Twelve years is a long time for any debate to stay alive. The alleged fake encounter of Ishrat Jahan way back in 2004 in Ahmedabad by the Gujarat police continues to haunt many in the ruling BJP and the erstwhile UPA. This has been one of the most reported encounter killings in recent times.

The bodies of the four people killed in the incident, 15 June 2004. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan studying at Khalsa College in Mumbai was one of the four daughters of Shamima, a poor widow who made ends meet by stitching clothes. She knew that her family battled daily with their poverty and wanted to help out. She saw a glimmer of hope when one of her relatives introduced them to Javed Sheikh, who was running a small perfume business.

Sheikh was looking out for a salesgirl to push the product and told Ishrat that it would entail travel. She agreed to take it up. This first meeting took place on 20 April 2004. 25 days later, in the early hours of 15 June, 2004, she along with Javed Sheikh, Amjad Ali and Jishan Johar were gunned down by the Gujarat police. They claimed that the four were terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), who had come to the state to assassinate then chief minister Narendra Modi.

Many unanswered questions

So, was Ishrat a LeT operative? LeT is not known to recruit women so why was Ishrat the selected one? Who trained her to use automatic weapons? Did she visit Pakistan for training? How was she indoctrinated into terrorism? Why did she want to kill Modi?  Many questions. No answers. Nor is there any conclusive evidence to show that she was a part of the LeT or that she wanted to assassinate Modi.

Did the police kill her in a fake encounter? No one is talking about that anymore. The discourse even in the media also focuses on whether she was a terrorist and does not probe whether she was a victim of an extrajudicial killing in a fake encounter. Why were they not captured alive when that could have been done? It could have given the police all the evidence it needed.

Soon after their four bodies were spread out on the road next to their bullet-ridden blue Indica, the police informed the media that they had eliminated them before they got to the chief minister. This was followed by continuous spotlight on how the Modi government had a zero tolerance approach to terrorism and was out to wipe it from the state.

A Gujarat High Court-monitored probe to investigate this killing however implicated the police. Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate SP Tamang ruled that the killing of Ishrat and the three others was a fake encounter. In his handwritten 243-page report, he named additional commissioner of police DG Vanzara who was commonly referred to as an encounter specialist, along with other police officers for the “cold blooded murder”. These included Vanzara’s deputy Narendra Amin, joint police commissioner PP Pandey, police commissioner KR Kaushik and encounter specialist Tarun Barot for it.

Incidentally, Vanzara was an accused in several other alleged fake encounter cases such as the killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Tulsiram Prajapati and Sadiq Jamal.

Tamang said that the Crime Branch had kidnapped Ishrat and others from Mumbai on 12 June, brought them to Ahmedabad and killed them on the night of 14 June, while in police custody. Explosives, rifles and other weapons were planted in the car, he said.

No evidence

While the police said that Ishrat and Javed along with Pakistani citizens, Amzad Ali Rana and Jishan Jauhar were LeT operatives who had come to avenge the 2002 riots by assassinating Modi, Tamang said there was no evidence to establish that they were part of the LeT or that they had come to Gujarat with an assassination plot. He said that the bullet wounds showed that they were shot at close range. While the police claimed that 70 bullets were used, those found at the site didn’t match the ones they were allegedly killed with. 

No action was taken on the magistrate’s report with the Gujarat government dismissing it as untrue. The High Court then instituted an SIT probe. Two years later, the SIT came out with details of how the LeT operatives were picked up separately, killed in custody and weapons arranged to make it look as if the shooting had happened on both sides. There were numerous discrepancies in the police report.

Here’s an extract from the FIR [DCB PS I CR No. 8 of 2004] filed by the SIT team:

Eight empty cartridge cases of 9mm ammunition recovered from the Indica car do not match with the two pistols recovered from the Indica car. These empties of 9 mm do not also match with the two police weapons of 9 mm calibre used in the encounter. This shows the police version of hearing gunshots from inside the Indica car is untrue, and also there is some fabrication to justify the FIR theory.

The police said that a gunny bag was found in the Indica car that contained an explosive yellow powder. The SIT team said that the directorate of forensic science at Gandhinagar and the deputy chief controller of explosives in Vadodara who examined it said that the chemical was not explosive in nature.

