On Monday, the 21st August, the Supreme Court effectively ended one of the most painful and tragic episodes in independent India’s history, when it granted bail to the Military Intelligence officer, Lt. Colonel P.S. Purohit (PSP) who had been in prison, awaiting trial, for nearly nine years. By effectively drawing down the curtain on a heartrendingly sad chapter, the apex court redeemed (at least partially) its honour and esteem in our nation’s collective psyche.
This writer has been following the entire saga after it unfolded nine years ago in September 2008, when a series of deadly bomb explosions killed a number of people in Malegaon, Maharashtra. UPA-1 had already been in power in Raisina Hill for more than four years and the stench of corruption and woeful mismanagement was widespread. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his cabal, under the control of the Congress Party’s power centre in 10 Janpath, had already come under the scanner for a series of appalling economic/financial scandals. Moreover, India had been repeatedly attacked by Islamic terror groups, either home-grown or controlled by Pakistan’s official agencies. The time was ripe for diversionary moves that would take the spotlight away from 10 Janpath and the Party headquarters at 24 Akbar Road. This was the ambience under which the bizarre, treacherous and perverse notion of “saffron terror” was spawned. What followed for nine years was an abysmal chapter in post-independent India’s history that has few parallels.
This essay will attempt to unravel the basic facts of this horrendous conspiracy that not only ruined the lives of many innocent victims, including a professional Army officer who was only carrying out the duties he was tasked with but also compromised national security gravely and almost destroyed the nation’s sword-arm. It also gave Pakistan and the forces of international Islamic terror enormous leverage and ammunition to attack India relentlessly in every conceivable world forum. I will also draw the historical parallels between the Purohit tragedy and another conspiracy that nearly destroyed a great European nation in the early 20th century.
First, let us look at the basic facts and timeline of the Purohit case. The Malegaon bomb blasts took place on the 29th September 2008, resulting in 6 deaths and a number of casualties. The Mumbai Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) took over the case on the 20th October 2008. This was when the seeds of the conspiracy were sown. Under a high-profile officer, Hemant Karkare, the ATS initially investigated Islamist terrorists who were proliferating in various parts of the country under a benevolent UPA-Congress regime. Soon, the ATS veered on to another track altogether and the sordid treachery started.
There are now credible reports that a former chief of SIMI and a known terrorist Safdar Nagori had been admitted in a taped confession that the Samjhauta Express blasts of February 18, 2007, were carried out by operatives trained in Pakistan. The tape had apparently been deliberately kept under wraps for nine years because the erstwhile UPA government did not want it to come out. To make matters worse, a recent sting investigation by a leading TV channel in June 2017 shows how some Pakistanis arrested by Indian agencies were discharged within 14 days, even though they were key suspects in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on India till that time. One must remember that the chief power brokers operating in Mumbai and Delhi during this period were people like Sushil Kumar Shinde, Digvijay Singh, P. Chidambaram, Sharad Pawar et al, who were paragons of virtue under the convoluted ethical norms of the Sonia Gandhi – Manmohan Singh Raj. For Karkare to change tack was understandable. He started on the “Hindu-saffron” terror trail and soon Sadhvi Pragya and Col. Purohit were arrested in November 2008.
This is where the top echelons of the Indian Army disgraced themselves. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) at that time was Deepak Kapoor, a member and beneficiary of the infamous “Line of Succession” doctrine concocted by the UPA-Congress cabal a few years earlier. Therefore, some of the men in olive-green were more than ready to carry out the diktats of the khadi lot, throwing rules, regulations and laws to the wind. Initially, the good Colonel only faced a Court of Inquiry as prescribed under the Army Act 1950 (as amended from time to time) that governs all disciplinary action against Indian Army personnel. Even when the proceedings against PSP were far from reaching the next two stages, namely the summary of evidence and the actual GCM (General Court Martial), he was handed over by the Army to the tender mercies of the ATS gang in Mumbai under Karkare.
In this writer’s considered opinion, this was a gross violation of law and procedure that saw this warrior incarcerated for so many years in civilian jails and subjected to a legal process notorious for slow delivery of justice. Soon, the ATS slapped the stringent provisions of MCOCA against PSP, fellow accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and others. The gory circus of the Congress-UPA government’s delirious and treacherous “saffron terror” conspiracy had started. Soon after the lamentable decision to hand over PSP to civilian custody, I had buttonholed a senior Lt. General at a public meeting and conveyed my opinion to him most forcefully. This person had just hung up his boots and was waiting for a post-retirement appointment in one of the statutory agencies located in Lutyens Delhi that serves as a sinecure for pliant soldiers. I knew that the fellow was mouthing platitudes. The same was true of a number of my other acquaintances in the Armed Forces. I am afraid this was not among the finest moments for many of the Indian Republic’s senior warriors. And sadly, the omerta continues till today.
