The ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has nominated a person accused of terrorism as its candidate in the ongoing parliamentary elections, starting an unprecedented debate in India.

For the first time serving and retired police officers in India are questioning the ruling party’s choice of candidate, while others debate what constitutes an act of gallantry.

At the center of the controversy is Hemant Karkare, a slain officer from the Indian Police Service (IPS) who was killed on the night of November 26, 2008, when 10 terrorists attacked Mumbai.

Karkare was heading the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Mumbai police when the attack started. Gunmen came to the city via the sea and launched coordinated attacks at popular hotels, restaurants, hospitals and railway stations.

Karkare was later awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peace-time gallantry award. BJP supporters now claim his actions did not deserve the award.

On April 17, the BJP chose Pragya Singh Thakur as a candidate in the Bhopal parliamentary constituency in the ongoing general elections. She was allegedly involved in a bomb blast in Malegaon town in Maharashtra in 2008, is out on bail and has yet to be acquitted by the special court hearing the case.

Karkare had arrested Thakur while investigating the case before it was handed over to the federal National Investigation Agency (NIA). The bombing took place on September 29, 2008, and killed nine. Thakur was arrested by the Anti-Terrorism Squad then headed by Karkare, under various anti-terrorism laws.

Soon after her nomination, Thakur told a press conference on April 19 that Karkare was killed because of her “curse” and did not deserve to be recognized as a national hero. She also accused him of torturing her while she was under arrest.

Policemen protest

Her comments saw an unprecedented public response from the Indian Police Service, with the central police association – a body of serving officers – rejecting her claims. 

They stated that “Ashok Chakra awardee late Hemant Karkare” had “made the supreme sacrifice fighting terrorists. Those of us in uniform condemn the insulting statement made by a candidate and demand that sacrifices of all our martyrs be respected.”

They were joined by several former police chiefs, who issued a joint statement condemning Thakur’s statement. Some also wrote opinion pieces protesting against her comments.

Under pressure, Thakur withdrew her comments, but stuck to the allegation that she had been “tortured” by Karkare.

Karkare had been awarded the Ashok Chakra after he was killed by a terrorist identified as Ajmal Kasab. Mumbai police arrested Kasab soon after he killed Karkare.

Kasab came from a village in Pakistan’s Punjab province and had been trained by the Lashkar-e-Toiba group before being sent on a mission to attack Mumbai as a part of a 10-man team. These facts were also established by a parallel FBI investigation as several Americans had been killed in the attack.

Now a fresh debate has erupted between policemen and BJP supporters over whether Karkare deserved his award. Gallantry awards in India have rarely been questioned before.

In Karkare’s case, his award was proposed by Mumbai police and sent to the federal ministry of home affairs. Once approved, it was forwarded to the federal ministry of defense, the custodian of the awards, and approved. At each stage the circumstances of his death were verified before the award was conferred on him posthumously.

“It is a known fact that Karkare was keen to give up the terror case against Thakur because of the intense pressure and political controversy that surrounded it at that time,” a senior serving Mumbai police officer and colleague of Karkare told Asia Times.

“The Congress Party was in power and it was being alleged that Karkare was forced to file this case. But the evidence against Thakur is on record and the courts are yet to acquit her, even though the BJP is in power,” the officer said.

According to the police investigation, Thakur had allegedly orchestrated the bombing to put the blame on Muslims. It was labeled an act of “Hindu terrorism,” sparking a massive controversy in India where nearly 76% of the population are Hindus.

The Supreme Court, the Bombay High Court and the federal Human Rights Commission have all rejected Thakur’s claims of torture at different times after detailed investigations and medical reports.

An act of gallantry

Many have questioned if Karkare’s actions on the night of the attack could be termed an act of gallantry.

Police logs and records from the night of November 26, 2008, are quite clear. Karkare, then the additional director-general of police, rushed to Cama Hospital in south Mumbai once the attacks started.

One of his colleagues, Sadanand Date, then posted as a deputy inspector-general of police in the city, had rushed from his home to the nearest police station and taken charge of a few constables and headed to the hospital armed with a service pistol, a sub-machine gun and a few outdated .303 vintage rifles.

He engaged Kasab and another terrorist at the hospital for more than one hour and sustained multiple injuries. Police logs show he had sent out a constable injured in a grenade attack to get reinforcements.

Karkare and his colleagues were rushing to Date’s rescue when they were ambushed by Kasab and killed before they could get out of the police van they had been traveling in.

“It is quite clear that Karkare knew the dangers he faced. He was not rushing to a beach party. He was rushing to engage terrorists who had launched a kind of a terror attack that the world had never seen,” Prakash Singh, a former director general of police with considerable counter-terrorism experience, told Asia Times.

Singh is a police veteran who fought a 10-year case in the Supreme Court to usher in historic reforms in India’s outdated policing systems. He is also a signatory on a letter written with former police chiefs protesting against Thakur’s nomination in the election.

“Karkare was moving in a situation where a city was almost taken over by terrorists. Leadership is proven on the ground and he was right there,” he said. “He was rushing to engage the terrorist, Kasab, who was a trained commando and excellent in urban and guerrilla warfare.

“Karkare’s intention and act to rush to his colleague’s aid and take on well-armed terrorists is an act of gallantry beyond doubt.”

Another police veteran, V Balachandran, was part of a two-man committee set up by the government to investigate lapses that led to the Mumbai terror attack. He was privy to internal police records, radio transmissions and testimonies about the attack.

“There is not a shred of doubt that Karkare acted with courage that night,” he said. “If (we) are to start raining doubts about gallantry awards, then what is to stop us from questioning even those who were awarded the Victoria Cross by a colonial power to Indians?”

Balachandran, who also served for a long time in India’s external intelligence agency, said the evidence overwhelmingly supported Karkare.

“He took a decision on the spur of the moment when someone of his seniority could have easily sat back in an office and directed operations from the control room. The records are clear that he chose to be on the ground with his men.”

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended his party’s choice of Thakur as their candidate, many police have raised their objections. “Sadly, electoral gains seem more important than facts,” said Balachandran.

See earlier story.