The acquittal of Swami Aseemanand and three others brought to trial for the killing of 68 people on board the Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express near Panipat in February 2007 is bound to be seen as a travesty of justice. Any acquittal in a heinous crime will raise questions about the credibility of the investigation or the effectiveness of the prosecution; but there are some cases in which the outcome may also spark cynical responses ranging from attribution of political motive to suspicion of institutional bias. The train blast case, in which both Indian and Pakistani citizens died, may evoke all such responses. It casts a shadow on India’s ability and resolve to probe and prosecute major acts of terrorism. It is the third case in which Aseemanand has been acquitted. He was earlier cleared of involvement in the Ajmer Dargah blast, which killed three persons in October 2007, and the Mecca Masjid blast that left nine dead in Hyderabad in May 2007. Aseemanand, a.k.a. Naba Kumar Sarkar, was a key figure, according to the prosecution, behind a Hindu right-wing group that wanted to avenge incidents such as the Akshardham temple massacre of 2002. The contours of ‘saffron terror’ were revealed by Aseemanand in 2010 when he gave a lengthy statement before a magistrate, detailing the planning and execution of some key terrorist attacks between 2006 and 2008. This confession failed to convince the trial courts, mainly because of his subsequent retraction. That he was in police custody at the time also cast a doubt whether it was voluntary.
There appears little doubt that the blast was aimed at destroying attempts to build friendly ties between India and Pakistan, and it is possible that extremists of any hue may have been behind it. However, the change of regime at the Centre in 2014 seemed to have weakened the National Investigation Agency’s resolve. Details of the verdict are not yet available, but it is clear that the prosecution case collapsed after key witnesses turned hostile. The trial proceedings opened in February 2014, but by early 2015 witnesses began turning hostile. Among these were one who removed a mobile phone from the body of Sunil Joshi, a prime accused in the case who was murdered in December 2007, and another who bought mobile phones and electric detonators. On the flip side, the fact that some early suspects were Muslims and that the U.S. and the UN had linked Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives such as Arif Qasmani to the blasts could have been important factors. The larger concern for the criminal justice system is whether such acquittals indicate innocence, or the prosecution’s lack of freedom and resolve to obtain a conviction.