Who will speak up for Hemant Karkare?

Asking inconvenient questions is what professional journalists are meant to do, so let me ask it upfront: Was Hemant Karkare, the Maharashtra police officer who was “martyred” during the 26/11 terror attack, a consummate liar and a pawn in the hands of the political establishment?

I ask this because in the light of the bail granted to Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, there is an underlying narrative being pushed that the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) headed by Karkare had “fixed” a “nationalist” hero like Purohit only because the then UPA government wanted to raise the bogey of “saffron” terror.

I also ask this question because I “knew” the soft-spoken Karkare as an “honourable” police officer with whom I had several long off the record conversations. A day before the attack, Karkare had rung up to say he wanted to finally “speak out”. The Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna had run a sustained campaign against the officer, describing him as “anti-Hindu”. He sounded very anxious. I promised to come down to Mumbai and do the interview over the weekend. Only the very next day, Mumbai was bloodied by terror and Karkare made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.

Now, almost a decade later, I am troubled: Could it be that the officer who was cremated with full national honours has suddenly become a “suspect” in the eyes of the investigating agencies? The National Investigation Agency (NIA) chargesheet in the Malegaon case claims that at least two important witnesses were forced to give false incriminating statements against the accused, including Purohit. It is the divergence in the chargesheets filed by the NIA and the Maharashtra ATS that has been cited as an important reason for granting bail to Purohit.

Where once we had a Congress home minister who spoke loosely of “Hindu” terror, now the BJP home minister is the very individual who had openly defended Sadhvi Pragya, the key Malegaon blast accused. When the political superiors of the prosecuting agencies have such widely publicly differing positions on a serious terror charge, can one reasonably expect the investigation to be truly non-partisan and independent?

The truth is, a sharply-polarising political narrative has shadowed almost every major terror investigation in India. Where once we were told that Right-wing groups like Abhinav Bharat had emerged to counter Islamicist terror, now it seems that such terror modules were simply “manufactured” by the UPA government to embarrass the BJP and Sangh parivar. Where once we were provided detailed transcripts of “terror tapes” involving individuals like Purohit and Pragya (the audio conversations run into several hours), now we are being told to completely disregard them as “planted” information. Witnesses suddenly turn hostile even as a public prosecutor resigns saying she was asked to “go slow” by the NIA post 2014. The Gujarat police officers who were arrested as “fake” encounter specialists are now being released and lionised as heroes.

Look at the mess then that a country whose leadership promises “zero tolerance” to terror finds itself in. We now have completely contrarian versions being offered to the Samjhauta Express blasts of 2007: Was it the LeT-ISI-SIMI nexus or were Sangh supporters like Swami Aseemanand involved? Then, be it the 7/11 Mumbai train blasts, Ajmer blasts, or the Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad where the original case was built up against local Muslims only to be later pinned on Right-wing Hindu groups, the country’s track record in successfully prosecuting terror cases is highly dodgy.

Sadly, by projecting terror through a partisan Hindu-Muslim prism, India’s political class has dangerously compromised national security. It is increasingly apparent now: Either the previous Congress-led government was lying or the present government is “protecting” the accused. There is now an equally disturbing “nationalist” narrative that has crept in: Challenging the official version is now an “anti-national” act, making it virtually impossible to separate hard facts from the ceaseless propaganda.

Where does this leave Karkare? Dead men can’t defend themselves so one can only hope that the State comes clean: Either “expose” Karkare’s investigation as a hit-job or stand firmly by him. The political tug of war over national security has left a professional policeman’s honour at stake.

Post-script: Just a few days before Purohit was granted bail, 10 anonymous Muslim men walked free after spending more than a decade in jail after the prosecution failed to prove their involvement in the 2005 Hyderabad suicide bomb case. Only this time, there were no noisy prime time debates, no “nationalist” outrage. The acquitted, quite simply it seems, belonged to the wrong religion.

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