Naba Kumar Sarkar, Jatin Chatterjee, Omkarnath. What’s in a name?
Swami Aseemanand, acquitted today in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case, is a man of several names but committed to one shade of saffron.
Born Naba Kumar Sarkar in Kamaarpukar village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, Swami Aseemanand, as he came to be popularly known, stepped into the national spotlight in 2010 when he was arrested by the CBI for his alleged role in the blast in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid on May 18, 2007.
Nine people were killed and 58 wounded when a powerful explosion ripped through the mosque complex during Friday prayers.
The 66-year-old saffron-clad self confessed monk was subsequently named as an accused in two other terror incidents the same year — the October 11, 2007 blast in Ajmer’s famed Khwaja Chishti shrine in which three people were killed and the bombing of the Samjhauta Express on the intervening night of February 17-18, 2007, in which 68 people lost their lives.
Today’s acquittal, on grounds of lack of evidence, is his second. In March last year, he was absolved by a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in the Ajmer blast case.
As the bespectacled, grey-haired Aseemanand walked free today, the only cloud in his horizon is the pending Samjhauta trial, which shows little sign of resuming with witnesses from Pakistan refusing to come to India to testify, an official said.
The story of the man who grew out of his humble beginnings began somewhere in the 1970s. He had completed his graduation in science in in 1971, but his interests lay elsewhere as well and he became involved with rightwing groups from school, going on to work full time with the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Purulia and Bankura districts in the state.
It was at the Ashram that Naba Kumar Sarkar was christened Swami Aseemanand in 1981, investigators said.
The fiery speaker soon became known for his anti-minority speeches and his relentless campaign against Christian missionaries, getting invited to speak in various places across the country.
In the late 1990s, he settled down in Gujarat’s Dangs district where he started a tribal welfare organisation called Shabri Dham, a Hindu rightwing organisation.
According to a confessional statement given to a judge in 2010, Aseemanand said he was famous for his anti-minority statements. In 2002, things changed after the killing of 30 devotees at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar by terrorist suicide bombers and he wanted to avenge the deaths, he said.
He spoke of his association with others accused in terror-related cases but retracted the statement later. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) did not press perjury charges against him.
The rightwing preacher, investigating officials said, had also given a graphic account of his involvement in two other cases of terrorism in Maharashtra’s Malegaon town — on September 8, 2006, when 37 people were killed and on September 29, 2008, when six people were killed.
“However, he was not named as an accused because the investigation is still going on,” an official said.
Three years after his alleged involvement in the series of three explosions, the CBI arrested Aseemanand on November 20, 2010 from an ashram in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. He had been staying there for weeks with forged identification papers, using the assumed names of Jatin Chatterjee and Omkarnath.
Sleuths who arrested him found a passport issued by the RPO Kolkata, a ration card and an election card issued by the Haridwar authorities.
He was put behind bars for his alleged role in the three cases. In 2014, he was granted bail in the Samjhauta case but continued to be in Ambala prison. In March 2017, the month he was acquitted in the Ajmer bombing case, he also got bail for the Mecca Masjid case.
He has also spoken of his association with other accused in terror-related cases but retracted the statement later. The NIA did not press perjury charges against him.
Under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a statement is given by the accused before a magistrate and it is valid in the court of law. However, in case the accused retracts from the statement later, the investigating agency is free to press perjury charges against the accused.
In its chargesheet in 2010, the CBI had alleged that the accused, including Aseemanand, were “angered by terrorist attacks committed on Hindus and their temples” and wanted to “avenge” them by attacking Muslim areas and places of worship.
The explosion on the Samjhuta Express, the only rail link between India and Pakistan, was initially blamed on SIMI activists. However, it turned out to be a handiwork of a group having right-wing leanings.
The NIA investigation over a period of almost one year established that the entire conspiracy was hatched between 2005 and 2007 by Aseemanand and his associates, including the late Sunil Joshi and their associates at different places including Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. PTI