Davinder Singh arrest: The plot thickens

Print edition : February 14, 2020

Suspended Deputy Superintendent of Police Davinder Singh (Centre) with his colleagues as they carry the body of a militant at Drabgam in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir on April 29, 2018.

Davinder Singh (with hood) is escorted after being produced in a special court in Jammu on January 23. Photo: RAKESH BAKSHI/AFP

Inspector General of Jammu and Kashmir Police Vijay Kumar (centre) along with DIG Birdi Kumar (left) and SP, Operations, Tahir Ashraf address a press conference regarding the arrest of Davinder Singh and the militants, in Srinagar on January 12. Photo: PTI

Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir G. C. Murmu inspects a guard of honour at the Secretariat in Jammu on November 4, 2019. Photo: MUKESH GUPTA/REUTERS

The dramatic arrest of Davinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, along with Islamist militants raises new questions about the murky relation between state actors and terrorism.

Critical questions relating to the mystifying interplay that realpolitik and the larger state have with instruments of terrorism and the consequent compromises that counter-terrorism agencies have to make once again came forcefully into public discourse in the first and second weeks of January. Central to this development is the dramatic arrest of Davinder Singh, a Deputy Superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, on January 11 from the Srinagar-Jammu highway while he was allegedly ferrying Naveed Babu and Altaf, two Islamist Jehadi terrorists reportedly belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba groups respectively and an overground operative in his private car, and the course the investigation into this arrest has taken. In the process, some old questions on the larger issues of the “military-militant” complex have been revived and new questions have arisen.

The questions relating to the case are essentially linked to Davinder Singh’s three-decade-long career as a police officer, which is certainly chequered. In strict official terms, he was only a Deputy Superintendent of Police-level officer, tipped to be promoted as Superintendent of Police soon, but the reach and influence that he had within the police and administrative system was apparently much greater than what the formal positions he held entailed. Accounts from diverse sources about his presence at two incidents separated by a timespan of nearly two decades underscore this reach and influence. Davinder Singh is mentioned in relation to the investigation of the 2001 Parliament House attack case as a key security personnel involved in multifarious, and questionable, activities(stories on page 9 and 13). Approximately 20 years later, his presence is officially recorded in the European MPs’ visit to Jammu and Kashmir in November 2019, which was an important international public relations initiative of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government following the flak it received from many parts of the globe for its August 5, 2019 abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Unanswered questions

It is in this context that very few people who have an understanding of how the security brass operates in Kashmir agree that Davinder Singh’s arrest along with two hardened militants and an accomplice is something that has played out in a vacuum. So, the first core question that has come is the timing of the arrest. How and why did it happen, especially at this time? Hypotheses and theories in response to this query range from the semi-official ones made by the police side to the views expressed by political players, both in the government and in the opposition parties. Significantly, the security machinery in Jammu and Kashmir has not officially divulged the details behind the operations that led to the arrest.

However, Frontline’s investigation into the series of incidents leading up to the arrest has yielded information from semi-official sources, including highly placed persons in the establishment. It points to hurried action on the part of the police, which was triggered by an instant lead. Here is a summary of the “information gathered”.

Naveed Babu, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, had been on the surveillance radar ever since he deserted the police force with several weapons. In recent months, a postpaid SIM card was supplied to him through a very circuitous route with an aim to track his movements. But he never used it. Police officials in Shopian were monitoring the mobile phone number constantly. However, on the day of Davinder Singh’s arrest, this number suddenly became active and Naveed Babu made a call, most likely to talk to his brother. It was suspected that he had communicated in a coded language that he was going to travel somewhere. This number was immediately put on constant surveillance and soon the police found out that Naveed Babu was travelling along the highway southwards from Shopian. This indicated that he was perhaps headed out of the Kashmir Valley. He was moving fast.

A police official in Shopian immediately informed his superiors and a plan was quickly hatched to intercept the vehicle as real-time monitoring was going on. Thus, when the Hyundai i20 car in which he was travelling was intercepted near Qazigund, the DIG of South Kashmir, Atul Goel, was personally present there. Davinder Singh stepped out of the car and Goel asked him who was in the car. Davinder Singh quickly responded by saying two Hizbul Mujahideen commanders were inside and that he was going to bring them to Goel. He and three others, including Naveed Babu, one more militant and a lawyer believed to be working for the Hizbul Mujahideen, were immediately nabbed and taken away.

According to this account, Goel perhaps did not know at that time that Davinder Singh was travelling with Naveed Babu, who was being tracked. In turn, this also suggests that the larger police establishment in Kashmir may not have been on board or even aware of Davinder Singh’s latest mission. But there are not many takers for this line among political observers or in the security establishment. The question they raise almost in unison is this: Could the two DIG-level officers who arrested Davinder Singh have done so without the nod from the top brass, given that he, at various points in his decades-long career, had clearly been marked by the system as an “asset” to the State.

Other questions that are vital to piece together the missing links of the larger story are:

In a State where multiple tiers of surveillance are at work, would not the security grid know about the movement and activities of its own man? What explains the doling out of rewards and out-of-turn promotions to Davinder Singh despite his alleged involvement in murky operations? Did the top brass ensure insularity to him all these years? Did it now decide to dispense with him? If so, why?