The Gujarat police claimed that it was firing from the side of the road in a lying position. The SIT said there was only one bullet mark on the Indica car that had an upward trajectory and that bullet could not have hit any of the occupants. The bullet trajectories indicated a downward direction matching close range firing, with only one bullet in an upward direction.

Premeditated murder?

IPS officer Satish Verma, who was part of the SIT team and assisted the CBI probe in the Ishrat encounter, has maintained that it was “premeditated murder”. He said that Ishrat and the other three were picked up by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) days before the encounter. In fact, there was no intelligence input that there was a woman accompanying the alleged terrorists. Verma told journalists that they were kept in illegal custody and then shot dead.

Investigators showed that Ishrat had spent just a few days away from home after she came in contact with Javed, who offered her a sales-girl’s job to push his perfume business. Wanting to help her poverty stricken family, she took it on. Javed was earlier Pranesh Pillai and had converted to Islam as he was in love with a Muslim girl and wanted to make peace with her parents.

Verma pointed out that it took a long time to train someone to become an LeT suicide bomber or even train a person to use an automatic rifle and turn into a fidayeen. Sources say that she got embroiled in the encounter only because she was with Javed when he was picked up by the police. She had absolutely no criminal record.

This encounter should also perhaps be seen in the light of the personalities involved. Take Vanzara. In a period of over 30 years, he had served as deputy commissioner of police, additional commissioner of police and deputy inspector-general of police. His name figured in numerous encounters of “terrorists”, who the police alleged, had come to kill Modi. He was suspended in April 2007 after he was arrested by the CID in the encounter killing of Sohrabuddin and sent to Sabarmati Central Prison. He was later also charged with the encounter deaths of Tulsiram Prajapati, Sadiq Jamal and Ishrat Jahan.

He was not the only one. There were 32 other police officers in jail charged with fake encounters. There were as many as 21 encounter killings between October 2002 and December 2006. “Surprisingly, these abruptly stopped as investigations started on them and policemen started being sent to jail by the court,” said late advocate Mukul Sinha who was appearing for the families of numerous victims who were killed in encounters.

In his resignation letter sent from jail on 1 September 2013, Vanzara said that he was quitting the police force as the Gujarat government had miserably failed in protecting its encounter police and so there was no obligation on his part to protect “the traitors sitting in this government who almost have pushed patriotic and nationalist police officers into the jaws of death”. CBI investigation showed that Vanzara was in constant touch with Amit Shah who was the minister of state for home at that time.

Vanzara who is out on bail at present has been asked by the court to stay in Mumbai and not enter Gujarat. In mid-March, he pleaded with the court to allow him to leave Mumbai as his life was in danger, being a target of hitmen of Dawood Ibrahim.

Rajendra Kumar, the former IB Special Director, who at that time headed the Gujarat unit of IB, was accused of conspiring with the state police to stage the encounter that killed Ishrat and her accomplices. In the second charge-sheet filed in February 2014, the CBI had charged Rajendra Kumar, special director of IB, with murder, criminal conspiracy, kidnapping to murder, wrongful confinement under the Arms Act. As permission to prosecute the IB officers was not given by the centre, the court did not take cognizance of this charge-sheet.

Pillai’s role

The issue has again hit the headlines with former home secretary GK Pillai accusing former home minister P Chidambaram of the UPA regime of rewriting an affidavit in the Ishrat case. But the fact is that Pillai did not disagree or record his dissent when the amended document was sent to him while he was in service. Pillai is now an independent director in the Gautam Adani group.

The Congress proposes to defend Chidambaram by saying that he had obviously gone by Tamang’s report, which said that there was no evidence as far as Ishrat was concerned.

As the media went to town with the news, Pillai also said that there was no conclusive evidence against Ishrat’s involvement with the LeT. This is something he had said in 2013 also. He had said that she probably never knew whom she was dealing with. What is lost in the din is that the real issue here is not whether Ishrat was a terror module member, but whether she was a victim of an extrajudicial killing.

