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The lid is off

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST


A summons notice that was pasted at the main door of the residence of Amit Shah in Ahmedabad in connection with the Sohrabuddin encounter case, on July 22.-PTI

A summons notice that was pasted at the main door of the residence of Amit Shah in Ahmedabad in connection with the Sohrabuddin encounter case, on July 22.-PTI

The Sohrabuddin case shows that encounter killings can be probed properly if the investigators get a free hand.

IF the investigations into the fake encounter in which Sohrabuddin Sheikh was killed proceed unhindered, the case could well turn out to be a watershed in the history of the country's law and order machinery, especially in relation to the linkages between politics and policing. Already, the investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have yielded many firsts and unearthed many shocking facts.

For the first time, a Minister, and one who handled the portfolio of Home, has been arrested in a case of a faked encounter. Investigations have revealed that the political leaderships in Gujarat and Rajasthan colluded and used police officers to engineer a series of extrajudicial killings including those of Sohrabuddin's wife, Kauser Bi, and associate, Tulsi Prajapati. The administrative machinery, the police force and political organisation were apparently used to portray the killings as a result of anti-terrorist operations. These revelations have also laid bare the consistent anti-minority streak in the political ideology of Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments.

The case is still at the investigative stage, but it has already created an explosive situation as a grisly story of extortion, contract killings, rape, bribery and corruption emerges. The plot may well include some very high-profile names in the political and administrative corridors of Gujarat, Rajasthan and, maybe, in some other States.

At least one very powerful man is already in the net. Amit Shah has been arrested over charges of kidnap and murder, and lawyers and investigators say this is just the beginning. A senior BJP functionary and until recently Chief Minister Narendra Modi's right-hand man, Amit Shah is being held responsible for derailing Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigations into the killings by using his influence as the Minister of State for Home. He reportedly stonewalled all leads that led the police to his door.

He was arrested after the CBI, it is reported, gathered damning evidence of his involvement in the encounter, though police sources say that it will be a hard task to keep him in custody.

As many as 18 policemen, including seven senior officers, were arrested in 2007 in the case. Among the officers were Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police D.G. Vanzara, who is a notorious encounter specialist, M.N. Dinesh, Rajkumar Pandiyan, Abhay Chudasama and N.K. Amin. Amin recently filed an application to turn approver. If the court agrees, his testimony is expected to corroborate many facts that the CBI has uncovered.

If Shah can be arrested, then the CBI clearly means business, and we are certain many more big fish will be caught, said Mukul Sinha, lawyer for Sohrabuddin's brother Rubabuddin Sheikh, whose petition in the Supreme Court set the ball rolling in the case.

Such a turn was not expected at all when Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a petty criminal, died in what was called an encounter on November 26, 2005, in Ahmedabad. The police in Gujarat claimed he was a dreaded terrorist on a mission to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Kauser Bi and Tulsi Prajapati were portrayed as accomplices of the terrorist. Though investigations started soon after on the Supreme Court's directions, the political and policing machinery involved in the killing was able to sell this for several years. In January 2010, the Supreme Court entrusted the case to the CBI. It was only then that the murky details began to surface. The story, as it now emerges, seems to be this. Sohrabuddin, a small-time gangster and extortionist, was harassing marble merchants in Rajasthan and had become inconvenient to some people in the trade who were close to the BJP's political leadership in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The marble traders apparently turned to some Gujarat politicians and policemen to get rid of the nuisance.

The encounter specialists in Gujarat realised, explained Mukul Sinha, that killing Sohrabuddin in an encounter would accomplish several things. To begin with, it would be lucrative because they would be paid handsomely by those who wanted Sohrabuddin eliminated. If they could establish that he was a terrorist plotting to assassinate the Chief Minister, it would also bring them rewards in their jobs.

As for Modi, he would be able to brag about how his life was under constant threat from Islamist elements. Indeed, the anti-minority mindset that is evident in the Sohrabuddin episode is of a piece with the communal animosity that was on display in the 2002 pogrom.

