by Soutik Banerjee
The Indian Parliament recently in a call attention motion discussed the Ishrat Jahan issue for an entire day. The discussion in the House was supposed to be on Mr. Chidambaram’s role in changing an affidavit related to the issue. What followed was a shameless tirade of accusations and character assassination of Ishrat, just to try and score some political mileage against the Congress. Of course, it is not like the Congress did not attempt to do the same in trying to get then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi in trouble over this issue. But what stood out was the utter disregard for Ishrat, who has been labeled a Lashkar terrorist for many years now and whose dignity deserved no sympathy in the eyes of our esteemed parliamentarians.
It is also interesting to note how Ishrat is covered in the media. It is no secret that the allegiances of most media houses in India can be deciphered in terms of them being either pro Congress or pro BJP. On the issue of Ishrat too, they fall prey to the same habit of viewing life through either of the two lenses. In the politics of all this, what is lost in the background is the cry for justice of the mother of a 19 year old girl who was shot brutally by the state forces in an act best described as the kind carried out by the Gestapo in its times.
It is here pertinent to note that the said affidavit has not been included as evidence in the case against the police officials who are the accused in the fake encounter case. It is therefore of little or no consequence to their trial. But the debate on that has been cited to disregard the strong claims of Ishrat having been killed in a fake encounter. The facts and circumstances of that encounter remain almost unexplored in our mainstream media consumed by families across the country for dinner table entertainment.
The public image that Ishrat has today is that of a girl who was killed in a car with three other men of whom two were terrorists from Pakistan. That legacy created by the media and the BJP government (then state; now central) spills over into a discussion on whether any erudite or prudent good minded girl would get into a car with three such men. The onus of proving guilt fades away and the burden lies on those defending Ishrat to justify her moral fabric, which becomes of primal importance for most in determining whether her encounter was fake or not. It is not surprising though to see how our everyday communalism and sexism creeps into a discussion on Ishrat, who must be treated with utmost suspicion for being a Muslim, or even worse, a Muslim girl found in a car with three Muslim men. Even in Parliament there were jeers and suggestions constantly made at the reference of “teen gair mardon ke saath woh kar kya rahi thi?”
It is this constant shaming that has marred Ishrat’s legacy in the public eye as one of a girl who ought to have been involved in something wrong. That sentiment takes away from the possibility of their being social mobilization on the issue of starting the trial of the accused police officers and Intelligence Bureau officers. Today, fighting for Ishrat is painted in the light of being anti-Modi, and it is this politics on terror that has polarized people so far that the cry for justice in Ishrat’s case has been shrouded by the political fight over it.
The answer to what she was doing in the car lies in the SIT report as well as the charge-sheet filed by the CBI in that case. It is unfortunate that not many popular media houses catapult the same into their viewer’s televisions. If nothing else, at least people should know what the findings of the SIT were instead of just knowing that Ishrat was in a car with three other men.
The incident dates back to 15.06.2004 when at dawn four people were gunned down near Kotarpur Water Works in Ahmedabad. They were Jishan Johar, Amjadali Akbarali Rana, Javed and Ishrat. Of these, the former two were residents of Pakistan while the latter were Indians. The police’s case is hinged on the argument that these four were speeding in a blue Indica car into Ahmedabad, allegedly with the intention to kill Narendra Modi, and there was a spontaneous shootout in which they were killed.
On 07.09.2009, S.P. Tamang, the Metropolitan Magistrate who conducted a Magisterial Inquiry u/s 176 Cr.P.C. submitted that the encounter was fake. An SIT was formed by the Gujarat High Court to investigate the case, which unanimously stated that the encounter was fake. The SIT registered an F.I.R. in December 2011 against the accused officers with the CBI. On 03.07.2013, the CBI filed its charge-sheet. The revelations are shocking and will put any gory George R. R. Martin novel to shame.
There are statements made by fellow police officers and multiple witnesses which prove that there was prior custody of all four people with the police and the encounter was planned and staged in great detail. The details can be found in the charge-sheet which has the statements of all prosecution witnesses attached. However, a brief idea must be provided here about the incident(s) to help one absorb and acknowledge the scale of operations.
Jishan Johar was under surveillance of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau, Ahmedabad working along with Gujarat Police since April that year. He was detained in 164/165 Gota Housing where he was kept under audio surveillance. On 26/05/2004, Amjadali was abducted from Gota crossing and taken to Arham farmhouse. This place was arranged by prime accused JG Parmar. It should be noted here that they were both illegally detained and not arrested. The details of this were provided to the SIT by police officers and guards who were on duty at Arham farm house.
