Abrar Ahmad Ghulam Ahmad, 40, lives in a house with no number or calling bell in the Bage Mahmood locality in Malegaon, Maharashtra. Finding the man or the house is a difficult task. He anyway does not want visitors, and the people of Malegaon are not keen to drop in either.
Abrar, however, was a 'wanted' man six years ago, when a number of bombs ripped the textile town apart on September 8, 2006, killing 31 people. He was the sole approver in the case, which the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) claimed to have solved, busting a major terrorist group on his tip-off. It arrested and charge-sheeted nine Malegaon men. Things, however, took a reverse turn when Hemant Karkare took charge of the ATS and arrested 11 members of the Hindu right-wing group Abhinav Bharat in connection with the case in 2008. The group, allegedly, carried out four more strikes after the 2006 blasts.
Though it looked like a goof-up by the ATS officers who initially investigated the case, in a shocking revelation, Abrar says they knew the real culprits all along, and he implicated innocent men under pressure from them. Had the ATS investigated the case the right way, investigators now believe, it could have avoided the subsequent strikes allegedly carried out by Abhinav Bharat and saved many lives. “I'm guilty of destroying so many innocent lives,” said Abrar. “But I was caught in a deadly web. I had no clue what I was doing.”
A school dropout, Abrar lived an aimless life till 2001. As the Americans invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Muslim-dominant Malegaon witnessed protests and demonstrations. One of them went out of control and 13 people died in a police firing. This prompted the security agencies to weave an informer network in the area. A number of undercover informers were recruited, and Abrar was one of them.
The ATS has consistently denied that Abrar worked for it. New evidence, however, suggests that he was close to some ATS officers. And the National Investigation Agency, which took up the case in 2011, is looking into whether some ATS officers deliberately botched up the investigation.
Abrar says the day after the first Malegaon blasts he told his brother-in-law Farooq Wardha, allegedly a police informer in Bhiwandi in Thane, that he had heard some people talking about blasts and he gave the information to the police. He was whisked away by the ATS to safe houses in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Abrar gives a detailed account of his detention, the places where he was kept and the men who accompanied him (see interview).
More shocking are his claims that he met Lt-Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit, a former Military Intelligence officer, and Pragya Singh Thakur, a sanyasin, who were allegedly associated with Abhinav Bharat and later arrested for the Malegaon blasts. “I met Purohit on October 22, 2006 in Deolali [in Nashik]. He told me that whatever promise the ATS had made to me would be fulfilled,” he said. Abrar claims three ATS cops—Arun, Baru and Sadanand Patil—were with him when he met Purohit.
Court documents reveal that the ATS had kept Abrar's cell phone (number 9823436809) under surveillance. According to a Maharashtra home department document (No.HD/CPM/ATS/576/2006), which THE WEEK accessed, the ATS had obtained permission to put the phone under surveillance. In its chargesheet, the ATS has said that Abrar's cell phone voice recordings established that he was in touch with terrorists and played a part in the bomb blasts conspiracy.
Abrar, however, claims that he was given the cell phone by the ATS to be in touch with senior officers. When the NIA took over the investigation, it found out that the cell phone interception, which could have not only established Abrar's location during the three months but also revealed the identity of the people whom he spoke to, was missing.
The NIA has collected fresh evidence, including a number of photographs, which suggests that Abrar was close to some ATS officers. In one of the pictures, which are in the possession of THE WEEK, ATS officers are seen with Abrar in the Saputara hill station. Another picture shows Abrar with an ATS officer and his son. In another one Abrar's wife, Jannatunissa, is seen with a cop. A Tata Sumo vehicle, which was allegedly hired by the ATS from Nashik for Abrar and his wife, is seen in another photograph.
Also, the reply to an RTI query has revealed that Sadashiv Abhimanyu Patil, a constable at the Nashik unit of the ATS, had been sending money orders to Abrar when he was in Byculla jail in Mumbai. He sent money in August, September and November 2008 from his residential address at the police headquarters in Nashik.
Abrar has named some top Maharastra police officers in the conspiracy—K.P. Raghuvanshi, then ATS chief (now Thane police commissioner), Subodh Jaiswal, then additional commissioner of police (now joint secretary at cabinet secretariat), Rajwardhan, then additional superintendent of police in Malegaon (now additional police commissioner of the economic offences wing in Mumbai).
Raghuvanshi, however, denied the charges. “We arrested him because we had evidence that he was a part of terrorist cell,” he said (see interview on page 48).
The ATS investigation was done under the supervision of then director-general of police P.S. Pasricha. When contacted by THE WEEK, Pasricha said he did not personally investigate the case. “My two officers, Raghuvanshi and Jaiswal, were investigating the case. Both of them are very competent officers. I don't believe that they sabotaged or misled the investigation. There was no pressure on any officer to rush the investigation. They conducted a proper probe and I have no reason to believe that they misled the investigation. Yet, if there is any proof, we all are subjected to stand before the court,” he said.
Rajwardhan said he was not the investigating officer of the case. “I was the [additional] superintendent of police of Malegaon. A few months after the bomb blasts, Abrar confessed his involvement in the conspiracy. His allegations are not new. He has made similar allegations during the trial. As the case is sub judice it would not be proper for me to further comment on it,” he said.
The Malegaon blast was one of the first major cases that the ATS investigated after it was formally formed on July 8, 2004 to counter terrorism and organised crime syndicates. From the very beginning, however, the investigation ran into the sand. Soon after the explosions, the police released sketches of two suspects. The sketches did not match any of the nine men arrested by the ATS. The court records accessed by THE WEEK show that the two main accused—Noorul Huda and Shabbir Masiulla—had been under police surveillance for at least a couple of months when the blasts happened.
