Encounters with truth

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Bodies of Ishrat Jahan and the three others killed in what was claimed to be an encounter. Photo: PTI

The police officers charge-sheeted in the Ishrat Jahan case, (clockwise from above, left) Tarun Bhanot, D.G. Vanzara, G.L. Singhal and N.K. Amin. Photo: PTI

The Ishrat Jahan case assumes political overtones with new twists and turns in the case of the controversial “encounter killing” by the Gujarat Police in 2004.

THE Ishrat Jahan controversy is becoming curiouser and curiouser as new angles to the 2004 “encounter” killing by the Gujarat Police begin to surface. It is becoming increasingly evident that the case of the 19-year-old college student, who was shot dead along with three other suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operatives, has more rough edges than it was previously thought to have. Ishrat Jahan and her “accomplices” were intercepted and killed as they were allegedly on a mission to kill the then Gujarat Chief Minister (and now Prime Minister) Narendra Modi. In fact, the actual killing of Ishrat Jahan appears to have become irrelevant now. The issue, which human rights activists say should have been whether the encounter was fake or genuine and whether it was a cold-blooded murder, has assumed political overtones, with bureaucrats complaining of coercion through physical torture. The case also gives the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) a reason to indulge in mud-slinging at the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), which includes discrediting high-ranking officials.

Unfortunately, the truth behind the encounter killing will probably remain elusive, and justice, if due to the victims’ families, will be long in coming. Essentially, the case is critical as it needs to be understood whether the killing was justified or not. If it was justified, then why did the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government do an about-turn on the facts? If it was not, then those guilty of cold-blooded murders must be tried.

The latest development in the case came in early March when former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai made a statement that P. Chidambaram, who was Home Minister then, personally rewrote a second affidavit in the case, which was filed by the UPA government in the Gujarat High Court in August 2009. He said Chidambaram did so without consulting bureaucrats. Pillai said that the first affidavit (filed by the Home Ministry in July) had stated that intelligence reports proved conclusively that Ishrat Jahan, Javed Sheikh, Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana were LeT operatives. In the second affidavit, Chidambaram omitted the reference to Ishrat Jahan. While Chidambaram has taken responsibility for the change in the affidavit, he has expressed disappointment that Pillai sought to distance himself from the case by stating that he did not draft the second affidavit.

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a writ petition to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Chidambaram on the basis of a public interest litigation petition.

The Ishrat Jahan case was back in the limelight when David Headley, the LeT operative who played a big role in the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks, revealed during his video deposition to the Indian authorities in February 2016 that Ishrat Jahan belonged to the LeT’s women’s wing and was its operative. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in Gujarat, felt vindicated as it had maintained that the four people killed in the encounter were terrorists sent to kill Modi. Pillai’s statement has opened a can of worms. Why did the Home Minister change the affidavit when I.B. reports had categorically identified the four as LeT members? “Can you not smell a political rat?” asked a lawyer in Ahmedabad. “The UPA was in power, general elections were scheduled and as a supposed friend of Muslims how could the Congress brand one a terrorist?” A bigger issue is that if they were indeed LeT operatives, then the Congress clearly compromised national security to further its agenda, he said.

Interestingly, in 2013 when the CBI filed a charge sheet, Pillai went on record saying that he would give Ishrat Jahan the “benefit of the doubt” as there was no “conclusive evidence against her”. When questioned by the media, Pillai said he made the statement in a particular context. “I say even now that evidence is not conclusive about Ishrat Jahan’s LeT membership. But her conduct of travelling with Javed and checking into a hotel as Mr and Mrs [Javed Shaikh] raises questions that something is amiss.” He added: “I would say that she knew something was wrong, and an unmarried Muslim girl would not go with a married person to different places, spend the night outside… perhaps she knew something was happening. She could have been a cover.”

A few days after Pillai made his statement, R.V.S Mani, a former Under Secretary in the Union Home Ministry, made an explosive statement that he was coerced into filing the controversial second affidavit. He alleged that he was pressured, chased and “tortured” by the CBI and the Special Investigation Team (SIT) chief Satish Verma to sign and file the second affidavit. Mani accused Verma of burning his pants with a cigarette butt to make him do what he wanted. Verma has denied this. Mani told the media that the SIT chief was “after him” to discredit the professional inputs by intelligence agencies on Ishrat Jahan and others.

