The Samjhauta acquittals: Hindu terror goes unpunished in India

The Indian government and judiciary have shown little willingness to deliver justice in ‘saffron terror’ cases.

india 2007 blast reuters
Relatives mourn during the funeral procession of the victims of Samjhauta express blast in Karachi, Pakistan on February 22, 2007 [File: Athar Hussain/Reuters]

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.

Of course, even before the start of BJP’s tenure, the Indian state had been somewhat reluctant to identify Hindutva organisations as being responsible for terror in the country. Actually, the only reason why Indian security services pointed their finger at the Indian far-right in relation to attacks on Muslims was the work of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) under the leadership of Hemant Karkare.

Following a September 2008 bomb blast near a mosque in Malegaon, which killed six Muslims and injured over 100, Karkare’s team arrested 11 Hindu suspects with links to the Abhinav Bharat, establishing the radical Hindu-fringe as a possible source of terrorism in India for the first time. The arrests helped carry expressions like “Hindutva terror” or “saffron terror” to everyday political discussions in India, and turned Karkare into a target for Hindu-nationalists.

Mainstream right-wing groups like Shiv Sena started accusing the anti-terror chief of being “anti-Hindu” for investigating the activities of groups like Abhinav Bharat and even organised protests against him and his squad. Despite their efforts, for a short while, it seemed the era of the Indian state and security services blaming outlawed Muslim organisations for all terror attacks on Muslims in India was coming to an end. 

Unfortunately, Karkare was killed on duty during the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai in 2008. Following his death, the investigations into the links between the Hindu far-right and terror acts targeting Muslims did not continue with the same zeal. The Hindu nationalist clout over the security services and the political establishment increased further, and even the NIA started to distance itself from the claims made by the ATS under Karkare.

But the biggest blow to the investigations into Hindutva terror in India came in 2014, when the BJP won a landslide victory in general elections. In October 2015, Rohini Salian, public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon case, claimed that since the Hindu nationalist party came to power, members of the NIA had told her to “go soft” on cases of “saffron terror”. Over the last few years, Salian’s accusations were all but confirmed as one case after another resulted in the acquittal of all suspects with links to Hindu far-right groups. 

In light of all this, the acquittal of the four suspects in the Samjhauta Express blast case only confirmed what many in India already knew: Muslim victims of terror should not expect to find justice in BJP’s India. 

Besides making the Indian government’s anti-Muslim attitudes even more obvious than before, the court’s decision to acquit all accused in the Samjhaute Express blast case also “turned India’s accusing finger towards Pakistan inwards”. 

For more than 10 years, New Delhi has been accusing Islamabad of not doing enough to punish Pakistani citizens alleged to have committed deadly terror attacks against Indians. As journalist Jyoti Malhotra has written in a recent article for the Print, “after the Samjhauta acquittal, it will be difficult for Indians to look Pakistanis in the eye and ask them tough questions about terrorism”.

Just like the Indian victims of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Pakistani victims of the Samjhauta blast want and deserve justice. By acquitting all the accused, and refusing to continue with the investigation into the incident, the Indian government practically said, in front of the entire international community, that it is not interested in finding and punishing terrorists who kill Pakistanis and Indian Muslims.

If it wants to hold its head high in the international arena, and avoid facing the very same accusations it long directed at Pakistan regarding terror, India needs to take swift action and deliver justice to Muslim victims of the Hindu far-right.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.