Encounter deaths in Gujarat

Getting away with murder

Print edition : November 25, 2016

October 30, 2010: Former Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah waves to his supporters after his release from Ahmedabad Central Jail. He was released after the Gujarat High Court granted him bail in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. Photo: PTI

APRIL 25, 2007: Gujarat Deputy Inspector General of Police (Border Range) D.G. Vanzara comes out of a court in Ahmedabad after the hearing on the 2005 Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. Photo: PTI

Gujarat’s notoriety for encounter deaths is traced to the period following the 2002 pogrom. Between 2002 and 2006, the police-politician nexus and extrajudicial killings assumed blatant proportions in the State.

BETWEEN 2002 and 2006, encounter deaths became disturbingly frequent in Gujarat. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 22 extrajudicial killings in this period. Of these, five cases stood out for their blatancy. The encounter deaths of Samir Khan Pathan, Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati have been widely documented, yet justice has eluded the victims’ families.

Closure in the cases relating to the questionable killings happened only in the one involving police officials and Amit Shah, now Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president. They were convicted, granted bail, acquitted and reinstated, some of them with a promotion. Gujarat stands out for not only the politician-police nexus that exists in the matter of extrajudicial killings but also for the climate of impunity under which encounter killings have thrived, observers point out. Has Gujarat led the way and encouraged other States to believe that a political agenda can be furthered through brazen human rights violation?

Harsh Mander, an activist who filed a petition challenging the discharge of Amit Shah in the 2005 Sohrabuddin encounter case, said: “Once again we are seeing a revival and the same pattern of what was happening during 2004, 2005 and 2006. It’s the same ham-handed, clumsy method used by the authorities.”

A former police officer from the State told Frontline: “It is extremely worrying to see the trend in Gujarat. A police officer who was absconding then and later arrested in the Ishrat Jahan case is today the Director General of Police [DGP] of the State. The belief of assured impunity is disturbing.”

An unprecedented number of 32 police officers, including six Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, were put in jail for cold-blooded killings in Gujarat. Most of these policemen, particularly the former Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, D.G. Vanzara, who allegedly led the encounters, were involved in all the five cases. Not a surprising coincidence, the police officer said. Narendra Modi (who was Chief Minister of the State during this period) and Amit Shah, who were both in charge of the Home Ministry, clearly appear to have given the policemen a free hand.

The State’s notoriety for encounter deaths is traced to the period following the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. The horrific hounding of Muslims have left a deep scar on the State and memories of the carnage are still alive. Modi was convinced that assassins from across the border were sent to kill him. His admirers proclaimed him the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” and believed this threatened other communities. The State created convincing situations in which it managed to kill at least 10 people in encounters. Modi won the election riding on the crest of a Hindutva wave. “He was not about to fall off this one and would use every method possible to stay on the ride,” the police officer said.

“The encounters came to a halt in 2007 soon after the arrest of Vanzara. It is obvious that once the legal machinery began kicking in, the police and the politicians involved realised it was not going to be easy to do this [encounter killings] any more,” said Nirjari Sinha, convener of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, an Ahmedabad-based rights group which took up the Sohrabuddin encounter case. “Although several policemen were arrested, none of the cases went to trial and now they have all walked away scot-free.”

Nirjari Sinha said that in Amit Shah’s case the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) did not challenge in the Supreme Court the High Court ruling. It could have taken the case further but chose not to. “In spite of grave charges of extortion and aiding and abetting murder, and in spite of strong evidence, Amit Shah did not face trial. Similarly, in the case of Vanzara and other police officials, how long can you keep them in jail? Because the trials never began, all these people got out.” Although the Jan Sangharsh Manch continued its campaign against the perpetrators of the killings, after Modi became Prime Minister, acquittals and reinstatements began.

Amit Shah’s case is a prime example of the rot in the system. He was implicated in the Sohrabuddin case primarily because a couple of IPS officers decided they were not going to be puppets in the hands of politicians. Mounting evidence gathered by the CBI probing the case revealed that Amit Shah was in control of the planning. The evidence gathered included call records, which showed Amit Shah was in touch with the accused police officers when the victims were in illegal custody. Additionally, video tapes showed a conversation between Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank officials and two businessmen brothers (Dashrath and Raman Patel) who were facing extortion problems from Sohrabuddin, a small-time smuggler. The bank officials allegedly asked the businessmen not to mention Amit Shah’s connection with the case. Investigations eventually led to the root of the problem, which was that the businessmen were close to Amit Shah and something had to be done about Sohrabuddin.

