What started as minor skirmishes between two groups vying for power seven years ago in a small Madhya Pradesh cantonment town was the beginning of the phenomenon that is now spoken about as Hindu terrorism.
Recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Rajasthan Anti-Terror Squad made a string of arrests from in and around Indore and established that the 2007 bomb blasts in Ajmer and Hyderabad's Mecca Masjid were the handiwork of the same group of people.
At least three of the accused in the bomb blast case were charged with the murder of a tribal leader from the Congress party in 2003.
As like-minded men began coming together and plotting heinous attacks, the Madhya Pradesh establishment turned a blind eye. Investigators now say the perpetrators found haven in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, as they wreaked havoc in other parts of the country.
In 2003, towards the end of Digvijay Singh's tenure as chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress party had strengthened its hold in its traditional areas the party base, the minorities, and the Adivasis.
In Malwa's tribal belt, Pyar Singh Ninama, a local tribal strongman, was the party's face among the Adivasi population. Around that time, accusations began to trickle that Christian missionaries were stepping up efforts to get more Adivasis into their fold. Around that time a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Sunil Joshi, was 'sent' as the Mhow pracharak from Gujarat, where it was said the heat was on him following the 2002 riots.
In Mhow -- an acronym for Military Headquarters of War -- the Sangh Parivar was virtually a family. The most active among them were Lokesh Sharma, his cousin Jitender Sharma -- from the RSS and Bajrang Dal respectively -- and Devendra Pandya, who were working to spread Hinduism in adjoining tribal areas.
On the other hand, Ninama, a converted Christian, was seen as nudging his fellow tribals towards Christianity. The two groups were soon at loggerheads and in one of the ensuing clashes, Pandey's choti (tuft) was allegedly cut off. In apparent revenge, three people including Ninama and his son, were brutally killed.
Cases were filed against Lokesh Sharma, Sunil Joshi, Ramesh Sharma, a businessman from neighbouring Pithampur, and 10 others. While most of them are still in jail and the case is before the court, Lokesh Sharma and Joshi were never caught.
Here is where the seeds of what is now seen as Hindu terror were sown.
Investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Anti-Terror Squads of Rajasthan and Maharashtra have revealed that the lynchpin was Sunil Joshi, who was murdered in December 2007.
That case is still unsolved. While initially, the Students Islamic Movement of India was suspected, later, there were murmurs that his Hindu rivals could have murdered him.
Lokesh Sharma is accused of planting the bomb in Ajmer.
Locals say soon after the Ninama murder case, Joshi's stock rose among hotheaded youngsters.
In the assembly election that followed a couple of months after Ninama's murder, the Congress party was voted out, and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.
Around this time, some local residents claim Joshi and Lokesh Sharma began to be seen in public quite often.
"Digvijay Singh had often spoken about how the violent activities of the Hindu groups was fast turning to 'terrorism'. He said he had evidence that they were gaining bomb-making capabilities. But then he was voted out at a crucial juncture," says Manohar Limbodia, a veteran journalist.
With what was seen as a friendly BJP government, Joshi began to operate quite openly, mobilising support.
"Joshiji was someone who would say one death from our side should be avenged with five from the other side. The youngsters liked him and his approach a lot," a Bajrang Dal activist in Mhow recalls, speaking on condition that he would not be identified for this report.
As it was becoming evident that Joshi was going down an aggressive path, the RSS publicly distanced itself from him.
"Though the RSS distanced itself from the likes of Joshi, we could see that he had the support from within the organisation and also local BJP leaders. Joshi and his group could not have operated without strong support," a businessman, familiar with the Sangh Parivar in Dewas, where Joshi was murdered, says, again speaking on condition that he would not be identified for this report.
Soon after the Ninama murder case, the police defused a bomb at the venue of a Muslim congregation in Ghansipura, Bhopal, which they now allege was planted by the same group behind the terror attacks.
It was an improvised device with explosive material stuffed in metal pipes, connected to a mobile phone. The bomb was set to explode when the mobile rang, but the police defused it in time.
Had that bomb exploded it would have been the first attack of Hindu terror in the country.
How did those who came together in Mhow establish contact with foot soldiers like Ramji Kalasangra (who allegedly made the bombs used in the Ajmer and Mecca Masjid attacks) and Sandeep Dange (who is alleged to have 'facilitated' the others in executing the blasts) on the one hand and alleged masterminds like Colonel Prasad Purohit and sadhvi Pragya Thakur on the other hand?
"The RSS has many organisations," says Deepak Joshi, son of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kailash Joshi and the BJP legislator from Hatpipliya, Dewas. "There are also different kinds of people. First, there are the RSS members. Then there are people who might be involved in the RSS's activities without being members. Then, there are people from sister organisations like the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), Bajrang Dal, etc. Finally, there are people who believe in the ideology but are not associated in any way with any organisation. There are about five or six RSS events in a year where all the four kinds of people come together. Since they are all from the region and had extremist leanings, that is how these people must have met."
Explaining how various people could have gotten to know each other, he says he had met Pragya Thakur about 10 times. "She has sat in the exact place where you are sitting. The connection between her and me is that we are both from the ABVP. She was very aggressive from those days, and I did not make any efforts to know her better," he adds.
But he shies away from dubbing the phenomenon as Hindu terrorism.
"It is not organised to begin with," he says, "And it does not have the sanction or approval of an organisation like the RSS."
