The wages of hate

Print edition : July 16, 2004

The June 15 shooting in Ahmedabad that killed four alleged Lashkar operatives shows that the State and its Hindu fundamentalist leaders will continue to be targeted for the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002.

in Ahmedabad

Ishrat Jehan Raza and three others who were shot dead by the Gujarat Police on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on June 15.-AFP

ISHRAT JEHAN RAZA, like many people of her age, occasionally cruised the Internet. If, as the Gujarat Police maintain, the Mumbai college student who was killed in Ahmedabad on June 15 was a Lashkar-e-Toiba operative, she would most certainly have seen a graphic image on the organisation's website: riot survivor Qutubuddin Ansari begging for his life. Underneath the image, the Lashkar's site designer had added a slogan: "Don't you think he should have a gun?"

A fortnight after Ishrat's death in an encounter in Ahmedabad sparked off a nationwide furore, just what happened in the pre-dawn shootout is still not clear. What a Frontline investigation has discovered is that the claims of the police that the four alleged Lashkar terrorists they killed intended to execute an attack on the State's Chief Minister Narendra Modi, may have been overblown. While members of the group did indeed plan a suicide-squad attack on Hindu fundamentalist leaders, the mission was monitored by Indian intelligence at each stage, and infiltrated from its outset. It was an intelligence coup: a fiction conceived by an Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) mole in the Lashkar, and authored by his handlers.

It all began, as all great espionage novels do, with a small clue. Nestled among the belongings of Lashkar commander Ehsan Illahi, who was eliminated along with six other terrorists in a shootout at Arai in the border district of Poonch on February 20, was a blue inland letter. Written by Haji Sadiq Ahmad, a Poonch resident held in the Ahmedabad Central Jail for his role in a related terrorism-crime in 2003, the letter provided I.B. considerable insight into the Lashkar's pan-India apparatus. Sadiq Ahmad asked for Rs.2 lakhs "to get ourselves freed from here". He proceeded to name suspected I.B. sources in Poonch, and asked that the Lashkar help four recruits from Hyderabad hide out in Poonch.

Most important, though, Sadiq Ahmad's letter mentioned the name of a key member of the Lashkar's support network in Gujarat - a local lawyer, whose name Frontline is withholding for his security. The lawyer had been peripherally involved in transporting six men from Ahmedabad to Poonch for training with the Lashkar in 2003. One of the six, Munir Ahmad, died in an encounter, while the other five managed to make their way across the Line of Control. It turned out that the lawyer's elderly mother, during questioning, had passed on information to the Ahmedabad Crime Branch on the group of six. Sadiq Ahmad's letter made clear that the Lashkar knew of this betrayal. Most likely, the Ahmedabad Police told the lawyer that the score would be settled. It took little effort to persuade the lawyer to cooperate.

The lawyer was instructed to tell Javed Sheikh, a Pune resident who was amongst those killed on June 16, that the infrastructure was in place to execute an attack on Modi. By early May, Sheikh had requisitioned two suicide-squad volunteers. The Border Security Force's (BSF) in-house intelligence wing, the General Branch, picked up signs of the movement in mid-May. Signals intelligence staff of the BSF intercepted coded communications asking two Lashkar cadre to report to a handler in Udhampur, near Jammu, and then proceed to their final destinations. New Delhi was referred to as Rajdhani, and the final destination, Ahmedabad, as Manzil. The personnel chosen were Jishan Johar, a resident of Gujaranwala in Pakistan, and Amjadali Rana, who hailed from Sargodha (also in Pakistan) and worked with a Lashkar unit in the Reasi area of Udhampur.

Just like the Lashkar operatives who carried out the earlier attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar (Gujarat), the terrorists probably hoped to reach Ahmedabad just days or hours before the intended assault. In this case, however, there was no target: just a police ambush. Ishrat's family, like most people in Mumbra (in Thane), refuse to believe that the young woman had anything to do with terrorists. Her mother admitted during questioning that Ishrat left home on at least three occasions for job interviews, but could not explain who the potential employers were. Investigators have also found records of dozens of calls she made to Sheikh from a public telephone centre, Tavakkal Communications, and most important of all, a diary with coded entries that match names listed in a register maintained by the Pune man. These code words, investigators believe, were used in communication with the terrorists through the Thuraya satellite phone they carried.

The code names do not leave much doubt about who the members of the Lashkar cell believed were their enemies. Bajrang Dal leader Vinay Katiyar is referred to as `Kutta', or dog; fundamentalist demagogue Pravin Togadia as `Tingu', or dwarf. Narendra Modi is coded `Mubarak' (congratulations) - a reference to what would be passed on to his assassins. Ishrat was not the only young person who the Gujarat pogrom had taught to hate. Apart from six men known to have trained in Poonch, investigation into the assassination of former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya and the Mumbai serial bombings of 2003 led to the arrest of over a dozen people recruited while working in West Asia. Key figures in such recruitment include Abdul Bari, a Hyderabad resident last seen in Saudi Arabia operating under the nom de guerre Abu Hamza. Sheikh, like several of those involved in recent terrorist crime, is believed to have been recruited on the second of two visits to Oman.