Chidambaram has said that he did make the change as there was no evidence to link Ishrat to the LeT or that she was a terrorist. But, the BJP has used Pillai’s remark to underline how the UPA government wanted to show that she was innocent and was killed when Modi was the CM.

To make matters more complicated, RVS Mani, who was an undersecretary in the home ministry and had signed both affidavits, has now alleged that he was tortured by Verma with cigarette butts. It is an allegation that Verma has denied.

Headley evidence

It is true that the case has had its share of mystery. David Headley, one of the prime accused in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, told a Mumbai court that he thought Ishrat was an LeT operative. He had turned approver in the blast case but the evidence of an approver is seen as weak evidence unless it is corroborated with evidence.

It is interesting how Headley mentioned Ishrat and how this is now being touted as evidence that she was indeed a LeT operative. Ujjwal Nikam, the special prosecutor, had suddenly asked him in court about Ishrat though she was in no way connected to the Mumbai blast case. Here is a transcript of what was said:

Nikam: Was there a botched up operation in India?
Headley: Yes, there was a botched up operation Lakhvi was talking to Muzammil Bhat. Later I asked Muzammil and he told me there was a female member of LeT who was killed in a police shootout...Exact place I cannot recall.
Nikam: I will give you three options: Noor Begum, Ishrat Jahan or Mumtaz.
Headley: I think it was the second one.

Headley, therefore, just ‘thinks’ it is Ishrat. This cannot be admissible evidence in any court. But political leaders are constantly harping on Headley’s deposition to buttress the theory that Ishrat was a terrorist. But even Pillai concedes that the evidential value of what Headley said was low as it was hearsay.

Senior advocate and human rights activist Vrinda Grover says that this cannot be evidence in a court, as he did not even name her on his own, but did so only after he was prompted.

The three-member SIT on the other hand had unanimously ruled that it was a staged encounter. The court, thereafter, handed over the case to the CBI, which after independent investigations, concurred with the SIT, and filed the first charge-sheet on 3 July, 2013.

CBI charge-sheets

For the last two years, the Ishrat trial has been stuck for want of sanction from the centre to prosecute IB officers who have been charge-sheeted by the CBI. The first one filed was against seven police officers, including an additional DG, a DIG and an SP of the Gujarat police. The CBI had said the encounter was fake and was, in fact, a joint operation by the Gujarat police and the IB.

A top source told me that one of the police officers while being interrogated by the CBI had said that he had suggested that the girl be let off as she was totally innocent and had nothing to do with terrorism. But in all likelihood, she was bumped off as she would have been a witness to the killing or the fact that the boys were taken into custody and then shot.

In the second charge-sheet filed in February 2014, the CBI had charged Rajendra Kumar, special director of IB, with murder, criminal conspiracy, kidnapping to murder, wrongful confinement under the Arms Act. As permission to prosecute the IB officers was not given by the Centre, the court did not take cognizance of this charge-sheet. This is where the trial rests and the political brouhaha has to be seen against this backdrop.

Vrinda Grover, lawyer for Shamima Kauser, mother of Ishrat Jahan, attributes the renewed political hue and cry to panic attacks because the high and mighty in key positions have been named in the records and when the trial begins, will be called into account.

Nirjhari Sinha, wife of late advocate Mukul Sinha who had taken up the Ishrat case, told India Together “When the case comes up in court, there will be a lot of big names that will surface who are responsible for her death. So the BJP is now trying to deflect attention to the terrorist angle. It will not work as both the CBI and the High Court-appointed SIT have found that it was a fake encounter.”

Is it plain coincidence that after Modi became PM and Amit Shah, the BJP president, all the officers charge-sheeted in the case have been granted bail? Vanzara who figures in more than two encounters, is one of them, while Satish Verma who diligently investigated the case in the SIT has been shunted to the North-Eastern Electric Power Corporation in Shillong.

Meanwhile, DP Gohil, a special CBI judge, has recused himself from the trial against seven policemen in the Ishrat case. He has withdrawn on the ground that one of the defence lawyers is a relative.

Shamima, who filed a writ petition in 2004 demanding the CBI investigation, hopes that justice will be done. She waits for the day when her daughter will no more be labelled a terrorist and there is a final closure to the taint that her family has been carrying around for the last 12 years.