The author and political commentator Siddiq Wahid said: “This whole incident stinks of a high habit of corruption. I don’t mean just financial corruption but intellectual and political corruption as well. Look at this scenario. A uniformed person, who is decorated despite a lot of black marks against his performance, is suddenly caught in this strange manner and is almost immediately branded as guilty and nobody comes to his rescue from the establishment. It stinks. One has to wonder what is going to come out. While I am not holding my breath, the hope is that at least some bits of truth will come out. In any case, there is little doubt that what is presently discernible to us is just the proverbial tip of an iceberg.”

The second core question arises from widespread perceptions among political and security affairs observers of Jammu and Kashmir. A statement reportedly made by Davinder Singh immediately after his capture and perhaps repeated during interrogation is perceived to be important in this regard. There are two versions of this reported statement, too, but in essence they refer to a “game that has gone wrong”. According to one version, which has been referred to by a number of international media agencies, at the time of his capture, he pleaded with one of the senior officers: “Sir, yeh game hai, aap game kharab mat karo [Sir, this is a game, don’t spoil it]”.

The other version, quoted to Frontline by at least three different sources, is that he rued during his interrogation that “khel kharab ho gaya [the game got spoiled]”. Now, what was the game Davinder Singh was referring to? Did it get spoilt by his own actions or was it the Jammu and Kashmir Police that spoilt it? Again, understanding the nuance in these purported statements in the perennially murky security and political climate of the State is not an easy job.

Interestingly, some sections of the bureaucracy outside Jammu and Kashmir aver that post August 5, 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Police has been literally marginalised under pressure from the Union Home Ministry and its agencies, triggering counteraction by sections of the local police. Davinder Singh was apparently perceived to be very close to various Central agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). “Thwarting one of the operations led by him is tantamount to cocking a snook at a number of Central agencies. This assessment is doing the rounds in some sections,” said a retired senior security official to Frontline. Of course, in the absence of concrete and public information, this too becomes a part of the multidimensional “Kashmir Rashomon” that looms large from time to time in the State.

The current dynamics inside Kashmir’s power corridors are such that the option of acting independently is not available to even senior members of the State’s bureaucracy, leave alone the Jammu and Kashmir Police. An insider in the Governor’s regime recently revealed to Frontline that there was a distinct indication from New Delhi that it expected them to display “slavish submission”.

Shedding light on the developments that preceded the decision to invoke the Public Safety Act (PSA) against former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, this person said: “When the Home Ministry first sent the instruction to book Farooq Abdullah under the PSA, there was a hue and cry from his loyalists within the bureaucracy. ‘This would be crossing the line,’ some protested. But the man in New Delhi bluntly shut them up.”

A senior police officer currently posted in a South Kashmir district gave a similar account of New Delhi’s expectation of “task performance” without any meddling with decision-making. “There’s no scope for debate or disagreement during meetings held at the Raj Bhavan. Whatever decision is taken, one implements it. If one doesn’t, one could be parcelled off to Tihar [jail] without any consideration of one’s rank or seniority,” this officer told Frontline in September 2019 (“Kashmir: Insurgency in the Air”, October 25, 2019).

The cumulative impact of the dramatic circumstances of the arrest, the reportedly strange goings-on during the interrogation, and the overall administrative and governance climate that exists in the State, have aggravated the air of mystery that surrounds the case. The alacrity with which the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has also added to the suspicion.

NIA’s record

It is the NIA’s track record, especially the way it has conducted its investigations and prosecutions during the last five years, that is primarily responsible for this. In 2019, there were several instances where the judiciary came down heavily on the agency’s colossal inadequacies. On March 20, 2019, acquitting Swami Aseemanand and three others in the Samjhauta Express blast case, a special court in Panchkula said that the NIA had failed miserably to establish the guilt of the alleged culprits. The court specifically pointed out the foibles in the agency’s investigative mechanisms. Barely a month later, the Kerala High Court let off five young Muslim men accused by the agency in the Panayikulam sedition case. Here, too, the agency’s competence was questioned. Several other cases in the past five years, including the Malegaon blasts case, have underlined this dubious track record.

Referring to the transfer of Davinder Singh’s case to the NIA, former Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeted that this had been done as the “best way to ‘silence’ Davinder Singh”. Making specific points on current NIA chief Y.C. Modi, Rahul Gandhi stated that he had earlier investigated the Gujarat pogrom and the Haren Pandya assassination case, and just as in those cases this “case (too) is as good as dead.” He and other Congress leaders referred to Davinder Singh’s posting in Pulwama in 2018 and raised questions about his role in it just as in the Parliament House attack case and went on to brand him a terrorist. Rahul Gandhi tweeted that “The best way to silence Terrorist, is to hand the case to the NIA”.

Evidently, even though a debate is raging over the case, there is no factual clarity on the arrest and the investigation. But there is little doubt that the growing public perception is that this so-called “accidental expose” of a rogue cop may have been effected by a carefully devised script either in pursuit of a larger interest or to save bigger players who risked being exposed by Davinder Singh.

A senior journalist in the State, Anuradha Bhasin, pointed out that Davinder Singh’s arrest was not just a shocking revelation about the nexus between terror operatives and security agencies. “It exposes institutional decay in the security apparatus in a region where the government’s obsession with security concerns rides roughshod over democratic norms and people’s civil liberties.”

(With inputs from Parvaiz Bukhari.)

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