Limitless Joy of Terror

 Jawed Naqvi

ASEEMANAND is Sanskritised Hindi for boundless joy. Hindutva acolyte Swami Aseemanand exuded that feeling nicely in a series of tape-recorded interviews he gave to The Caravan magazine. According to the tapes made public this week he happily confessed to masterminding a string of terror plots, which he said dovetailed with the strategy of his mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to turn India into a theocratic Hindu rashtra.

Born Naba Kumar Sarkar in the Hooghly district of West Bengal in late 1951, Aseemanand, according to the transcripts, has linked himself to an ominous circle of motivated radicals of the Hindutva ideology right to its leadership.

In the course of over two years, Aseemanand granted four exclusive interviews to The Caravan journalist Leena Gita Reghunath inside the Ambala jail where his icon Naturam Godse was hanged for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi. The total duration of the tapes ran into nine hours and 26 minutes. In the last two interviews, Aseemanand repeated that his terrorist acts were sanctioned by the highest levels of the RSS – all the way up to Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, who was the organisation’s general secretary at the time.

Aseemanand told The Caravan what Bhagwat said of the proposed violence: “It is very important that it be done. But you should not link it to the Sangh.” True to form, the RSS has denied involvement in his terror plots. This is of a piece with the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the pogroms against Muslims, Christians and on one occasion Sikhs too, in which the RSS denies a role.

By his own admission, Aseemanand targeted not just Indian Muslims, but more ominously, given that the two nuclear-armed countries have a tempestuous history of knee-jerk face-offs, his victims have included Pakistani citizens going home on the Samjhauta Express on the night of Feb 18, 2007.

“That night, almost three-quarters of its roughly 750 passengers were Pakistanis returning home. A few minutes before midnight – an hour after the train started its journey – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated in two unreserved compartments of the 16-coach train. Barrelling through the night, the train was now on fire,” according to The Caravan’s account of the tragedy.

It describes how the explosions fused shut the compartments’ exits, sealing the passengers inside. Two unexploded IEDs packed into suitcases were later discovered at the scene; the devices contained a mixture of chemicals including PETN, TNT, RDX, petrol, diesel and kerosene. Sixty- eight people died in the attack.

This was the second, and deadliest, of the five attacks in which Aseemanand is implicated. He is now accused number one in the Samjhauta train blasts; accused number three in a bombing at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid that killed 11 people, in May 2007; and accused number six in a blast at the dargah in Ajmer, Rajasthan, that killed three people, in October 2007. He is also named, but not yet charged, in two attacks in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in September 2006 and September 2008, that together took the lives of 37 people, The Caravan claimed.

In a nutshell, according to the intrepid account of Aseemanand’s Taliban-like zeal, the Hindu firebrand stands accused of plotting several terrorist attacks on civilian targets across the country between 2006 and 2008. He is currently under trial on charges including murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy and sedition, in connection with three bombings in which at least 82 people were killed.

He could also be tried for two other blast cases; he has been named in the charge-sheets, but not yet formally accused. Together, the five attacks killed 119 people, and worked as a corrosive on the bonds of Indian society. “If convicted, Aseemanand may face the death penalty,” Reghunath, who is also a trained lawyer, wrote.

In the course of the conversations, she said, Aseemanand became increasingly warm and open. “The story he told of his life was remarkable and haunting. He is fiercely proud of the acts of violence he has committed and the principles by which he has lived.”

For more than four decades, he has loyally promoted Hindu nationalism; during much of that time, he worked under the banner of the RSS tribal affairs wing, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, spreading the Sangh’s version of Hinduism, and its vision for a Hindu rashtra. Through all this, Aseemanand, who is now in his early sixties, has never diluted the intensity of his beliefs.

The interview also implicates Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as an ally in Aseemanand’s self-confessed anti-Christian violence he says he plotted in the tribal Dangs region of Gujarat.

Modi became the chief minister in October 2001. When the anti- Muslim riots began at the end of the following February, Aseemanand orchestrated his own attacks north of the Dangs, in the Panchmahal district. He claimed: “The wiping out of Muslims from this area was also overseen by me.”

The genesis of Modi’s rivalry with BJP leader Lal Kishan Advani took place in their opposite responses to Aseemanad’s anti-Christian campaigns. Advani was home minister at the time, and he tried to rein in the Hindutva hordes. Modi then came to the Dangs to help consolidate Aseemanand’s influence. That rivalry came out in the open when the RSS sided with Modi to evict Advani from the race as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister.

As Aseemanand’s cup of joy overflows with Hindutva pride, his hard work has set the battle lines in the coming elections.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


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