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Saffron terror is a neologism used to describe acts of violence motivated by Hindu nationalism, usually perpetrated by members, or alleged members, of Hindu nationalist organisations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or Abhinav Bharat. The term comes from the symbolic use of the saffron colour by many Hindu nationalist organisations.
The first known use of the term "Saffron Terror" is from a 2002 article in Frontline. However, it was in the aftermath of the 29 September 2008 bomb blast in the predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon in Maharashtra that it came to be used widely. In late 2008, Indian police arrested members of a Hindu cell allegedly involved in the Malegaon blasts. Former Home Minister of India P. Chidambaram urged Indians to beware of "Saffron terror" in August 2010 at a meeting of state police chiefs in New Delhi. Since making that remark, a Hindu swami in the Patan district has filed a defamation lawsuit against Chidambaram, saying that the saffron colour is a symbol of Hindu religion and that saints across the country wear attire of the same colour. The swami also said that saffron was a symbol of peace, sacrifice and God, and that Chidambaram has hurt the sentiments of Hindus by linking the symbol with terrorism. On 6 September 2010, a Gujarat court ordered a probe into the use of the term by Chidambaram. Chidambaram was also criticised by members of his own party (the Indian National Congress) for the use of the term, with Congress spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi claiming "terrorism does not have any colour other than black."
The saffron colour appears in the party flags of various national parties of India like the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A saffron-coloured flag is commonly seen in most temples in India. Buddhist monks typically wear saffron robes as a symbol of wisdom. It has been claimed that the term "saffron terrorism" is a misnomer considering the historical descriptions of the saffron colour compared to the definitions of terrorism. Saffron is the colour of the upper band of the Indian national flag. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was India's first Vice-President and second President, described the saffron colour as follows: "Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work."
Criticism of the term
The term "saffron terror" has been called a "myth" by the journalist and BJP leader Balbir Punj, who claims that it is an invention of the Congress party to demonise their political opposition as "terrorists". Similar views have been expressed by other journalists in India. Kanchan Gupta and Swapan Dasgupta have accused investigators of making statements using "saffron terror" to the media to promote the agenda of the Congress. Raman accused the media of measuring Muslim and Hindu suspects by different yardsticks.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) president, Rajnath Singh, spoke of a "political conspiracy" aimed at the "vilification of Hindu saints and army officers in the name of Hindu terrorism". In 2010, the internet whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks released US embassy cables in which the US ambassador to India scornfully dismissed suggestions by an Indian minister that the death of Hemant Karkare, a senior anti-terrorism investigator killed by Islamist militants during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was somehow orchestrated by Hindu extremists. The term "saffron terror" was prominently used by some Congress party members in this campaign, most prominently by Digvijaya Singh. The BJP criticised these statements and filed a complaint with the Election Commission of India, citing it as a violation of the Model Code of Conduct for political parties. The Election Commission issued a show-cause notice to Digvijay Singh on this complaint. The Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has also criticised it, saying that it is a myth and insult to the Hindu religion, which he said is the most tolerant religion.
On 15 April 2015, the Apex Court ruled that there was no evidence to charge Sadhvi Pragya and Shrikant Purohit under the stringent MCOCA, and therefore their bail plea should be examined afresh by the special trial court. A bench headed by Justice F. M. I. Kalifulla said there is no reliable material to prima facie show that the duo along with four other accused was "criminally liable under the provisions of MCOCA".
R.V.S Mani, a former officer in the Home Ministry, published a book Hindu Terror: Insider Account of Ministry of Home Affairs in 2018, alleging that the UPA government had forced Home Ministry officials to "manufacture" a false narrative about the presence of "Hindu terror".
Hindu extremist organisations have allegedly carried out terrorist attacks like 2006 Malegaon blasts, Mecca Masjid bombing (Hyderabad), Samjhauta Express bombings and the Ajmer sharif dargah blast. There are some links and connections with Islamist organisations with these blasts.
Arif Qasmani of Karachi has been specifically named by the notification on 1 July 2009, by the US Department of Treasury as involved in the Mumbai suburban train blasts of July 2006, and in the Samjhauta Express blast of February, 2007.
1999 killing of Graham Staines
The killing of Graham Staines has been cited as example of Saffron terror. Staines, a Christian missionary, and his two sons were burned to death in January 1999. In 2003, a Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was convicted of leading the gang that murdered Graham Staines and his sons, and was sentenced to life in prison.
2002 Gujarat riots
The 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, where the majority of victims were Muslims, are attributed largely to "foot soldiers" of the Hindutva movement. The riots are part of a recent rise of Hindu extremist movements in India that have been linked to Saffron terrorism.
2007 Samjhauta Express bombings
Twin blasts shook two coaches of the Samjhauta Express around midnight on 18 February 2007. Sixty-eight people were killed in the ensuing fire and dozens were injured. It has been allegedly linked to Abhinav Bharat, a Hindu fundamentalist group. In November 2008, it was reported that the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) suspected the attacks were linked to Prasad Shrikant Purohit, an Indian army officer and member of Abhinav Bharat. Purohit himself claimed that he had "infiltrated" the Abhinav Bharat. During an army's Court of Inquiry, 59 witnesses stated to the court, along with Officers who testified, that Purohit was doing his job of gathering intelligence inputs by infiltrating extremist organisations. On 8 January 2011, Swami Aseemanand, a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), confessed that he was involved in the bombing of Samjhauta express, a statement he later claimed to have made under duress. Aseemanand claimed that he was tortured to give a false statement.
