June 30, 2008

Growing signs of ‘Hindu terror’ network

Daily News and Analysis, June 29, 2008

Neeta Kolhatkar

Authorities say the increasing sophistication of bombs and the links of arrested operatives with previous blasts reinforce their suspicions of a new dimension

MUMBAI: Till a few years ago, bomb attacks by radicals attached to various Hindu groups were not taken as seriously as terrorism by the administration. But now the Maharashtra government and state intelligence views such Hindu outfits differently - even though they are reluctant to brand them with ‘Hindu terror’.

Home minister RR Patil has “no comments” when asked about the possible emergence of a Hindu terror network. “The police and government take all terror acts seriously, no matter which religion or organisation takes responsibility,” he says.

But the recent blast at Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane during the staging of the Marathi play Amhi Pachpute, which left seven injured, has brought the Hindu terror angle to the fore. The ATS (anti-terrorism squad) says it will conduct narco-analysis tests on the accused to ascertain if they have been involved in other, previous blasts. “We are assessing the evidence collected, and if we find anything incriminating, we will take adequate action,” says ATS chief Hemant Karkare.

There have been about 195 cases involving Hindu radicals in the recent past. On April 6, 2006, the Nanded blasts accused allegedly told the police about Hindutva groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal trying to develop terror networks in northern Maharashtra, and targetting the Muslims. Operatives like Bhaurao Vithalrao Choudhari, an accused in the Parbhani and Jalna blasts, Himanshu Pense and Rahul Manoharrao Pande, accused in the Nanded case, are clearly not from the minority community.

Police feel these are not young men led astray, the common argument in many cases, but hardcore operatives committed to more and more sophisticated forms of terror. The ATS is also investigating if these groups were involved in some of the incidents
that were attributed to Islamic outfits.

“Bomb-making in these cases appears to have improved over the years. In the first bomb, the filling was from firecrackers. Later it was gelatine sticks, and now they have circuitry and remote-controlled devices,” says an ATS officer, requesting anonymity.

The ATS recently arrested six persons in the Rangayatan theatre case in Thane, including Mangesh Nikam and Ramesh Gadkari, who belong to the Sanathan Sanstha, a revivalist group run by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. The ATS also questioned Dr Hemant Chalke, a sympathiser of the group, about a survey he had conducted at Vashi Bhave auditorium shortly before a bomb went off on the premises, in May. Initially the HJS and the Sanstha condemned the blasts and denied any involvement. But they confirmed that Gadkari and another accused, Santosh Angre, lived at an ashram run by them, while Nikam and Chalke had recently been banned from entering the premises.

“Gadkari and Angre lived here. But since the incident, we have not met either of them. We do not know whether they were really involved and will wait for the investigations to unfold,” Sanathan Ashram spokesperson Abhay Vartak told DNA. “However, we condemn this heinous act. We also clarify that after we learnt of Mangesh Nikam and Hemant Chalke’s arrest, for their alleged involvement in previous incidents, we forbade them from coming to the ashram.”

The ATS confirmed that Gadkari had lived in the ashram since 2003, while the other accused Nikam, had previously been arrested for a blast in Ratnagiri in 2006. “Nikam has also been arrested for the Thane incident,” says additional superintendent of police Suresh Mengde. “The organisation [he allegedly belongs to] has a strong presence here and we are watching their activities.”

The ATS has also found incriminating documents, like an article in the ashram newsletter Sanathan Prabhat urging Hindus to take up arms and become naxalites. The ashram, however, defends itself saying the newsletter was an independent entity. “The editor is an independent person who puts down his own ideas. We want to make our followers aware about things through the newsletter, but we are not telling them to become terrorists.”

RR Patil says investigators are examining every document they can get their hands on, and looking into the possible involvement of any organisation or its office-bearers. “We have gathered evidence but cannot disclose anything at this stage,” he adds. “No one has been given a clean chit yet.”