Indian police have arrested nine people, including an army lieutenant colonel, a Hindu nun and a monk who heads a monastery, in connection with a bomb blast in a Muslim market during the holy month of Ramadan.
The investigation marks the first official confirmation of a Hindu terrorist cell in the nation of more than 1 billion where minority Muslims have been accused of orchestrating dozens of bombings in recent years.
"The Indian army's prestige has been hurt," said Lt. Gen. S.P.S. Dhillon, deputy chief of the Indian army staff.
The motorcycle had sticker with the number 786, which can be interpreted as meaning, "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful," a salutation that begins chapters in the Koran.
The police Anti-Terrorism Squad in the western state of Maharashtra discovered that the bike was owned by Sadhwi Prajna Singh Thakur, a Hindu nun and a former leader of the student wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Over the past month, the squad has arrested 10 Hindu activists, including the 37-year-old nun, and Lt. Col. Shrikant Prasad Purohit, who served in military engineering and intelligence departments.
Others arrested included Dayanand Pandey, the chief monk of a Hindu monastery in northern India. The police squad said Mr. Pandey, a former Indian Air Force officer, was the mastermind of Malegaon blast.
Analysts said the arrests of Hindu activists and leaders for purported involvement in terrorist activities could embarrass the BJP -- the largest national opposition party that has blamed ruling Congress party for being "soft" on terrorism.
But BJP leaders say the nun has been falsely framed in the case in a "political conspiracy" by the Congress, and plan to use the "harassment and torture of the innocent" nun as a campaign issue in the forthcoming national election.
"The Malegaon probe is not procedural, it is political. The government is targeting Hindu religious leaders ... without sufficient evidence. We find these actions suspicious," BJP President Rajnath Singh said. "They have given a communal color to terrorism. They have also targeted the most sacrosanct institution of the country - the army."
Investigators say Col. Purohit stole RDX explosives from military stock and made the bomb that was used in Malegaon in September. They say he also may have supplied explosives for bombings at some other Muslim targets in recent years.
Security experts say the case reveals the infiltration of the upper echelons of the armed services by Hindu extremists.
"The Indian army never had such a case when a man has become [an accused] terrorist. It is a question of the infiltration of radical groups in the Indian army. The groups have been trying it for long," said retired Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim.
"The charges are serious. If they are finally proved, there´s no doubt that army authority will take severe action against the officer."
Anti-Terrorism Squad officers say they have "solid evidences" against all accused, including the nun.
In a Maharashtra earlier this month, the squad presented a tape-recorded, 400-minute conversation in which the nun asked the suspected planter of the Malegaon bomb, Ramji Kalsangre, why the casualty rate in the bombing was disappointingly low. She also reportedly expressed concern that police had traced to her the ownership of the motorbike used in the bombing.
Mr. Kalsangre, who is on the run, purportedly told her that he could not park the motorbike at the targeted place because Malegaon was too crowded ahead of the Eid-ul-Fitr festivities, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Police officials say the terrorist network involving Hindu activists and religious leaders has been in operation across India for at least five years and possibly had bombed some more Muslim targets including the India-Pakistan friendship train, Samjhauta Express, last year and three mosques.
Analysts say that for almost two decades Hindu militant groups such as Bajrang Dal have been involved in militant activities against Muslims and Christians, and in the past few years some splinter Hindu groups have taken to bombing in what many view as "revenge" attacks.
"Hindus are dying [in the hands of Muslim terrorists]. There is a need to fight Muslims head on. We have to prove that we are not [powerless] eunuchs," said Himangshu Phanse, a former self-defense instructor with the Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in 2006 -- months before he died while making a bomb in the Maharastra town of Nanded.
"Counterattacks are the only way to teach [Muslims] a lesson and avenge Muslim terror attacks."
Shabbir Husain, a mosque leader in the predominantly Muslim city of Aligarh in northern India, says he thinks the Hindu terrorist network has been involved in more attacks than targeting the Muslims - including ones targeting Hindus in order to provoke revenge against Muslims.
"Such terror attacks, routinely blamed on Islamic militants, do not help Muslims achieve anything - the whole community faces further isolation in this society. On the other hand, because they are known as Muslim attacks, they help polarize the society on communal lines and finally benefit the Hindu parties politically in this Hindu-majority country." he said.