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How Modi's police cracked the blasts case
Sheela Bhatt in Gujarat
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August 19, 2008

Besides many other things, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi [Images] is certainly a lucky politician. In just 22 days his police claims to have solved the conspiracy behind the serial bomb blasts in Ahmedabad [Images] of July 26 and the mystery behind the bombs that were planted all over Surat but did not explode.

How did the Gujarat police manage what the police in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur [Images] and Bengaluru [Images] could not do in the last two years? reconstructs the investigations that went into unravelling the conspiracy on the basis of information from multiple sources in Ahmedabad and New Delhi [Images].

The early leads

On the evening of July 26, as the news of the bomb blasts trickled in from Isanpur, Narol circle to the Maninagar area of Ahmedabad, the last being Modi's constituency, the police and political establishment were stunned. After the communal riots of 2002 there had been expectations of some kind of violent "reaction", but 22 blasts in 18 spots in a highly communally surcharged city were stunning to say the least. Not only that, it was also loaded with a stern political message for the chief minister who has won the popular mandate twice on the plank of security.

Chief Minister Modi and Amit Shah, his minister of state for home, do not lack the motivation to pick up difficult political or administrative challenges, but the blasts at the civil hospital was too shocking even for the seasoned politicos. Their desperation in facing the situation was obvious. Modi has projected himself as a "different" leader because he provided safety to people in a country wracked by terrorism. But 18 blasts in 80 minutes seriously dented his image, and his only redemption lay in going about the investigation with professionalism.

His police's and his own credibility was so low in matters of criminal investigations after the Sohrabuddin encounter case and the communal riots cases of 2002 that they needed to put in extra effort. Also, whatever the spin-masters claim, it's clear that somewhere the police and the administration failed to prevent the blasts which were committed by "home-grown" elements.

Terror's new faces

There was failure on the part of the police machinery. When the investigations started, the first thing all the IPS officers did was to read Students Islamic Movement of India chief Safdar Nagori's statement given to the Madhya pradesh [Images] police when he was arrested in March, and that of his associate Ameel Pervez. Pervez had attended an arms training camp in Gujarat and he also gave the names of SIMI [Images] members like Sajid Mansuri, Yunus Mansuri, Zahid Sheikh, Imran Sheikh and Usman Agarbattiwala who had attended it. Neither the concerned states nor the IB had acted on it and taken preventive measures.

However, the lessons were late in coming but they were learnt quickly.

It is credit to Modi's determination and the Gujarat police's zeal, aided by the Intelligence Bureau's extraordinary efforts in giving relevant inputs to the state police, that this case could be cracked.

There was an element of urgency in the police investigations since the state government took it as a war that needed to be won. After the blasts, for the first few days the Gujarat government's approach was tinged with nervousness because they wanted to avoid communal tension at any cost.

The political leaders' anxiety only heightened on reading the e-mail sent by the terrorists just moments before the blasts. The e-mail "in the Name of Allah" from Indian Mujahideen had challenged Modi and his police in its opening sentence itself.

It said, 'Indian Mujahideen strike again! - Do whatever you can, within 5 minutes from now, feel the terror of Death!'

The clumsily worded e-mail was so blunt in its political message that Modi had no option but to pick up the gauntlet against terrorism. The e-mail became the motivating force for some senior police officers, too.

While provoking the Muslims of Gujarat it said, 'Target these evil politicians and leaders of BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, who provoke the masses against you. Target and kill the wicked police force who were watching the "fun" of your bloodshed and who handed you to the rioting sinful culprits. Target their hired informers and spies even if they are the disloyal and betraying munafiqeen (hypocrites) of our Ummah. O Muslims of Gujarat!'

By midnight of July 26 the ruling political leadership sprang into action to make senior policemen understand that their investigations will get 100 per cent support, nothing less nothing more. They had at their disposal money, resources, manpower and even a chartered plane.

"As the news of the seventh blasts came in we knew that there more than 25 people were involved. And, we assessed that without the help of local Ahmedabadis the anti-national elements could not have planted bombs in such a perfect operation. We made these two assumptions and they proved right. We started looking within, without wasting any time," said a senior officer who was a member of the core team of investigators. The text of the IM's e-mail was sent to all officers including in Baroda, Bharuch and Surat [Images] where the investigations needed to be done on a war footing.

The e-mail was analysed thoroughly, and its careful reading helped narrow down the focus.