On November 23, 2005, Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauser Bi were taken off a long-distance bus in the dead of night. The police said Sohrabuddin was a suspected terrorist operative from the Lashkar-e-Taiba on a mission to assassinate Modi. The couple were taken to a farmhouse outside Ahmedabad. Sohrabuddin was killed three days later in a staged encounter on a highway near the city. Kauser Bi was later allegedly raped, killed and cremated at Illol, the native village of Vanzara.

This case came to light in 2007 when a journalist chanced upon the story and exposed the extrajudicial killings. A petition filed by Sohrabuddin’s brother Rababuddin Sheikh in the Supreme Court triggered an investigation which led to Amit Shah’s arrest on charges of kidnap and aiding and abetting murder. Amit Shah was granted bail three months after his arrest. However, while on bail he was exiled from the State and he lived in New Delhi from 2010 to 2012.

Amit Shah maintained that he was a victim of political manoeuvrings. The Supreme Court granted him bail and allowed him to return to Gujarat in 2012. The BJP let him contest the Assembly elections, which he won by a huge margin. From then on his political career has been on the rise. At one time, Amit Shah was a lead contender for chief ministership, but when Modi became Prime Minister, he took Amit Shah with him to New Delhi and to great heights. The blot of the Sohrabuddin encounter was eventually removed as Amit Shah’s case was discharged by the apex court for want of enough evidence to go to trial.

Samir Khan Pathan case

Samir Khan Pathan was gunned down in an “encounter” at Usmanpura in Ahmedabad on October 22, 2002. The police said he was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative sent to kill Modi. A Special Task Force (STF) investigating the case revealed that Pathan was a petty criminal arrested for the murder of a police constable. His killing was planned and executed by top police officials along with other cops.

According to reports, Pathan told his friend Shahista Pathan while they were in the lock-up that the police had picked him up on a pretext but had another plan. He had overheard a conversation in which it was agreed that he would be labelled a terrorist and eliminated. Pathan was killed while in crime branch custody. The STF set up to probe this encounter gave a clean chit to all the policemen involved.

Sadiq Jamal

Sadiq Jamal, 19, was killed near Galaxy Cinema in Naroda in Ahmedabad on January 13, 2003. Jamal was also branded a terrorist belonging to the Dawood Ibrahim mafia. A statement from the Gujarat Police said he was out to kill Modi to avenge the 2002 riots.

The Jan Sangharsh Manch, which filed a case on behalf of Sadiq’s brother Shabbir Jamal, said this case involved the complicity of the encounter specialist from Mumbai, Daya Nayak, and the Gujarat Police. The Manch’s report said: “Sadiq was brought to Ahmedabad on January 3, 2003, and reportedly tortured on the second floor of the office of the City Crime Branch for 10 days. The chamber of Inspector General of Police P.P. Pandey [accused in the Javed-Ishrat case] was just a few feet away. Vanzara also had his office on the same floor. Under their orders, Sadiq was taken out and shot dead by the police.” On December 21, 2012, the CBI filed its charge sheet almost two and a half years after the investigation was ordered by the Gujarat High Court. The agency charge-sheeted eight persons in this case. All the eight are out on bail.

The curious case of Ishrat Jahan

Among all the encounters in Gujarat, the Ishrat Jahan case gained the most attention. In 2004, Ishrat, 19, and her three alleged accomplices, Amjad Ali Rana, Javed Sheikh and Zeeshan Johar, were found dead on a road behind Ahmedabad’s domestic airport. The police maintained that on the basis of intelligence reports, they intercepted a car coming from Maharashtra with four passengers. The police claimed that the four had links with the Lashkar and had come to Gujarat to assassinate Modi in order to avenge the 2002 pogrom, which had claimed the lives of many Muslims. The police even claimed that the four people were carrying arms and ammunition to blow up the rath yatra that was to be held in Gujarat at the time.

While the antecedents of the three men were dubious and perhaps evidence linked them to militant organisations, the presence of Ishrat Jahan in the vehicle was a mystery. A background check on her showed that she came from a poor family residing in Mumbra outside Mumbai. In order to earn some extra money for the family, she took up a job with Javed which entailed travel. Whether she was a cover, a militant or just a woman at the wrong place at the wrong time will perhaps never be known, given the complications that surround the investigation.

The Ishrat Jahan case has taken several twists and turns and even involves top politicians. In the context of encounters, it is perhaps important to emphasis that in spite of the CBI charge sheet and the S.P. Tamang report (2009), which has substantial evidence to indict all the police officers involved in the case, every man listed below is out on bail. Some are even serving office again.

Vanzara, the then Assistant Commissioner of Police G.L. Singhal, Ahmedabad Police Commissioner K.R. Kaushik, Crime Branch head P.P. Pandey and encounter specialist and Deputy Superintendent of Police Tarun Barot were all accused in the case.

