Two years, three acquittals and Aseemanand, the self-confessed monk with many aliases and one saffron identity, is now a free man after a special court in Panchkula on Wednesday let him off in the 2007 Samjhauta train bombing case.
Wearing multiple identities of religious preacher, science student and terror accused, the saffron robed Aseemanand, once known as the most wanted man in India, was the alleged link between the series of three bombings that ripped through India in 2007.
The chain began on the intervening night of February 17-18 when a bomb exploded on the Samjhauta Express, the only train link between India and Pakistan, killing 68 people.
On May 18, a blast in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid killed nine people. And in October the same year, an explosion in Ajmer’s famed Khwaja Chishti shrine claimed three lives. The bespectacled, saffron clad almost cerebral looking 67-year-old, who has been out on bail, has emerged unscathed from all the three terror incidents.
Born Naba Kumar Sarkar in Kamaarpukar village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, he has many aliases — including Jatin Chatterjee and Omkarnath.
The man of several names but committed to one shade of saffron came to be popularly known as Swami Aseemanand after he stepped into the national spotlight in 2010 when he was arrested by the CBI for his alleged role in the Mecca Masjid blast.
Today’s acquittal — along with three others, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary, on grounds of lack of evidence — is his third.
The last two years have been neatly punctuated with one acquittal every 12 months or so. In March 2017, he was absolved in the Ajmer case. In April last year, he was acquitted in the Mecca Masjid case. And a year later, comes the final heralding of freedom with the release in the Samjhauta case.
The story of the man who grew out of his humble beginnings began somewhere in the 1970s.
He had completed his graduation in science in 1971, but his interests lay elsewhere as well and he became involved with rightwing groups from school, going on to work full time with the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Purulia and Bankura districts in the state.
It was at the Ashram that Naba Kumar Sarkar was christened Swami Aseemanand in 1981, investigators said.
The fiery speaker soon became known for his anti-minority speeches and his relentless campaign against Christian missionaries, getting invited to speak in various places across the country.
In the late 1990s, he settled down in Gujarat’s Dangs district where he started a tribal welfare organisation called Shabri Dham, a Hindu rightwing organisation.
According to a confessional statement given to a judge in 2010, Aseemanand said he was famous for his anti-minority statements. In 2002, things changed after the killing of 30 devotees at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar by terrorist suicide bombers and he wanted to avenge the deaths, he said.
Aseemanand spoke of his association with others accused in terror-related cases but retracted the statement later. The NIA did not press perjury charges against him.
The rightwing preacher, investigating officials said, also gave a graphic account of his alleged involvement in two other cases of terrorism in Maharashtra’s Malegaon town — on September 8, 2006, when 37 people were killed and on September 29, 2008, when six people were killed.
Three years after his alleged involvement in the series of three explosions in 2007, the CBI arrested Aseemanand on November 20, 2010 from an ashram in Haridwar, Uttarakhand.
He had been staying there for weeks with forged identification papers, using the assumed names of Jatin Chatterjee and Omkarnath.
Sleuths who arrested him found a passport issued by the RPO Kolkata, a ration card and an election card issued by the Haridwar authorities.
He has also spoken of his association with other accused in terror-related cases but retracted the statement later. The NIA did not press perjury charges against him.
Under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a statement is given by the accused before a magistrate and it is valid in the court of law. However, in case the accused retracts from the statement later, the investigating agency is free to press perjury charges against the accused.
In its chargesheet in 2010, the CBI alleged that the accused, including Aseemanand, were “angered by terrorist attacks committed on Hindus and their temples” and wanted to “avenge” them by attacking Muslim areas and places of worship.