Neither the reason for Pillai’s revelation nor its timing makes any sense. One theory is that he must be a disgruntled bureaucrat who did not get a plum post after his retirement. Or to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he is sincere about what he is saying. The Congress retaliated to Pillai’s by allegations saying that he worked for a corporate group with known “affiliations”. Backing Chidambaram stoutly, the party said the BJP was trying to subvert a court-monitored investigation into an alleged fake encounter.

Who is Ishrat Jahan and why is her case so crucial?

In 2004, she and her three alleged accomplices were found dead on a road behind Ahmedabad’s domestic airport. The police had maintained that on the basis of intelligence reports, they had intercepted a car coming from Maharashtra with four passengers. The police claimed that the four had links with the LeT 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. She was a second-year BSc student aspiring to become a teacher. In her spare time, she gave tuitions to earn some money. She needed money and, therefore, took on a job with Javed. He apparently knew her father, and the family found him reliable. The job entailed travel, which is why she was with Javed when they entered Gujarat. 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 “encounter killing” led to a public outcry, and an investigation was held into whether the killings were deliberate and, therefore, unlawful. The outcome of this was a magisterial report by S.P. Tamang in 2004 and an SIT report in 2011, both of which challenged the encounter saying it was completely staged and that the so-called terrorists were killed in police custody. Eventually, in 2013, a charge sheet was filed against the I.B. and the police officers involved in the case. “The point we are trying to make is whether the encounter was fake. Not what Ishrat Jahan was,” a police official in Ahmedabad said. The CBI believes that the encounter was the outcome of a conspiracy between the I.B. and the Gujarat Police. “It was carefully staged and brilliantly executed the way only the I.B. can do,” he said.

CBI, I.B. at loggerheads

That the CBI and the I.B. have been at loggerheads over the case has become apparent. Satish Verma, the Indian Police Service officer who assisted the CBI in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, told the media that her killing was a “premeditated murder”. “What is happening here is that this bogey of nationalism and security is being raised to discredit a poor and innocent girl so that an environment can be created for a favourable outcome for those involved in this crime. The Home Ministry has refused sanction to prosecute I.B. officers even though courts have held that in fake encounters there is no requirement for sanction,” Verma said.

“This has put the case in limbo,” said Pratik Sinha of the Jan Sangarsh Manch who represents Gopinath Pillai (Javed Sheikh’s father). “But we must understand that this case is extremely relevant as it is the only encounter case where senior-level police officials and I.B. officers are facing charges of a fake encounter killing.” The CBI’s charge sheet (against the Gujarat Police), filed in 2013, and the supplementary charge sheet (against the I.B. officials), filed in 2014, are now pending in an Ahmedabad court. The trial has not begun. Most of the accused police personnel have been reinstated, some with promotions. “The charge sheet is the culmination of some deep investigation and has captured details and evidence that make a solid case against the police, who said the encounter was genuine and that they opened fire on the suspects in retaliation,” Sinha said.

For instance, the charge sheet states: “Investigation revealed that on 12 June 2004, accused N.K. Amin and Tarun Barot with the assistance of M.K. Sinha and Rajeev Wankhede, SIB, Ahmedabad, abducted Javed and Ishrat Jahan from Vasad toll booth, District Anand, Gujarat, when they were travelling in the blue Indica car bearing registration no. MH 02 JA 4786. The above accused police officers and SIB officers took Javed and Ishrat Jahan to Khodiyar Farm, off SG Highway, Ahmedabad, and kept them in illegal custody.....”

In a first, four subsidiary I.B. officers, Rajinder Kumar, M.K. Sinha, Rajeev Wankhede and T. Mittal, have been named in the charge sheet for extrajudicial killings. Additionally, seven Gujarat cadre police officers, D.G. Vanzara, Tarun Barot, J.G. Parmar, P.P. Pandey, G.L. Singhal and N.K. Amin, have been named.

The court must decide which agency is telling the truth. Both the CBI and the I.B. have evidence to back their respective stands. Politics, as has been seen in the past, will play a critical role in the case, and sadly, the case, which is about suspects being executed without a trial, is completely lost, says Achyut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action. Even the most dangerous criminal is given a fair trial, he says.

The Gujarat High Court bench, admonishing the CBI for the delay in filing its charge sheet, said: “The court is not concerned whether they were terrorists or normal human beings. In any case they should not have been liquidated.” This holds out some hope that the Ishrat jahan case will get back on the right track.