Hindutva ranged from ambivalence to denial.

The Congress would later learn to wield accusations of Hindutva terror against its political rivals. But in 2010, when former Home Minister P Chidambaram warned about “saffron terror”, he was quickly hushed up by party colleagues. “Saffron or bhagwa or kesariya is not the issue here,” Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi had said. "The issue is terrorism." The United Progressive Alliance's second stint was characterised by this policy of thrust and parry on saffron terror, reportedly gathering evidence against Hindu extremists and making blunt accusations, then retracting its statements and failing to push for convictions under its watch.

While the Congress professed colour blindness when it came to terror, the BJP insisted that the colour of terror could not be saffron. BJP Rajya Sabha MP Balbir Punj called the term an “insult to Hindu religion” and in 2011, former party president Nitin Gadkari called it a bogey raised by the Congress to deflect attention from the various scams that had shaken the UPA. But does a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government have another reason to be apprehensive about prosecutions in saffron terror cases?

Going to the top: Terror trails have repeatedly led to the RSS, with several of the accused having been linked to the organisation at some point. Swami Aseemanand, on trial in three cases, including the Samjhauta Express blast, had been an enthusiastic leader of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the RSS’s tribal affairs wing, even as he dabbled in terror on the side. Aseemanand’s confessions after his arrest in 2010 had prompted intelligence agencies to name RSS functionary Indresh Kumar in chargesheets, for allegedly supporting the plots. 

In a 2014 interview to The Caravan, Aseemanand went even further. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had known about the attacks and sanctioned them, he claimed.

A penumbra of terror seems to surround the Sangh Parivar and the BJP cannot quite escape it. In the past, the central leadership of the BJP had sought to distance itself from the fringe elements of the Sangh who would be more directly associated with extremist ideologies that fed saffron terror. But a government with increasingly visible ties to the RSS will find it hard to maintain such a distance. The Centre is seen to defer to the organisation in its educational and cultural policies, while members of the RSS on deputation to the BJP have energetically guided the party’s affairs. If terror prosecutions were to proceed, ties between the RSS and the BJP could prove to be inconvenient for the ruling party.

Going by Salian’s account, the government is fully alive to this danger.

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