It's a full 15 years since the Pink City turned red on that horrific night of 13 May 2008. Triggering seven synchronised blasts in a span of fifteen minutes, terrorists struck Jaipur for the first time in a nightmare that killed 71 and injured 200. In the two decades of my career in TV News reporting, I had never witnessed such mayhem, and its tragic aftermath remains indelibly etched in my mind as possibly the worst disaster to strike the tranquil state of Rajasthan.
Visuals of angry, wailing people with bloodshot eyes, blood-stained floors at Jaipur’s SMS hospital, and the heart-rending shrieks of relatives of victims haunted me for months. For countless human beings who suffered through that traumatic night and are still struggling with its after-effects, the Jaipur Bomb Blasts will always be one of the most painful memories of their lives.
A decade-and-a-half later, though justice remains elusive for the victims, that terror strike has suddenly come back to centre stage in election-bound Rajasthan.
Triggering seven synchronised blasts in a span of fifteen minutes, terrorists struck Jaipur for the first time in a nightmare that killed 71 and injured 200 in 2008.
At the end of March, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted all the accused, overturning a 2019 special court verdict that had awarded a death sentence to four men for conspiring and executing the blasts.
The BJP organised protests a day after the verdict, blaming the 'appeasement politics’ of the Gehlot regime as a reason for the prosecution not putting up a strong case.
Pushed on the backfoot by the acquittals, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has stressed that the blasts happened under a BJP government in Rajasthan but the death sentences to the accused were given under the Congress rule in 2019.
With the BJP holding protest Dharnas in every ward in Jaipur on 13 May, it's clear that the ghosts of 2008 will be revived strongly in Rajasthan's electoral arena.
Jaipur Blasts: Over a Decade On
At the end of March, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted all the accused, overturning a 2019 special court verdict that had awarded a death sentence to four men for conspiring and executing the blasts. Flagging an 'institutional failure’ for a ‘botched investigation’, the High Court’s division bench came down heavily on the investigating agencies and asserted that the probe was 'not fair’ as 'nefarious means’ were employed by the agencies. The court even directed the state government to take action against the erring officials.
Quick to seize the issue, the BJP organised protests a day after the verdict. It blamed the 'appeasement politics’ of the Gehlot regime as a reason for the prosecution not putting up a strong case in the High Court and ensuring that the 2019 order of the lower court was set aside. Accusing the Gehlot government of deliberate inaction, the saffron party claims the Congress dispensation had failed to adequately argue the case which led to the overturning of the death sentences of the accused.
A fortnight later, Home Minister Amit Shah too, slammed the Gehlot government over the acquittals and claimed that under the BJP government led by Vasundhara Raje, all the accused "were caught, lodged in jail, and sentenced to death.” Addressing a public rally in Bharatpur district, Shah alleged that to obtain votes, "the Gehlot government did not argue the case properly, thus allowing acquittal of all the accused.” The next day, Vasundhara Raje held a special prayer at a Hanuman temple in Jaipur “to secure justice for blast victims”. In a rather novel bid, Raje not only lit up 80 diyas in memory of the dead but also recited Hanuman Chalisa to get the accused hanged and obtain justice for blast victims and their families.
Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also raked up the Jaipur blast issue in the Karnataka elections. And on the day of polling, Modi launched a sharp attack at a rally in south Rajasthan. PM Modi alleged that acquittals in the Jaipur blast case reflected the Gehlot regime’s 'soft stand against terrorists on account of its appeasement politics.'
Ironically, this shrill and high-profile BJP rhetoric against the Congress ignores the central thrust of the High Court logic behind the acquittals. Either deliberately or inadvertently, BJP leaders are forgetting that the ‘botched up’ police probe that the High Court has slammed happened under the watch of the BJP government which ruled Rajasthan in 2008.
In fact, all the anomalies termed as “shoddy”, “botched”, and “not fair” by the High Court were a part of the police probe that took place when the Home Minister in Rajasthan was an RSS-backed veteran Gulab Chand Kataria, now the Assam Governor! The several lacunae listed in the court verdict against the investigating agencies as well as their “insufficient legal knowledge” refer to the investigation that took place in the Raje era.
BJP’s Polarised Politics Turns Tragedy Into Electoral Strategy
Pushed on the backfoot by the acquittals, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has stressed that the blasts happened under a BJP government in Rajasthan but the death sentences to the accused were given under the Congress rule in 2019. Asserting that the PM should refrain from playing politics on such a sensitive issue, Gehlot said though “the accused were released by the High Court due to technical reasons, we will go in appeal to the Supreme Court.”
While Gehlot has assured that all efforts will be made to ensure justice for victims, his move to sack the Additional Advocate General who pleaded the case in the High Court may have enabled the BJP to shift public attention away from the police probe. By taking no action against the erring police officials who clearly ‘botched up’ the investigation and virtually fixing accountability on the AAG, the Gehlot government has helped the BJP to build a narrative of inefficient legal handling of the blast case. As a result, public discourse and attention have veered round to legal treatment of the case rather than the shoddy police probe that enabled the acquittals.
Given the traction for the 'Bajrang Bali’ campaign in Karnataka, the BJP seems keen to play its polarisation card in the upcoming electoral battles in the Hindi heartland. Inevitably, the acquittals of the accused in the Jaipur Bomb Blast case are likely to figure prominently in BJP’s electoral strategy to polarise voters and push its narrative of Congress 'appeasement politics’. Seasoned observers believe that the BJP may put polarising issues at the centre of its campaign as it does not have an effective counter to Gehlot’s social welfare schemes which may help the Congress to retain power in the desert state.
With the BJP holding protest dharnas in every ward in Jaipur on 13 May, it's clear that the ghosts of 2008 will be revived strongly in Rajasthan's electoral arena. Ideally, this saga should have been beyond electoral posturing. But with India rapidly turning into an 'Elections Only democracy', a vulgar slugfest on a blast that disrupted so many lives in Jaipur seems more than likely.
Even as they fight in the name of justice for victims, the two parties could end up reviving the terrible wounds of the worst sufferers of the serial blasts that charred the glorious history of the Pink City.
(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)