Thursday, November 6, 2008

Purohit’s improbable path to becoming a terrorist - The Hindu

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Purohit’s improbable path to becoming a terrorist

Praveen Swami
Neighbours wonder why the soft-spoken man would want blood on his hands

He appeared pious but made no secret of his political views

He is believed to have set up Abhinav Bharat soon after he moved to Maharashtra in 2005

NEW DELHI: Lieutenant-Colonel Prasad Shrikant Purohit’s ageing mother isn’t the only one who isn’t willing to believe he could be a terrorist.

Just like the communities of many Islamist terror suspects held this summer, his Pune neighbours are struggling to understand why a soft-spoken middle-class man would want the blood of innocents on his hands. The Maharashtra Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad is working overtime to answer that question. Along with India’s intelligence services, it hopes to establish if Purohit’s case was a one-off or whether, as some fear, it points to a large-scale penetration of India’s armed forces by Hindutva groups. Some answers are beginning to emerge.

Hate school

The son of a bank officer with no particular political leanings, Purohit seems to have first encountered Hindutva politics in his late teens when he attended a special coaching class for short service commission officer-aspirants at the Bhonsala Military School in Pune.

Founded in 1937 by B.S. Moonje, the controversial school drew on fascist pedagogical practices the Hindutva ideologue encountered on a visit to Europe. Moonje, who had earlier served with the British Indian army as a doctor during the visit, met with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and studied fascist institutions.

Purohit’s education at the school helped him secure a commission in the Indian Army. His subsequent career, however, was unexceptional.

In 2002, he participated in 15 Maratha Light Infantry’s counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir, but won no special honours. Later, he was given an administrative job linked to the raising of 41 Rashtriya Rifles, a dedicated counter-terrorism formation that operates out of Kupwara, in northern Kashmir. His tenure in Jammu and Kashmir ended in January, 2005, while serving in the Awantipora-based 31-Counter Intelligence Unit of the Military Intelligence Directorate, an assignment not considered among the most prestigious.

Officers who knew Purohit in Jammu and Kashmir described him as devoted to his wife Aparna, a military homoeopath, and their two children. To his colleagues, he appeared pious and soft spoken but made no secret of his political views. He believed that the Indian state was unable to defend Hindus, one contemporary says, and thought it was incumbent on all of us to do something about it.

Investigators suspect Purohit’s decision to set up Abhinav Bharat germinated soon after he moved to Maharashtra in 2005.

Purohit was assigned charge of an Army Liaison Unit, an MI cell responsible for developing and maintaining links between the army and local communities. The job provided a perfect cover for developing contacts with his old school, and the circle of Pune-region Hindutva activists who were connected to it

School commandant Colonel S.S. Raikar, the investigators say, played a key role in putting Purohit in touch with the activists who went on to form Abhinav Bharat. Colonel Raikar, who retired from the Indian Army as head of a Military Intelligence detachment in Manipur, has denied any criminal wrongdoing. The Bhonsala Military School, too, insists it has no links to political groups.

In the summer of 2006, though, Abhinav Bharat held the first of what was to be a series of meetings in rooms provided by the Bhonsala Military School. From the outset, it made no secret of its objectives. Abhinav Bharat drew its name from a terrorist group set up by Hindutva activists in 1904 to fight colonial Britain. Himani Savarkar, grandniece of the Hindutva movement’s founding patriarch Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and niece of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, was appointed the organisation’s president.

Purohit is alleged to have told Abhinav Bharat supporters that his military background had equipped him, unlike the political leadership of existing Hindutva organisations, to prepare for what he saw as an inevitable Hindu-Muslim civilisational war. He would often invent stories of heroic covert exploits against jihadi terrorists to impress his recruits, member of the investigation team told The Hindu.

Full-time cadre of the organisation were known by the honorific Chanakya, a reference to the scholar-advisor who is reputed to have helped build the foundations for the rule of the emperor Chandragupta Maurya.

In August, 2007, Purohit volunteered for a course in Arabic, a move, the investigators now believe, that was driven less by a desire for learning and more by the prospect of remaining in regular contact with Abhinav Bharat.

When the Indian Mujahideen offensive gathered pace this summer, the investigators say, Abhinav Bharat’s core leadership saw the opportunity to strike. Plans for the Malegaon attack were rapidly put in place, plans that the ATS hopes Purohit’s arrest will help them unravel.

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