By Kai SchultzMarch 20, 2019
NEW DELHI — An Indian court on Wednesday acquitted four men accused of involvement in a 2007 train bombing that killed 68 people, most of them Pakistanis, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove a conspiracy.
The defendants included an Indian monk charged but acquitted in earlier attacks targeting Muslim gathering spots.
Observers in India immediately framed Wednesday’s verdict in stark terms: as a win for Hindu “saffron” extremists, or a decision that disproved their existence.
“Another clean chit to right-wing terror in India,” Rana Ayyub, a prominent Indian journalist, wrote on Twitter. “Big Blow To ‘Saffron Terror’ Theory,” read the headline for a story by Swarajya, a right-leaning news outlet.
The question of whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party has shielded Hindu extremists is a hot-button issue ahead of national elections this spring.
Some 900 million people are eligible to vote in April and May to fill parliamentary seats and effectively choose the next prime minister. Mr. Modi is campaigning for a second-five year term leading the world’s largest democracy.You have 1 free article remaining.Subscribe to The Times
Following the recent military confrontation between India and Pakistan, set off by a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian troops, Mr. Modi has tapped into an intense nationalist current. But his record has been blemished by a faltering economy and a rise in religious-based hate crimes against minority groups.
Data from FactChecker, an Indian organization that tracks reports of violence, found that as many as 90 percent of such crimes in the past decade occurred after Mr. Modi took office in 2014. Most of the cases targeted Muslims; in some, mobs mutilated and burned victims’ bodies.
The February 2007 blast occurred on the Samjhauta Express, which travels between India and Pakistan. Explosives ripped apart coaches as the train neared its final stop in India before crossing the border.
The investigation lasted for years, initially focusing on Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant group, and then shifting to a Hindu far-right group called Abhinav Bharat.
Investigators charged eight men with murder and criminal conspiracy under an explosives law. Among them was Swami Aseemanand, who worked for years with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the R.S.S., a far-right Hindu nationalist organization.
Mr. Aseemanand had previously been acquitted of two other deadly bombings in the 2000s — at a Sufi shrine in northern India and at a mosque in the city of Hyderabad.
On Wednesday, Jagdeep Singh, the judge for a special court in the state of Haryana, where the 2007 blast occurred, dismissed a Pakistani woman’s plea to consider eyewitnesses’ accounts from her country, according to news reports.
Then the court ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict four of the men: Mr. Aseemanand, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary. Three others were not tried. A fourth was shot dead near his home in 2007.
R.K. Handa, a lawyer for India’s National Investigation Agency, which handles terrorism cases, told reporters that the court had concluded that investigators were “unable to prove” charges of a broader conspiracy.