Tuesday 2 April 2019

The Samjhauta acquittals: Hindu terror goes unpunished in India

Earlier this month, the acquittal of the four main suspects in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case has once again brought the Indian government's commitment to fighting Hindu terror groups into question.

The attack on the train also known as the "friendship express", which links India to Pakistan, left 68 persons dead. The majority of the victims were Pakistani citizens. The blast caused major embarrassment for India's intelligence and security services - it took place only 70km away from the capital New Delhi and in a train that was supposedly guarded by the Indian security services - and threatened to wreck ongoing efforts to build a sustainable peace between India and Pakistan.

While the then-opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as some Indian media organisations, tried to blame Pakistan-based terror groups for the attack, the Congress government classified the incident as an "an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan" and vowed that culprits - whoever they may be - would be caught.

An investigation by India's National Investigation Agency (NIA) eventually concluded that the attack was carried out by four men - Swami Aseemanand, Kamal Chauhan, Rajinder Chaudhary and Lokesh Sharma - linked to the Hindu far-right group Abhinav Bharat. All four suspects were charged by the NIA, making many believe justice would soon be delivered for the victims.

However, on March 20 this year, a special court in the northern state of Haryana acquitted all four suspects, citing lack of evidence. Following the shock decision, the NIA did not declare an intention to appeal to a higher court or initiate a new probe to find and punish the culprits behind the deadly attack. The Indian home minister, Rajnath Singh, also made it clear the government will not pursue an appeal; instead, he said that it is his "personal stand" that "Pakistan is always responsible for such terrorist attacks."

In other words, for all intents and purposes, the case is now closed.

The unsatisfactory ending to the Samjhauta Express investigation is only the latest in a line of judicial and political decisions which reflect a failure to pursue justice for Muslim victims of attacks.

In April last year, for example, a court acquitted all 11 men charged by the NIA in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case where six people, all Muslims, were killed in the southern city of Hyderabad. The NIA had in its probe found that members of the Abhinav Bharat, including Samjhauta Express blast suspect Swami Aseemanand, were responsible for the blast. But eventually, the court deemed the strong body of evidence previously presented by the investigating agency insufficient to declare the accused guilty. The NIA did not attempt to appeal the decision or continue the investigation.

In December 2010 - January 2011, Aseemanand made a series of confessions to the courts admitting his role in the blasts targetting Muslims. A few months later, he retracted these confessions, claiming that they had been extracted under torture.

In 2014, however, speaking to a journalist for the news magazine Caravan, he denied being tortured and once again admitted to various acts of violence targetting Muslims. In the same interview, he also claimed that the plot to bomb Muslim targets across the country was blessed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders Mohan Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar.

Despite contradictory testimonies by leading suspects like Aseemanand, as well as a large body of evidence presented to the courts by the NIA demonstrating the Hindu far-right's role in several terror attacks targeting Muslims, the people responsible have been let off the hook.

This travesty of justice is the result of not only years-long efforts by far-right groups to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, but also the current Indian government's inclination to shield groups sympathetic to its Hindu-nationalist agenda from scrutiny at all costs.


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