Sohrabuddin and Tulsiram Prajapati

The late Mukul Sinha, activist, lawyer and convener of the Jan Sangharsh Manch who represented Sohrabuddin, had said of the case: “Sohrabuddin was no saint. In fact, he had quite a chequered past. Basically, he was a tapori [petty criminal] operating in Rajasthan, particularly among marble traders. Wherever there is illegal activity, there will be extortion gangs and rival gangs that offer protection. In this case, Sohrabuddin was the extortionist…who had begun to establish a powerful gang. The marble lobby, finding him to be dangerous, had probably decided to get rid of him. Apparently, Rajasthan wanted to have nothing to do with it, so the marble traders approached Gujarat, a State well known for encounter killings.”

Sohrabuddin and his wife were both killed in 2005. Tulsiram Prajapati, an acquaintance of Sohrabuddin who was travelling with the couple, was also part of the kidnap. He was killed a month later for he knew too much. When Sohrabuddin’s encounter death came under investigation, a sordid tale of extortion, contract killings, rape, bribery and corruption emerged. Fortunately, the Supreme Court said that Sohrabuddin’s antecedents and character were immaterial to the case and allowed the CBI to probe the plot. IGP (Criminal Investigation Department) Geeta Johri took charge of the investigation. She appointed a team led by Police Inspector V.L. Solanki, who produced three reports, all pointing to the complicity of police officials in the crime. According to informed sources, Geetha Johri had probably stumbled upon the Amit Shah-marble trader-Sohrabuddin link.

According to a statement issued by Solanki at a media conference, Amit Shah summoned Geeta Johri, G.C. Raigar, and Solanki and asked them to change the course of the investigation. Apparently, none of them agreed to do the Minister’s bidding. Geetha Johri was replaced by the then Deputy IGP, State (CID), Rajneesh Rai, who also refused to comply. Rai arrested top police officials involved in the crime on the basis of Geetha Johri’s reports. Slowly, several people were forced to resign or were removed, including Amit Shah. Interestingly, the number of encounters came down soon after the arrests.

Vanzara led the brigade of encounter specialists. He was involved in almost every encounter recorded. An IPS officer, he was heading the Anti-Terrorist Squad in 2002. Vanzara was DIG of Gujarat Police, Border Range, when he was arrested in April 2007 in connection with the Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin cases. Vanzara was sent to the Sabarmati jail but when released on bail in February 2015, he was exiled to Mumbai in connection with the Sohrabuddin case. He has retired from the force. When he was allowed to return to Gujarat, Vanzara received a hero’s welcome. There are rumours that he may even contest elections in the future.

Pandey was the Joint Commissioner of Police when Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed by Ahmedabad Crime Branch sleuths in 2004. Pandey went missing for a short period but resurfaced and was arrested in 2013. He was granted bail and reinstated in February 2015. He was recently appointed in-charge DGP of Gujarat.

Barot holds the record for eliminating 10 people in four encounters. He was arrested by the CBI in September 2012 in the Sadiq Jamal case. Barot is also an accused in the Ishrat Jahan case. He was released on bail in 2015. Although Barot retired from service in 2014, he was brought back in October 2016 into the police as DSP, Headquarters, Western Railway, Vadodara, on a one-year contract.

N.K. Amin was arrested in 2007 in connection with the Sohrabuddin case. After he spent eight years in jail, he was granted bail in the Ishrat Jahan case in 2015. He faces charges for shooting Ishrat and the three men. Amin was reinstated last year and recently his tenure as Superintendent of Police of Mahisagar district was extended by a year.

B.R. Chaube, out on bail in the Sohrabuddin case, has been brought back to Gujarat as DSP, State Reserve Police Force, Viramgam, in Ahmedabad district. He was posted in Mumbai as liaison officer at the Information and Broadcasting Department after being reinstated in 2014.

Rajkumar Pandian was arrested in 2007 in the Sohrabuddin case. He was subsequently placed under suspension. Pandian was reinstated in 2014 to work as a liaison officer at the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation in Mumbai. In a recent reshuffle, Pandian was appointed IGP, Junagadh range.

Abhay Chudasama was arrested in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin case and suspended from the force immediately. He was granted bail in 2014. He was reinstated that year as Superintendent of Police (Vigilance) in Gandhinagar. Chudasama was recently made DIG, Panchmahal.

An activist lawyer said: “The reinstating of these police officers is a gross miscarriage of justice. At one level the police officers need their livelihood. The ones who opposed the politicians have been completely sidelined. We try our best to keep the story alive but it is difficult to beat the powerful force of politics.”