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Hindu terrorism charges force India to reflect on prejudices against Muslims

India had been insisting it would not restart a formal peace process with Pakistan until that country properly investigated and prosecuted state-sponsored militants blamed for the attacks on Mumbai, which left 166 people dead.

Pakistan responded in kind, demanding a fuller and faster investigation into the train attack. India put on a brave face, but the revelations were an embarrassment, one official privately admitted, as Indian media judged that their government had lost some of the moral high ground.

The fallout

In a sense, though, the episode provided the political cover at home for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to agree this month to do what he secretly wanted and restart the peace process with Pakistan, said Commodore Uday Bhaskar of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi think tank.

"Before, terrorism was projected in public opinion in black-and-white terms, that all terrorism was because of Muslims and because of Pakistan," he said. Aseemanand's confession "had an unintended positive kind of fallout and introduced a malleability into the India-Pakistan interaction."

More damaging were Aseemanand's accusations against high-ranking members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a religious group that spreads its Hindu revivalist ideology, known as Hindutva, through a network of schools, charities and clubs.

The RSS, the ideological parent of the country's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, is also engaged in a sometimes violent contest with Christian missionary groups operating in India.

According to Aseemanand, the main organizer of the attacks was an RSS worker called Sunil Joshi, in his mid-30s, from the town of Dewas in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Relatives describe Joshi as a conservative and deeply religious man of very few words, who spent most of his time in an ashram and visited the family only rarely. Nicknamed "monkey" by his older brother for his devotion to Lord Hanuman, Hinduism's mighty ape god, Joshi viewed Muslims as "worthless," his niece said.

Mysteriously, in late December 2007, after most of the bomb attacks had taken place, Joshi was gunned down in the street near his family home. Police think Joshi's gang turned on him, but some investigators and family members believe he was killed because he was about to turn himself in to the police.

RSS national executive member Indresh Kumar, who is suspected of mentoring and financing the bomb-making gang, said in an interview that the accusations against him represented a "deep political conspiracy" by the ruling Congress party to defame him and the RSS.

Certainly, some members of the secular Congress party have enjoyed and exploited the Hindu nationalist opposition's discomfort over the allegations. Rahul Gandhi, a leading member of Parliament and heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, even told the U.S. ambassador in 2009 that radicalized Hindu groups were a bigger threat to India than support for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant group that is accused in the Mumbai attacks, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

Gandhi was widely criticized for that assertion, but the RSS has found itself on the defensive. In a series of conversations with The Washington Post, the group's leaders portrayed the bomb makers as either paid agents of Pakistani military intelligence or simply as a violent splinter group of their peaceful movement.

Ajai Sahni, a terrorism expert who runs the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said the militants were just "the fringe of a fringe" within the Hindu right. But "the sympathies may be deeper within the core of Hindutva," he said.

Muslims still in jail

Meanwhile, nine Muslims have languished in jail for more than four years, accused of carrying out the Malegaon bombings, in which 37 people were killed. They have been subjected, their attorney says, to horrific torture, their families reduced to poverty. But they hope Aseemanand's confession will soon persuade a judge to release them on bail.

But Aseemanand's attorney now says his client's confession was obtained under duress and is not legally valid. In the confession, though, the holy man gave a different reason for wanting to come clean. In jail in Hyderabad, he apparently met a young Muslim named Kalim who was falsely accused of the bombing there and gradually warmed to him.

"I was very moved by Kaleem's good conduct," Aseemanand said. "My conscience asked me to do penance by making a confessional statement, so that the real culprits can be punished and no innocent has to suffer."

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