By Swapan Dasgupta
In the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union was still around, there appeared a Red Joke Book in time for the Christmas market. The nice thing about the collection was its indiscriminate irreverence: it mocked both the capitalist West and the socialist East. One Stalin joke is worth repeating.
A delegation from his native Georgia, it seems, left Stalin's office after a long meeting. After they had left, Stalin realised that he couldn't find his favourite pipe. He promptly summoned the notorious Beria to find out if anyone from the delegation had purloined it. However, after some time, while rummaging through his own things, Stalin located the pipe under his table. He promptly telephoned Beria and asked him to release the Georgian visitors. "I am sorry Comrade", replied the KGB boss, "but half the delegation has already admitted taking your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."
At the risk of doing the newly-formed National Investigation Authority a colossal disservice, this Stalin joke came to mind upon reading the official drip-feed accounts of the confessions of Swami Aseemananda, the Bengali sadhu who is making headlines. It is not that there is any reason to disbelieve Aseemananda's statement, made before a Magistrate and therefore admissible in court, and equate it with the confessions Beria secured. My sources suggest that the swami made his statement voluntarily because he was insistent on telling the truth regardless of the consequences. The swami apparently believes that retributive terror is morally justified and may even say so in court.
Aseemananda's apparent determination to emerge as another Nathuram Godse fighting for a misplaced ideal is his own business. Such beliefs (if indeed he holds them) have no place in democratic life and any sympathy for such extremism is unwarranted. However, my concerns are different.
First, the confession is an important input into the investigations of at least four terrorist strikes that occurred between 2006 and 2007. Aseemananda was well connected with the network of extremist Hindus who believed in an eye-for-an-eye approach. It doesn't seem he was involved in the operational aspects of the bombings but he certainly provided intellectual inspiration and may even have given logistical and financial assistance to the field operatives. Every lead he has provided has to be rigorously pursued and examined, not least because catching the real culprits of the bombings is a national obligation for the investigative agencies. Equally, the investigators have to collect corroborative evidence so that the prosecution cases are able to withstand judicial scrutiny.
Given the inordinate importance of Aseemananda's confessional statement, it is bewildering that it has been supplied to the media even before all the leads provided by him have been pursued and suspects either interrogated or arrested. Any criminal lawyer will readily admit that the premature release of the prosecution's evidence can forewarn others who may be involved and enable them to take evasive action. So, why did the government make this statement available to the media last week?
The answer is self-evident: to extract every drop of political mileage from the confession and use it as another prop in the "Hindu terror" charge of the Congress against the BJP. Since Rahul Gandhi has been shown to have said that Hindu extremism is more dangerous than jihadi terror, the Breaking News must be made to demonstrate his prescience. Equally, "Hindu terror" constitutes a parallel narrative to the national preoccupation with Congress corruption.
That the government can risk compromising the larger investigation for two days of headlines is revealing. It is a pointer to the cynical politicisation of criminal investigations in India.
Secondly, there is something extremely curious about the way in which there is a rush to suggest that the Samjhauta Express bombing of February 18, 2007 was the handiwork of a gang headed by a RSS pracharak. With ruling out the possibility entirely, it would seem that Aseemananda's testimony doesn't provide any meaningful leads. It suggests that one Sunil Joshi had boasted to him that his men had carried out the bombings, and that even Aseemananda had discounted the claim.
In an ideal situation, the investigations have to find corroborative evidence to substantiate the point. Were the "Hindu" desperadoes technically equipped to make such sophisticated bombs? Did they have the logistical wherewithal to carry out the operation?
There is a larger international dimension as well. The US investigators have claimed, based on inputs from sources in Pakistan, that it was a Lashkar-e-Tayiba squad under Arif Qasmani that had carried out the blasts. This was an important basis for the UN Security Council decision to brand the LeT a terrorist organisation, a decision that has international ramifications. Does Aseemanda's testimony overturn these conclusions?
The answer is: highly unlikely. The theory that the Sunil Joshi gang carried out such an audacious operation can't yet be substantiated. But at the same time, to say so makes fantastic headlines at a time of political turbulence: BJP linked to terror, Zero losses in 2-G!
Where the country is yearning for a robust and rigorous approach to the war on terror where the culprits must be apprehended regardless of their political and religious cover, the government is seeking to earn political brownie points. Just like Beria did.