There have also been allegations that Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for the bombings. The United States declared Arif Qasmani, a Pakistani national and alleged 'LeT financier', to be the chief coordinator of the 2006 train bombing in Mumbai as well as the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombings, and labelled him an international terrorist via the United Nations.
2007 Ajmer Dargah attack
The Ajmer Dargah blast occurred on 11 October 2007, outside the Dargah (shrine) of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan, allegedly by the Hindutva organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its groups. On 22 October 2010, five accused perpetrators, of which four said to belong to the RSS, were arrested in connection with the blast. Swami Aseemanand, in his confession, implicated the then General Secretary Mohan Bhagwat for ordering the terrorist strike. Bhavesh Patel, another accused in the bombings, has corroborated these statements but later claimed that the Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and some other Congress leaders forced him to implicate the RSS leaders.
2008 Malegaon blasts
On 29 September 2008, three bombs exploded in the States of Gujarat and Maharashtra killing 8 persons and injuring 80. During the investigation in Maharashtra, a Hindu group was alleged to have been involved in the blasts. Three of the arrested persons were identified as Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Shiv Narayan Gopal Singh Kalsanghra and Shyam Bhawarlal Sahu. All three were produced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Nashik, which remanded them to custody till 3 November. On 28 October, the Shiv Sena, came out in support of the accused saying that the arrests were merely political in nature. Lending credence to this, the party chief, Uddhav Thackeray, pointed out a potential conflict of interest in political rivalry as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) controlled the relevant ministry. NIA, National Investigation Agency, has found no evidence against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and it has recommended the court to drop all charges against her. following which Bombay High Court granted bail to Pragya Thakur on 22 April 2017.
The Army officer Prasad Shrikant Purohit was also accused of being involved in the blast. His counsel alleged that he was being falsely framed for political reasons because he has intelligence data of a sensitive nature pertaining to the operations of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which could embarrass some quarters.
2007 Mecca Masjid bombing
The Mecca Masjid bombing occurred on 18 May 2007 inside the Mecca Masjid, a mosque in Hyderabad. Fourteen people were reported dead in the immediate aftermath. The National Investigation Agency, Central Bureau of Investigation and Anti Terrorist Squad (India) questioned former members of the RSS On 19 November 2010, the Central Bureau of Investigation produced Swami Aseemanand before the court in connection with the Blast. But later he has retracted the confession citing the mental and physical pressure to provide that confession. The Special investigation Team (SIT) of Hyderabad Police arrested ‘south India commander’ of the LeT, identified as Shaik Abdul Khaja alias Amjad, from Afzalgunj area of the city. Police said that the arrestee was linked to Mohammed Abdul Shahid Bilal, key suspect in the bombing. In 2013, Yasin Bhatkal confessed that Indian Mujahideen had bombed two other places in Hyderabad later in August 2007 to avenge Mecca Masjid blast which was then allegedly attributed to Hindu fundamental groups.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the National Counter Terrorism Centre the United States, and the United Nations reported that Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami was actually behind the attacks while excluding involvement by any Hindu group. Noting this, security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman has questioned "the two different versions that have emerged from Indian and American investigators." The South Asia Terrorism Portal cited Vikar Ahmed as a main suspect in the blast. Mohammed Abdul Shahid Bilal, former chief of HuJI’s Indian operations, is also regarded as a key suspect in the Mecca Masjid bombing. Later he was shot by unknown gunmen in Karachi on 30 August 2007. .
2018 Court Verdict
The NIA began the probe in April 2011 after the initial investigations by the local police and the chargesheet filed by the CBI. 226 witnesses were examined during the trial and about 411 documents exhibited. The verdict was pronounced by a special NIA court acquitting all the accused due to lack of evidence.
Members of Abhinav Bharat have been alleged to have been involved in a plot to kill Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh President Mohan Bhagwat, allegedly with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Headlines Today released a recorded video tested by the Central Forensic Science Laboratory which indicated the uncovering of an alleged plot to assassinate the Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari. Tehelka also released alleged audio tape transcripts of main conspirators of Abhinav Bharat, which indicated involvement of Military intelligence officers with the Abhinav Bharat group, in their January 2011 edition.
The Indian Home Secretary Raj Kumar Singh said that at least 10 people having close links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated organisations were named accused in various acts of terror across India.
According to released documents by WikiLeaks, Congress(I) party's general secretary Rahul Gandhi remarked to US Ambassador Timothy Roemer, at a luncheon hosted by Prime Minister of India at his residence in July 2009, that the RSS was a "bigger threat" to India than the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. At The Annual Conference of Director Generals of Police held in New Delhi on 16 September 2011, a special director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) reportedly informed the state police chiefs that Hindutva activists have either been suspected or are under investigation in 16 incidents of bomb blasts in the country.
Torture by Maharashtra ATS
After receiving a complaint letter, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has initiated a probe into the allegation that Melagaon blast accused Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur was illegally detained and tortured by the Maharashtra ATS and state police. The statement was recorded at the Ved Khushilal Ayurvedic College where Pragya is undergoing treatment as the lower part of her body is now paralysed, which she claims is an outcome of the police atrocities. A copy of Pragya Thakur's statement is with TOI, in which she argued that the Maharashtra police beat her with leather belts through the nights, starved her for 24 days without even a morsel of food, gave her electric shocks, verbally abused her and made her listen to objectionable pornographic recordings in the company of male undertrials. When an undertrial objected at the Kala Chouki police station on 26 October 2008, he was brutally beaten.
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