Like most things to do with the organisation, the Lashkar's plans for Gujarat are no secret. Ever since the pogrom of 2002, the organisation has been publicly calling on Indian Muslims to join its jehad. In an English language article published that year on the Lashkar website, its political head Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed asked "the Muslims of India that they themselves rise up for their protection". "Only jehad," he continued, "is the defence of the oppressed Muslims. The riots have proved that the Hindus are fully armed but the Muslims are badly ill-equipped to cope with such a situation." Sayeed's article proposes a way forward, arguing "the only way for the Muslims of India is to organise their movements [sic.] for liberation. There is no other way out." "Why to die helplessly?" the Lashkar chief asks.

It would, however, be facile to link recent recruitment only to the Gujarat pogrom. Lashkar recruitment outside Jammu and Kashmir dates back to the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Three individuals at the cutting edge of Lashkar activity in India through the 1990s - Abdul Karim `Tunda', Dr. Jalees Ansari and Azam Ghauri - first joined hands to defend Muslims in Bhiwandi against communal violence.

Ishrat's neighbourhood, the ghetto of Mumbra, has a strong subterranean tradition of support for the Lashkar, which predates Gujarat and is underpinned by the influence of the local Ahl-e-Hadis seminary - the sect from which the terrorist group derives its religious legitimacy. In 2000, four top Lashkar terrorists were arrested in Mumbra. In essence, the climate of fear generated by decades of anti-Muslim violence has enabled right-wing religious organisations such as the Tabligh-i-Jamaat and Ahl-e-Hadis to propagate communitarian separatism. Like the Hindu right-wing, these organisations reject the syncretic traditions and practices that have bound Hindus and Muslims together for centuries.

ALL of this, however, only shows that Ishrat would not have been exceptional if she had chosen to participate in an assassination plot - not that she actually did so. As important, it is far from clear whether the encounter was a genuine response to an imminent attack, or a cold-blooded execution. On the face of it, several parts of the police narrative on the encounter do not make sense. According to the Ahmedabad Crime Branch, the four suspects were interdicted at Himmatnagar, on the bypass that skirts the city. The route is used by most traffic approaching Ahmedabad from Maharashtra. Assistant Commissioner of Police Narendra Amin, who led one of the ambush groups, later told journalists that the shootout lasted some 30 minutes.

Critics note that this account leaves several key questions unanswered. The car used by the four alleged terrorists would have taken at least four and a half hours to reach Ahmedabad from the Gujarat border near Vapi. This leaves open the question of why the police waited to ambush the vehicle until it almost entered the city. Nor did the police find in the car the Rs.5 coupon its occupants would have purchased to use the toll bridge near Sarkhej, just short of the city. None of this, however, is conclusive. The Ahmedabad Crime Branch could have waited to execute the ambush in their own jurisdiction, reluctant to share credit with another police district. The toll coupon, in turn, could have been thrown out of the window after purchase. While Amin's claims of a half-hour encounter seem overblown, since the first bullets directed at the car would have claimed the lives of those inside, those who have faced fire know that the duration of the engagement often appears longer than it actually was.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that the Gujarat Police carry part of the blame for their current crisis of credibility. Thirteen suspects held in an earlier alleged assassination attempt on Modi were discharged after the killing of key suspect Samirkhan Pathan, on whose confession the prosecution had been based. Pathan was, the police claimed, shot while trying to escape, at the very spot he had earlier killed an officer. Apart from the fact that Pathan's death made it impossible to substantiate his confession, the High Court also attacked the prosecution charge-sheet for being in general implausible. The Ahmedabad Crime Branch also faced embarrassment after the Jammu and Kashmir Police blew open their claims that several Muslim residents of Ahmedabad had collaborated in the storming of the Akshardham temple. In both instances, critics charged that criminal investigations had become a generalised anti-Muslim crusade, with the police charging people for no better reason than the merest association with key suspects.

It is also true that since at least 1999, when the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 to Kandahar forced India to release top terrorists Mohammad Masood Azhar, Sayyed Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar, police forces across India have been reluctant to take prisoners. Yet, in the absence of a political decision on not negotiating with hostage-takers, holding high-value terrorists poses problems for those working on the ground. Then, despite years of debate on police modernisation and reform, forces also do not have access to the kinds of technology needed to secure convictions.

On top of it all, India has no witness protection programme. As such, anyone deposing on a terrorist crime does so at considerable risk to his or her life. All of this has manifested itself in a dismal conviction rate in terrorism-related offences: less than 50 people have been convicted for the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. "Policemen are finding that law and order are sometimes in opposition," argues a senior official.

What is known about the Ahmedabad case does not enable an unequivocal finding of fact. Advanced forensics could settle the questions: tests exist, for example, which could establish whether any of the four accused had fired a weapon during the shootout. What the controversy has underlined, however, is the need for a transformation of the criminal justice system: a process that needs both cash and political will. More important, real effort is needed to establish that the state can deliver justice to the victims of the pogrom of 2002, and of earlier violence. Of this keystone for rebuilding faith, there is still no sign.

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