Thursday, April 20, 2017
A Violent End: The collapse of a murder trial - By LEENA GITA REGHUNATH
On 29 December 2007, Sunil Joshi, a one-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was shot and killed near his home in the district of Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh. Nearly a decade later, in February 2017, eight people who were charged with his killing were acquitted of the crime. Joshi’s murder, it appeared, was destined to remain unsolved.
The significance of the acquittals extended far beyond the case of Joshi’s killing. One of the theories that investigating agencies proposed for the murder was that it was linked to Joshi’s involvement in some of the most heinous acts of mass murder in India’s history: the Malegaon blasts of 2006, and the Samjhauta Express blast, the Ajmer Sharif blast and the Mecca Masjid blast of 2007, which, in all, killed 111 people. One of Joshi’s alleged co-conspirators in these attacks, a Hindutva activist named Pragya Singh Thakur, was among those accused, and then acquitted, of his murder. If Joshi’s killing erased key information about the blasts, the failure of the murder investigation further weakens the possibility that the larger network of conspiracies will be uncovered, and their perpetrators punished.
Among the early theories that investigating agencies explored in the blast cases was that they had been planned by Pakistani conspirators or members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. But according to Vikash Narain Rai, a police officer who headed the special investigation team of the Haryana police that was assigned to the Samjhauta case, an unexploded suitcase from the train led his team to a shop in Indore, whose staff revealed that it had been bought by Hindu, and not Muslim, men. Pursuing the lead further, Rai said, they came upon the name of Joshi, who headed a group of three people that had planned the bombing. “But by the time we started looking into this aspect,” Rai told the news website The Wire in June 2016, “this guy was murdered.” Joshi thus became a shadow of a shadow: a suspect who had been eliminated before investigators could find him.
The names of the alleged Hindu conspirators only emerged into the public domain in 2008, when the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad, or ATS, headed by Hemant Karkare, which was investigating a 2008 blast in Malegaon, traced a motorcycle recovered from the site to Thakur. Apart from Joshi and Thakur, the investigations also pointed to the involvement of another Hindutva activist, Swami Aseemanand, as well as an army officer named Shrikant Purohit.
Joshi, who at one point held the post of RSS’s zila pracharak of Madhya Pradesh’s Mhow cantonment, had gained a sinister reputation after he was linked to the 2003 murder of the Congress leader Pyar Singh Ninama and his son Dinesh. The police had since declared him absconding. This unseemly history, according to a 2010 report on the website Rediff, only increased his popularity, as “Joshi began to operate quite openly, mobilising support” for his violent activities. An unnamed Bajrang Dal activist in Mhow told Rediff, “Joshiji was someone who would say one death from our side should be avenged with five from the other side.”