India: Police-politician nexus bared as parties fight over a ‘fake’ encounter case

Ishrat Jahan continues to be the subject of fierce debates even a decade after her death in a police ‘encounter’. The latest debate was sparked by a questionable claim by a man, who helped the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba in identifying targets for 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, that Jahan was a LeT member. Even if he is telling the truth, no one can justify the extra-judicial execution of Jahan by the Gujarat police, say Opposition parties led by Congress      

A deadly cocktail of crime, politics and policing is seen in the quarrel between India’s ruling BJP-led and Opposition Congress-led parties over a brutal and senseless extra-judicial police killing in 2004.

Ishrat Jahan

Ishrat Jahan

The victim was a 19-year old, baby-faced Muslim woman, Ishrat Jahan, and the incident took place in Gujarat state then ruled by BJP led by chief minister Narendra Modi who is now the prime minister of India.

Jahan was killed in an alleged fake encounter along with her three associates on June 15 2004 by the Gujarat police on the outskirts of the state capital Ahmedabad. Police justified the killings on the ground that Jahan and her associates were members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) plotting to kill Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister.

But a probe by India’s top investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), said in July 2013 that Gujarat police and intelligence officials killed Jahan and others in a staged clash.

However, on Feb 11 2016, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American and LeT agent involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and serving a life sentence in a US prison, made an interesting statement.

While deposing before the Special TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) Court judge in Mumbai via video-conferencing from a US jail, Headley said Jahan was a LeT member.

BJP sought leverage from the unreliable evidence provided by Headley and demanded an apology from Congress.

Congress rightly maintained that the real issue is whether her extra-judicial execution by the Gujarat police could be justified even if she had any LeT links.

Ranjit Sinha, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the previous Manmohan Singh-led Congress regime, maintained that the Gujarat High Court had asked him only to look into the question of the alleged extra-judicial execution of Jahan and not on whether she was a LeT terrorist.

In 2013, Sinha had submitted an over 1,300-page charge sheet indicting several officials of the Gujarat police and central Intelligence Bureau (IB) for the extra-judicial murder of Jahan and three others.

That the killings were unjustified and illegal had been established in three previous enquiries: the local magisterial enquiry; findings of the Special Investigation Team; and the charge sheet submitted by the CBI.

The only key question that begs an answer is the unaccountable delay in starting the trial of the CBI case.

The delay seems to stem from that the present regime under the BJP and the previous regime under the Congress party are irresolute about charge-sheeting IB, a sensitive top secret police organization. This issue can only be decided by the Gujarat High Court after it begins trial of the CBI case.

A deadlock seems to have arisen within the government before the trial proceedings could begin.

The IB is meant to collect and disseminate ‘national security’ (not clearly defined) intelligence, not participate or intervene in the investigation of cases, which is the domain of the CBI. While CBI operates with a legal framework and charter of duties, the IB has remained unconstrained by such framework or duties since 1947 when India became independent. IB has collected and disseminated political and other intelligence on a wide variety of subjects and enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the ruling establishment.

An interesting aspect in the Jahan case, which is receiving considerable publicity and contestation in the national media, relates to the two successive affidavits submitted by the former ruling party’s home minister to the Gujarat High Court in August and September 2009 respectively in response to a petition presented to the court by Jahan’s mother pleading her daughter’s innocence and demanding justice.

The first affidavit in August had supported the IB story that Jahan was a terrorist with LeT connections. The second affidavit submitted in September contradicted the first and stated that the young woman’s LeT connections could not be confirmed, implying that she could be given benefit of the doubt.

With information of the two affidavits becoming public after Headley’s revelation on Jahan, the BJP mounted a fierce attack on the Congress party alleging a ‘conspiracy’ to implicate Modi in the extra-judicial execution of Jahan. The Congress denied the charge and said it only stated the facts as they came out. It affirmed again that the only relevant question now was whether her extra-judicial execution while in police custody was legal and justified.

The issue awaits judicial resolution.

The open squabble between the present and former ruling party bigwigs has produced a murky atmosphere in the national capital bringing discredit to both political formations together with disquiet in the public mind.

A further squabble has arisen in the Congress party with the former union home secretary openly faulting the former home minister of unilaterally revising and submitting the second affidavit. This has been disputed by the minister who has said that the secretary had been fully involved in the revision of the affidavit. He may well be right since the well-laid decision-making process in government on major issues always involves the home secretary.

The former home minister has further alleged that the first affidavit had in fact been submitted (obviously by the home secretary) without his knowledge. This is a veritable and ugly dog fight between the two dignitaries.

The media has enjoyed the squabble between the two and exulted in the fact that the former union home secretary in now a well-paid employee of the Adani Group of companies which is close to Modi.

The entire episode has revealed the malodorous role of the Indian police. It was noted in the 1980s that policing in India had become not the “professional imposition of a coherent moral consensus on society” but an “intensely political activity” and that police officers were increasingly “preoccupied with politics, penetrated by politics and participating in it individually and collectively.”

The facts on police behaviour revealed in the Jahan case show that ‘politicization of crime’ and ‘criminalization of politics’ have travelled far beyond the levels noticed in the 1980s.

The writer is a former senior official of the Union Home Ministry in the government of India and author of the books ‘Political Violence and the Police in India’ Sage, 2007 and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016

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