Masiulla, in fact, was in jail when the bombs went off. The ATS alleged that he was associated with the terror outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba and had received training in Pakistan, and a sample collected from his workshop showed traces of RDX, an explosive used in the blast. Zahid Majid, another person arrested and was accused in the chargesheet of planting the bombs, was in Fulsawangi, about 500km away from Malegaon, at the time of the blasts.
The ATS never recorded the statements of any of the crucial witnesses, such as friends and neighbours of the accused. Also, it did not bother to investigate the mysterious death of Mohammad Azhar, 32, a powerloom worker who had claimed to have seen one of the bombers. Azhar met some community leaders a day after the bomb blasts and told them that he had seen a bomber. Maulana Abdul Malik Bakra, a village head, told him to come the next day so that his statement could be taped before informing the police. Azhar's body was found in his compound the next day. The police registered it as a case of suicide. “We know the family was reluctant to do the postmortem but the police should have investigated the murder,” said Bakra. “He was an important witness in the case.”
The ATS built its case primarily on the interrogations. But all the accused retracted the statements given in custody. So the ATS invoked the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), under which custody confessions are admissible in court. This effectively shut off further investigation into the case. But only till another round of bombs exploded in Malegaon on September 29, 2008.
A motorcycle found at one of the explosion sites led the investigators to Pragya Thakur, a key member of Abhinav Bharat. Further investigation by the ATS, then led by Karkare, found that Abhinav Bharat was formed to avenge terrorist attacks by Islamist groups on Hindu temples. Evidence of the outfit's involvement in other attacks started surfacing after its ideologue Swami Aseemanand's confession that his men carried out the bomb blasts.
According to an NIA officer, Abhinav Bharat had bigger plans and targets. Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari was one. His security was tightened after the agencies learned about the threat. Another target, allegedly, was Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, who, the outfit thought, was not doing enough for the Hindutva cause. The Maharashtra government has suggested to the Union government to include the name of Abhinav Bharat in the schedule of terrorist organisations under Section 35 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) 1967.
The NIA investigation has revealed that Purohit was never authorised by the Military Intelligence to probe the 2006 Malegaon blast. Then posted in Nashik, he allegedly misled the investigation by filing a report saying that Noorul Huda, who was a member of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India, was involved in the blasts. “Abrar implicated us in the case for some petty money and the ATS never bothered to believe us,” said Huda.
The NIA is facing its own share of difficulties in investigating the case. The evidences and reports have changed many a hand before reaching the agency. In another setback to the NIA, the Supreme Court restrained it from interrogating Pragya Thakur in the murder of Sunil Joshi, a founder member of Abhinav Bharat. Joshi, an important link to Malegaon and other attacks, was shot dead in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, on December 29, 2007.
Pragya challenged the NIA's authority to probe the case on the ground that its FIR had been lodged before the inception of the agency in 2008. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had restrained the NIA from questioning Purohit and Sudhakar Dhar Dwivedi, another accused. To make things worse, the NIA could not file a chargesheet in the given 90 days against another accused, Lokesh Sharma, who was subsequently granted bail. Currently, the agency is on a hunt for two key members of Abhinav Bharat—Sandeep Dange and Ram Chandra Kalsangra.
Abrar's claims raise certain important questions: How much did the investigation agencies know about Abhinav Bharat at the time of the first Malegaon blast? Did some ATS officers deliberately sabotage the investigation, or is Abrar a bluff who misled everyone? All eyes are on the NIA, as the agency is expected to file the probe report in the MCOCA court in December.
If the ATS investigation in the 2006 Malegaon blasts had gone the right way, many other terrorist attacks could have been prevented, as the bombers of Malegaon struck in several other places.
* Samjhauta Express 2007: Bombs went off in two coaches of the cross-border train, killing 68 people. Investigations revealed that Abhinav Bharat activists were responsible for the attack.
* Mecca Masjid 2007: Bomb blasts at the Hyderabad mosque killed 14 people. Swami Aseemanand of Abhinav Bharat, who was arrested later, confessed his and the outfit's role in the strike. In March 2011, however, he retracted the statement.
* Ajmer Sharif 2007: Bomb explosion at the Sufi shrine killed three persons and injured dozens. Aseemanand said Abhinav Bharat's Sunil Joshi conducted the blasts to avenge Islamist terrorists' attacks on Hindu temples.
* Malegaon 2008: A series of bombs struck Malegaon again. Investigation led to the arrest of several members of Abhinav Bharat, including of Pragya Singh Thakur and a serving Military Intelligence officer, Lt-Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit.
* September 8, 2006: A series of bomb blasts rips Malegaon apart, killing 31 people and injuring 300. The Maharashtra ATS starts investigation.
* December 21, 2006: Maharashtra government asks the CBI to take over the probe. The ATS files the chargesheet against nine Malegaon residents the same day.
* September 29, 2008: Another series of bomb blasts rocks Malegaon. Similar blasts happen in Gujarat. The ATS, now headed by Hemant Karkare, blows the lid off a conspiracy. Eleven members of Abhinav Bharat, a Hindu right-wing organisation, including Lt-Col Purohit, a Military Intelligence officer, and Pragya Thakur are arrested.
* November 19, 2010: Swami Aseemanand is arrested and confesses that a team of RSS pracharaks exploded bombs in Malegaon in 2006 and 2008, on the Samjhauta Express in 2007, in Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan 2007 and in Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad in 2007.
* April 2011: Government transfers the case to the NIA. Seven people whom the ATS initially arrested get bail.
* November 2012: Abrar Ahmed, the sole approver in the case, tells THE WEEK that some senior officers of the ATS knew the real culprits and they deliberately misled the investigation.