The Purohit-Sadhvi tragedy preceded the Mumbai attacks by a month. There was an outrageous coincidence here too. The MCOCA charges were levied against PSP and others on the 29th November 2008, when the city was still reeling from the after-effects of the Pakistani terror attack that had started three days earlier on the 26th. There was another irony that played out; Karkare, the man responsible for following the agenda laid down by his political masters, was laid low by adherents of the same Islamic terror from Pakistan that he had sought to whitewash. Even after Kasab had been caught and put up for trial, Digvijay Singh and company still had the gumption to propagate a “saffron angle” to the 26-11 outrage. This was the mother of all conspiracy theories but the Congress-UPA high command still did not summon up the requisite decency and courage to counter the obscenity peddled by the “secularist” gang of Digvijay and his cohorts. The heavens could have wept. This report is one of many that peddled the “saffron terror” fable in the international media.
This is the appropriate stage to spell out the parallels between Indian developments and those that took place in France a hundred and twenty years earlier. I refer to the Dreyfus affair since the two scenarios are eerily similar. In both cases, determined opponents in foreign countries wanted to destabilise the armed forces and to create deep divisions in the social fabrics of the two countries involved – the Indian Republic and the French Republic. Colonel Purohit may not have suffered the same degree of injustice, torture, humiliation and deprivation that Captain Dreyfus did, but this is a bagatelle. A comparison of wrongdoings is a meaningless and futile exercise.
As far as the Indian scenario and the game-plan of Pakistan’s proxies are concerned, it may be useful to look at an analysis that I wrote a few months earlier. This essay also refers to one of my articles published on this portal a few years ago. The Dreyfus case is summarised briefly here. On the 15th October 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was summoned to the French War Ministry. He was asked to write in his own hand a letter dictated by another officer. Unknown to Dreyfus, this was a letter written by a French spy, found in the dustbin of the German military attaché in Paris and the French were looking for the spy.
Dreyfus, while writing, shivered involuntarily and this was interpreted as a sign of guilt. The unfortunate man was immediately arrested on charges of high treason. Two months later, he was court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana in Devil’s Island, their version of our Cellular Jail in the Andamans. The jail where PSP was incarcerated would hardly be better than the one where Dreyfus spent so many years. The primary reason for hounding Dreyfus was that he was a Jew from Alsace, although he had loyally chosen to serve France even after the Germans annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. The French upper classes still retained traces of virulent anti-Semitism that often led them to override their hostility to Germany. The senior officers in the armed forces were especially prone to this disease.
The twists and turns in the Dreyfus case were so complicated that it would be difficult to recount them fully in this essay. In summary, new evidence surfaced in 1896, strongly suggesting that the actual culprit and traitor was another French military officer, Esterhazy. In 1898, he was court-martialled but quickly found not guilty, another travesty of justice. He quickly fled from France.
In response, the legendary French novelist Émile Zola published an open letter titled “J’accuse” (“I accuse”) on the front page of the popular newspaper L’Aurore, which accused the judges of being under the thumb of the military. By the evening, 200,000 copies had been sold. One month later, Zola was sentenced to jail for libel but managed to escape to England.
In 1899, five years after Dreyfus was first imprisoned, his trial was reopened thanks to the efforts of numerous politicians, military figures and intellectuals who had accumulated evidence to refute the false case against Dreyfus. But to everyone’s surprise, instead of releasing Dreyfus, the court found him guilty once more and sentenced him to ten years in prison, though it had the decency to withdraw his life sentence. It was not until the French President granted amnesty to Dreyfus that the tables turned. In 1903 after his rehabilitation, Dreyfus sent a letter to the “Garde des Sceaux” (Lord Chancellor) demanding a revision of his trial. Finally, in 1906, the court recognized Dreyfus’s innocence and annulled the false verdict rendered against him earlier.
As readers will see, the unfortunate experiences of Colonel Purohit and Captain Dreyfus clearly run in parallel, even though they are separated by so many decades. Both were victims of social forces that affected their military services and governed their socio-political milieu. In France, it was the Church and residual anti-Semitism that even condoned anti-national activity. In India, it is the perverse “secularism” and visceral anti-Indic sentiments of the ruling Congress oligarchs.
Dreyfus was fully rehabilitated in his beloved French Army. Colonel Purohit, one fervently hopes, is on his way to getting back his life and career in the Indian Army, an institution that he devoted his life to.
In the incident more than 110 years earlier that I have recounted above, the guilty were never punished. One fervently hopes this will not be the case in Colonel Purohit’s saga. There are a lot of reprobates and vermin out there who have to be punished for their crimes. Somehow our national and societal track-record on this score does not inspire much confidence and optimism in me, though I would love to be proved wrong. Finally, will we witness an Indian version of Emile Zola who will use his / her pen to correct a grievous wrong and to render full justice to an indomitable warrior?
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Jay Bhattacharjee is an advisor in corporate laws and finance, based in Delhi. His other areas of interest include socio-political issues and military history. He has been a commentator and columnist from the mid-1990s