India is being forced to confront disturbing evidence that increasingly suggests a secret Hindu terror network may have been responsible for a wave of deadly attacks previously blamed on radical Muslims.
Information contained in a confession given in court by a Hindu holy man, suggests that he and several others linked to a right-wing Hindu organisation, planned and carried out attacks on a train travelling to Pakistan, a Sufi shrine and a mosque as well as two assaults on Malegaon, a town in southern India with a large Muslim population.
He claimed the attacks were launched in response to the actions of Muslim militants. "I told everybody that we should answer bombs with bombs," 59-year-old Swami Aseemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, told a magistrate during a closed hearing in Delhi. "I suggested that 80 per cent of the people of Malegaon were Muslims and we should explode the first bomb in Malegaon itself. I also said that during partition, the Nizam of Hyderabad had wanted to go with Pakistan so Hyderabad was also a fair target. Then I said that since Hindus also throng [a Sufi shrine in] Ajmer we should also explode a bomb in Ajmer which would deter the Hindus from going there. I also suggested the Aligarh Muslim University as a target."
Police in India have suspected for some time that Hindus may have been responsible for the attacks carried out between 2006 and 2008, and in November of that year several arrests were made, including that of a serving military officer. But the confession of Swami Aseemanand, obtained by an Indian news magazine, is perhaps the most damning evidence yet that Hindu extremists were responsible. It also suggests those involved were senior members of a religious group that is the parent organisation of India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"The evidence is not conclusive but people have to take notice of this," said Bahukutumbi Raman, a former national security adviser and now a leading regional security analyst. "This could aggravate tensions between India's [Hindu and Muslim] communities. It will create problems."
The revelations in Tehelka magazine, bear added significance following the comments of Rahul Gandhi, widely expected to be a future prime minister, in which he said he believed the growth of Hindu extremists presented a greater threat to India than Muslim militants. According to a cable obtained by WikiLeaks, last year Mr Gandhi told the US ambassador to Delhi, Timothy Roemer: "Although there was evidence of some support for Laskar-e-Taiba among certain elements in India's indigenous Muslim community, the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalised Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community."
At the time, Mr Gandhi's comments were strongly condemned by the BJP. But the main opposition party has been pushed on to the back foot by the testimony of Swami Aseemanand, which suggests many of those involved in the bombing plots were members of religious organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS is considered the BJP's ideological parent. This week, the RSS's leader, Mohan Bhagwat, claimed extremists had been forced out. "Elements nurturing extremist views have been asked to leave the organisation," he said. "A majority of the people whom the government has accused... had left voluntarily and a few were told that this extremism will not work here."
Among the incidents initially blamed on Muslim militants was a bomb attack in February 2007 on the Samjhauta Express, travelling between Delhi and Lahore. Of the 68 deaths, most were Pakistani citizens returning home. The attack took place a day before Pakistan's Foreign Minister was due to arrive in India for peace talks.
Swami Aseemanand was arrested in Haridwar last November, having apparently been in hiding for more than two years. In his 42-page confession to the magistrate, he reportedly claimed he had been spurred into action by a series of Muslim attacks on Hindus, in particular the assault on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat 2002 that left at least 29 people dead. "This caused great concern and anger in me," he said.
The attacks under scrutiny
In February 2007, two firebombs exploded on the train commonly known as the 'Friendship Express' which travels across the Indo-Pakistani border. Most of the 68 victims and 50 injured were of Pakistani origin. Three further unexploded suitcase bombs were later found on the train.
An attack on the Mecca Masjid mosque, which is in Hyderabad's old city, left 14 people dead in May 2007 – with five apparently killed by police firing on a furious mob after the incident. Swami Aseemanand apparently said that the site was chosen because the local administrator wanted to be part of Pakistan during partition.
A famous Muslim shrine in the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan, about 350km south-west of Delhi, was targeted by bomb attacks in October later that year. Two people were killed and 17 injured near the scared shrine, which houses the tomb of a 13th-century Sufi saint. Swami Aseemanand said the blast was intended to deter Hindus from going there.
In September 2008, three bomb blasts killed 37 people in the Muslim-majority city of Malegaon, situated about 160 miles north-east of Maharashtra's state capital, Mumbai. Muslims had been attending prayers when the bombs exploded in a sacred burial ground, also injuring more than 125 people.