Ishrat and Javed were travelling in a blue Indica car when on 12/06/2004 they were detained at Vasad Toll Booth. An accused in this case, Tarun Barot had been camping at Vasad Toll Booth since the 10th of that month, expecting alleged terrorists. Two police officers had been following Javed and Ishrat’s car in a Maruti 800 and they travelled together from Vasad toll Booth to Khodiyar farmhouse which was arranged according to the orders of DG Vanzara. Evidence of this is given by Chhagan Ambalal Barot, accused Tarun Barot’s driver as well as multiple personnel on duty at Vasad Toll Booth and the guards at Khodiyar farmhouse.
On 13/06/2004, Jishan was also shifted to Khodiyar. A meeting was held between officers that evening at Shahibaug in the office chamber of DG Vanzara where details of a fake FIR were planned for the next day. On 15/06/2004 at about 02:00 hrs. the gunmen of PP Pandey and DG Vanzara reported to the latter at Indira Bridge circle. At 04:00 hrs, blindfolded and hands tied to their back, Ishrat, Javed and Jishan Johar were brought near Kotarpur Water Works n the blue Indica which was then parked next to the divider. Amjadali was also brought in a white Qualis. They were lined up next to each other and shot multiple times with various guns. They were then placed inside the car and a bag full of guns brought by Tarun Barot was placed in the car. The Forensic Sciences Laboratory has also confirmed that scientific evidence does not support the police’s version of the story.
These details have been provided not by a Congress worker or any anti BJP conspiracy. These are statements made by officials of the Gujarat police like PI I.K.Chauhan, then ASI Nizamuddin Saiyed, Armed head constable Mohan nanji Bhai Menat and Head Constable Moti Talja Desai. There are a large number of witnesses who testified that prior custody of all four was with Gujarat police. The charge-sheet has been languishing since 2013 but trial has not yet begun. the Home Ministry is refusing to give sanction to try the Intelligence Bureau officers who are essential to the prosecution’s case in proving the existence of a criminal conspiracy.
It is remarkable how despite such strong evidence to prove that Ishrat was killed in a fake encounter, none of these details are plastered across our televisions the way Umar Khalid’s face or Nivedita Menon’s lecture was. The people of this country have not been given access to the chilling story of this killing. Instead, there were MPs suggesting in Parliament that encounters are the best form of justice for terrorists while referring to Ishrat and the discourse has been reduced to that. All this while there is no evidence to suggest that Ishrat knew or ever communicated with Jishan and Amjadali. Even today, via David Headley, 12 long years after her encounter, the government is trying to frame her as a Lashkar terrorist. The question that remains unanswered is what intelligence input back in 2004 convinced them that she was a terrorist and whether Headley saying anything now justifies the decision to kill her back then.
There are two aspects to this. Even if Ishrat was a terrorist, they cannot by law eliminate her after having taken her into custody. But more importantly, there is no reason to assume that she was a terrorist and the public shaming of her ought to be corrected by the media. A 19 year old girl is waiting for justice, but before that, the world owes her the dignity which was taken away from her by callous politicians and sycophancy of the media houses.
At a time when courts in India have acquitted some ‘terrorists’ accused in the Malegaon blasts as well as the German Bakery case, one must ask if such labeling is ever justified given the baggage of collective conscience (hate) it carries with it. This is not a case of terrorism. Neither is this a case of finding out whether the Congress or the BJP is at fault. This is a simple case of a girl being killed by police forces and that’s how it deserves to be remembered. The focus ought to shift towards starting the trial of those officers in order to settle the matter and not just score brownie points against the BJP or the Congress. The politicization of this case is shrouding the delivery of justice to Ishrat and all of this is happening because the buzzword ‘terror’ allows it to.
The need of the hour is to dismiss the rhetoric of anti-terror operations used to justify state excesses by countering the same with evidence on record. Ishrat’s case is one where there is way too much evidence for it to be pushed under the carpet. Yet, with political rhetoric and uninformed opinion formation tailored by the media, it is almost being done. There cannot be a proud legal system in India if it fails a 19 year old girl by robbing her of her truth as well as her dignity.
We strive to achieve a fairer ‘Jahan’.
(Soutik Bannerjee is a graduate of St. Stephen’s College, currently pursuing a law degree at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Criminal law is one of his main areas of interest.)