More than 11 teams were formed within the first few hours of the blasts. One team was asked to handle the investigations into the material used in the bombs. Another team was asked to investigate the use of bicycles. Another team was formed to thoroughly check all the phone calls made in Ahmedabad from certain areas just before and after the blasts. Another team was set up to reach out to all the police informers and gather their opinions on and information of the blasts. One team followed the cyber crime aspect of the case. The overall investigation of the case was assigned to the crime branch of Ahmedabad where more than 100 people started following whatever little leads that were available, from the midnight of July 26.

All of them were told that even if "communal riots (the possibility was always there) take place in Ahmedabad they should not divert their attention." 

"From July 26 to August 16 (when the breakthrough was announced) none of us went home to sleep. Every morning at 7 we would all go home and return after a shower and in fresh clothes. We would sleep on our chairs in the daytime. We haven't hit the bed yet," said Deputy Commissioner of Police Abhay Chudasama, who along with his boss Joint Commissioner of Police Ashish Bhatia and Rakesh Asthana, police commissioner of Baroda, played an important role in detecting the conspiracy behind the bomb blasts.

The Gujarat police claims that, probably for the first time, the central Intelligence Bureau and it have worked on the terrorism case as complementary teams and produced some excellent results. Between July 27 and August 16, on many days the political leadership was briefed in the Ahmedabad circuit house at 4 am. That was the kind of frenzy displayed by the Gujarat police and the political leaders to get to the bottom of the terror case.

Chudasama claims that for the first three days they had no clue of the culprits behind the blasts, but more and more assuredly all of them started believing that it seemed to be the work of the banned SIMI.

The Gujarat police's databank of SIMI members in Ahmedabad had some names including that of Zahid Sheikh. They picked him up and started interrogating him extensively.

"He is a fanatic. He is not a Gujarati, he is not an Indian. He claims he is merely a soldier of Islam. These accused don't belong to even their own families," said a source in the police.

"You will have to understand the identity of the perpetrators of the bomb blasts. Their "transnational" identity itself is an anti-national act," says one of the interrogators.

Hectic interrogation was going on at two places, one of them being the crime branch office in Haveli area of Ahmedabad.

Here, Joint Commissioner of Police Ashish Bhatia and his deputy Abhay Chudasama were working relentlessly to narrow down their search. In Baroda, under the supervision of Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana, independent investigations were going on. Asthana is a level-headed officer with 10 years of experience in the Central Bureau of Investigation. He shares the credit for investigating the fodder scam which tainted Lalu Prasad Yadav [Images].

As soon as the news came out that Baroda might have been used as a conduit by the conspirators, Asthana formed a special team of hardly four-five people. In Ahmedabad and Baroda the most important thing was to keep the investigations and its processes a secret. A news-hungry media was all the time "fooled" by leaking irrelevant stories and even sketches of the 'accused' were made only to "feed" the media.

It was of no use to the investigators whatsoever. In reality, they were going down a different path. Once the role of SIMI emerged, Asthana specially asked his department to get on board two Muslim police officers.

Since he is merely two months old in his current post, he got from the databank a file on SIMI activists living in Baroda. The blue file had a professionally prepared dossier on SIMI activists, and the opening page featured Usman Agarbattiwala complete with his photograph.

Asthana went through the accompanying details like Agarbattiwala's telephone numbers, his work, background and the names of all his relatives that were in the dossier.

Immediately, details of Agarbattiwala's telephone calls, both made and received, were procured. It took relentless work through day and night to make the chart of the most frequently made calls from his phone. They were then narrowed down and owners of those numbers were detected and, in turn, the printouts of those phone calls were procured. A professional hard work done with the help of computers in the police headquarters in Kothi area yielded fantastic results.

Asthana's team created a cluster of cell phone movement among select persons. These movements were finally narrowed down to Agarbattiwala, Kayamuddin Kapadia, Imran Sheikh and Iqbal Sheikh. In no time Agarbattiwala, Imran and Iqbal were picked up. Along with others Joint Commissioner of Police Pravin Kumar Sinha and inspector Karimbhai Polra played an important role in Asthana's team.

The first copy of the interrogation report was sent to the Ahmedabad team which was narrowing down on local SIMI activists including Zahid Sheikh. Agarbattiwala's cracking proved very crucial. Bhatia and Chudasama cracked Zahid Sheikh as much as they could. In Baroda, Iqbal was a new entrant to SIMI ranks but some of the detainees were tough nuts to crack who had undergone special training to withstand police methods. On the basis of the early lead provided by the interrogations in Baroda and Ahmedabad, teams of Gujarat police travelled to Kerala [Images], Mumbai, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh [Images], Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka to collect a variety of documentary evidence.

By August 8-9, Modi knew his state police was just days away from success that has eluded the police in other Indian states wracked by terrorism.

To be continued

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