He accepts that the likes of Sunil Joshi did have support at the local level.
"When the police said Sunil Joshi was in hiding, I had met him at an event. He told me he was being framed," says the BJP MLA. "In small places, it is not difficult to meet and get to know people. In Madhya Pradesh, a lot of BJP politicians owe their career to the RSS. And some of them may have shared beliefs with people like Sunil Joshi. In the end, such politicians end up using these people for their personal gains."
How did the Malwa region become the hotbed for Hindu terror?
The Malwa region is predominantly tribal. Indore, which is the biggest city in the region, does not have much of an Adivasi presence. But Dhar is 75 percent Adivasi, Jhabua is nearly 100 percent Adivasi. Balwani, Khargon and Khandwa are 50 percent Adivasi.
The Hindus form the second biggest community. They comprise Malis from Rajasthan, Jats, Thakurs, Baniyas and Brahmins.
"More than the composition, the reason the region has been the hotbed of radical Hinduism is because of the leaders," says Limbodia. "Nagpur may be the seat of power for the RSS, but Malwa is the front. RSS stalwarts like Khushabhau Thakre, Pyarelal Khandelwal and Suresh Soni hailed from the Malwa region and shaped the RSS philosophy. That way, this region is the cradle of the RSS."
"It is not just Hindu terror," says Kamil Seher, a hotel owner in Pithampur, an industrial area. "The Pithampur-Dhar region was the base for SIMI. They used to train there. Before that, the Dawood Ibrahim gang used to be active here. Now the Maoists are also entering this region. Why, some time ago, even an LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) soldier was arrested from a Pithampur factory, where he was working as a gunman for the owner."
"If you are working in a factory, and you bring in someone from your village to stay with you, how would we know if he is a criminal or not?" asks Seher.
He alleges that though the likes of SIMI leader Safdar Nagori were arrested, those who were pumping money and were the brains of the outlawed organisation got away.
"If with an organisation like SIMI, money power and clout could work, how will anyone be able to get close to the top of the Hindu terror hierarchy, if it exists?" he asks.
While the official RSS line is that those arrested are not part of the organisation, it is reported to be helping the accused's families and has arranged for lawyers to fight their cases.
"The RSS arranged for lawyers in Ajmer and Hyderabad to take up my brother's case," confirms Jitender Sharma, Lokesh Sharma's cousin. "I am thankful to the organisation. But at the same time I understand why they want to distance themselves in public. There is a Congress government at the Centre, and all the three states where the terror charges have been filed are also ruled by the Congress, which wants to link the RSS with terrorism. For the Congress, the RSS is the biggest enemy, not the BJP. They want to finish off the RSS."
Jitender's version of what happened is different.
"I was with the Bajrang Dal and Lokesh was with the RSS. Under Digvijay Singh, Hinduism was under attack. So we tried to get a case filed against him. But it is not easy to get the police to file a first information report against the state's chief minister. So we indulged in chakka jams (blockades), and jail bharo protests on a small scale. The state police had marked us from that time. There were a lot of small cases (filed) against us. But we are not people who will get into hardcore criminal activities. At the most we would have stoned a few shops during bandhs," he says.
Though he does not criticise the RSS, Jitender does not have the same feelings about the BJP and its local leaders.
"Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is the BJP MLA for Mhow, has done nothing. He used Lokesh during elections and after that has turned a blind eye," he alleges.
Jitender is now fighting a lone battle to save his cousin.
"First he was implicated in the Ninama murder case. He lost five years of his life hiding from the police. Only last year he got married and his son was born this year. But he hasn't been able to see his son. We are poor people and now his family is struggling to make ends meet and also spend on the legal proceedings."
Though others do not buy the witch hunt theory, they agreed that the Congress party being in power at the Centre and the three states involved is the prime reason the case is moving at this pace.
"These people first surfaced in 2003," says journalist Manohar Limbodia. "After a few failed attempts, they executed their first attack in 2007. Wasn't four years enough for the state police to act? In fact, had any party but the BJP been in power in Madhya Pradesh, you might not be talking about a phenomenon called Hindu terror today."
"Even before the Ajmer blasts, they all met in a temple in Bhopal. What did the police do? After the blasts too, the Vasundhara Raje government (in Rajasthan) did not do anything," says Naveen Mali, a businessman and community leader in Mhow. "Only after (Congress Chief Minister) Ashok Gehlot took over did things start moving. True, it smacks of politics, but then something happened and something had to be done."
The Dewas-Indore belt was home for those accused in the terror cases.
"They thought they would be safe as long as they could strike in other states and hide here. They thought they were untouchable. They never expected the police from other states to come looking for them," says Limbodia.
Though Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare blew the lid off the Hindu terror phenomenon when he cracked the Malegaon blast case, it is the Rajasthan ATS, with its sweeps into border towns and midnight arrests, that has struck terror in the hearts of those hiding in the region.
"The Rajasthan ATS comes and picks up people for questioning and drops them back whenever it wants to. The local police is clueless. They come to know only when the Rajasthan ATS informs them as a formality about who they are taking away with them. Sometimes they don't even do that," says Seher about the arrests that the neighbouring state's police have made in Pithampur.
"The Shivraj Singh Chauhan government (in Madhya Pradesh) is not very strong," says Jitender Sharma. "In Gujarat, (Chief Minister) Narendra Modi doesn't allow the ATS to touch anyone. But here, the ATS from other states walk in freely and pick up whoever they want to whenever they want."