So, an execution was plotted, says the CBI. The CID reports reveal that in the early hours of November 23, 2005, Sohrabuddin, Kauser Bi and Prajapati were travelling in a bus from Hyderabad to Sangli in Maharashtra when some policemen drove up in a car, stopped the bus and pulled the three of them out. Sohrabuddin and his wife were taken to a farmhouse near Ahmedabad. Early on November 26, Sohrabuddin was taken to Ahmedabad and shot dead. His body was found ridden with bullets pumped in by at least four policemen. Witness accounts in the CID report say Vanzara was part of the team that shot him. The dreaded terrorist story was put out the next morning, with the policemen claiming that they had to kill him in self-defence as he had fired at them. The policemen who caught him were lauded for their efforts.

Kauser Bi's body was never found. According to reports, soon after Sohrabuddin was taken away, she was shifted to another farmhouse, raped and eventually killed with a lethal injection. Her body was burnt and the ashes were dumped in a well at Illol village, from where Vanzara, incidentally, also hails. The well was sealed soon after.

Rubabuddin spoiled the party for Vanzara and his colleagues. In January 2006, he wrote to the Supreme Court seeking an investigation. Taking cognisance of his plea, the court instructed the Director General of Police, Gujarat, to make inquiries. The DGP forwarded the court's instruction to the State CID. Geeta Johri, IGP, CID (Crime), took charge of the investigation, which was registered as Enquiry No 66./2006. Geeta Johri constituted a team led by Police Inspector V.L. Solanki to investigate the killings.

Solanki and his team visited Hyderabad, Jharnia (Sohrabuddin's village) in Madhya Pradesh and the site of the kidnap in the process of their investigation and recorded statements from several witnesses.

The team submitted four interim preliminary inquiry reports to Geeta Johri, dated September 1, 2006, December 7, 2006, December 15-16, 2006, and January 1, 2007. The reports gave detailed accounts with the names of the policemen involved, locations, timings and every other detail regarding Sohrabuddin until he was brought to the first farmhouse, owned by Girish Patel. A police source said that at this stage Geeta Johri's version of what happened was fair and accurate. Indeed, the preliminary CID reports finally nailed Vanzara, Dinesh and Pandiyan.

But at this point Amit Shah entered the picture. In his capacity as Minister of State for Home, he is accused of having put pressure on Geeta Johri to derail the investigation. Geeta Johri mentioned this in a letter she wrote to the then DGP P.C. Pandey, which is now in the CBI's possession.

According to Mukul Sinha, Geeta Johri had probably realised what had happened and stumbled upon the Rajasthan link. She was close to uncovering the real story, but a huge hurdle developed in the form of political pressure, he said.

It is believed that Prajapati was killed days before she was due to interrogate him. Prajapati was in police custody after being hauled off the bus with Sohrabuddin and his wife. On December 28, 2006, he was killed by the police in Banaskantha. The police version was that he had escaped from custody and fired at the police when they caught up with him, so he had to be killed. They couldn't risk him being interrogated by her, a police source said.

Between January and May 2007, Amit Shah allegedly tried hard to derail the CID investigation. According to a statement issued by Solanki at a media conference, he summoned Geeta Johri, G.C. Raigar, and Solanki and asked them to change the course of the investigation. Solanki and Raigar repeated this allegation in their testimony to the CBI. Apparently, none of them agreed to do the Minister's bidding. Geeta Johri was eventually replaced by the then Deputy IGP, State (CID), Rajneesh Rai, who also refused to comply. Indeed, Rai arrested the top officers involved in the crime on the basis of Geeta Johri's reports.

As the heat started mounting, Amit Shah replaced Raigar with O.P Mathur as head of the CID. He removed Rai and brought back Geeta Johri in May 2007. This time, she apparently agreed to twist the case to suit her bosses. The second phase of the investigation saw two more reports, which lacked credibility. Geeta Johri appeared to draw up a story showing the policemen killing Sohrabuddin for promotions and rewards. She steered clear of any political link-ups.

Rubabuddin decided to file a writ petition in the Supreme Court in May 2007. Amit Shah was named respondent number two in the petition. In spite of this, the CID did not investigate his role. Eventually, in January 2010, the Supreme Court, confronted with lapses in the investigation, passed a judgment on Rubabuddin's petition, asking the CBI to take over the inquiry. It gave the agency six months to file its report.

After gathering crucial data that included thousands of hours of phone conversations, witness statements and 197 complaints of extortion against the Minister, the CBI zeroed in on Amit Shah and exposed the nexus between Rajasthan's marble traders and Gujarat's police and politicians.

Amit Shah disappeared for a while, but resurfaced when he knew he had been cornered. The CBI arrested him on July 25 on charges of murder, extortion, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy.

A voluminous charge sheet was filed in the Supreme Court on July 31, 2010, against 12 policemen involved in the killing of Sohrabuddin and his wife, under Sections 384 (extortion), 302 (murder) and 201 (causing disappearance of valuable evidence of offence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). According to police sources, Amit Shah was extremely uncooperative during the CBI's interrogation. He denied all charges and claimed innocence. As this article goes to print, a messy legal wrangle has begun between Amit Shah and the CBI. A special court in Gujarat rejected the CBI's demand for 10 days' remand for Amit Shah.

The CBI does not appear worried, however. O.P. Mathur is undergoing interrogation; Geeta Johri is next in line. Both officers are expected to reveal extremely implicating information. Farmhouse owners Girish Patel and Raju Jirawala have also been arrested. Their testimonies are expected to give the CBI even more ammunition. Several other policemen involved in the operation are believed to be ready to talk.

Mukul Sinha says it was not just the CBI's investigations that got Amit Shah into trouble. He apparently fell out with two builders, Dashrath and Raman Patel. The brothers claim that Amit Shah harassed them and tried to extort huge sums. They believe that it was he who, in 2004, sent gunmen to fire at Popular House, a building owned by them. It is believed they ratted on him to the CBI. N.K. Amin also reportedly fell out with him.

Amit Shah was Modi's blue-eyed boy. In 2002, he not only was the youngest Minister inducted into Modi's Cabinet but also was given 10 portfolios to manage. Modi and Amit Shah were considered an inseparable pair who controlled Gujarat with iron hands. Both were Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) members and had worked their way up through the BJP hierarchy.

Amit Shah won Assembly elections thrice in succession from Sarkhej, one of the State's largest constituencies. Many people believe he was being groomed for the Chief Minister's job, in case Modi made it to the Centre.

Meanwhile, Modi and the BJP's national leadership have accused the Central government of misusing the CBI to malign his government.

Another line of argument doing the rounds in BJP circles, although not in official statements, is that the rule of law is a means to an end and all governments are forced to take measures like the fake encounter against Sohrabuddin in special circumstances.

Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily said that there can be no justification in invoking theories that violate the principle of the rule of law in order to legitimise extrajudicial killings.

Social activist Teesta Setalvad pointed out that the police had no right to decide to kill anyone without a trial, even if the person were a criminal. They thought they were invincible and no one could touch them. Clearly, orders came from the top, or they wouldn't have been so blatant in their attack. They must have known they would be protected. It's time for the truth to be revealed and the culprits brought to book, she said.

Modi's detractors say he feels threatened because it is not possible that he did not know the truth about the faked encounter. Father Cedric Prakash of Prashant, a Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, said that it was obvious from his reactions that he was feeling the heat.

The latest developments bring a ray of hope to those who have been fighting for justice against communal crimes in Gujarat. Father Cedric Prakash said: Just because Amit Shah has been arrested/interrogated, it does not mean that the cause of justice has been served. But what it definitely means is that those who are high up there' can no longer take it for granted that they can get away with their immunity' and in that sense, we surely look forward to tomorrow where truth and justice will prevail.

The Sohrabuddin case holds out the promise that encounter killings can be probed properly if the investigating agencies get a free hand and a clear brief.

However, many lawyers and activists, including the Delhi-based advocate Rebecca John, who represents victims' families in many encounter killing cases, point out that unless the Union and State governments commit themselves to zero tolerance of encounter killings, the Sohrabuddin investigation may turn into a one-off event.

What we require is legislation that makes it mandatory to have a simultaneous FIR and a parallel charge sheet against erring police officers in cases where there is an allegation of encounter killing, she said.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 27, 2010.)



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