Cracking the Ishrat Jahan encounter

BY Rana Ayyub| IN Media Practice | 17/02/2014
Four days of extensive travelling, late night phone calls from 'safe numbers', persistence, and the fifth day was fruitful.
A first person account by RANA AYYUB whose Tehelka exposes helped implicate the IB official

It had been barely a year that I’d returned from my first visit to Gujarat, working as a relief worker in the camps at Kalol. I had been moving around in the state with a Hindu name and a big red tikka to avoid being targeted by the mob. Back in Mumbai, I was pursuing my masters then, Gujarat was behind me till newspapers and channels flashed the image of a 19-year-old girl lying in a pool of blood along with four other men. The girl in question was an alleged militant Ishrat Jahan, who along with three of her alleged associates, was killed in an encounter by the Gujarat police on 15th June 2004.

Television channels made a beeline outside her residence in Mumbra, a suburb with majority Muslim population. One could see images of a terrorized mother whose eyes had dried up, the siblings --- the youngest being a five-year -old --- tried to shield themselves behind the curtain of their lower middle class home while inquisitive, insensitive reporters  thrust their mikes at them. Tickers that flashed on these channels declared her to be India’s first woman fidayeen, and Narendra Modi having been the target of many such fidayeen organisations. Gujarat Crime branch chief  D.G.Vanzara, who was later to be arrested for his role in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter, held a press conference valiantly, giving details of the bravado. He was the toast of the nation as editorials were written about the heroic act of saving the Chief Minister.

So engrossed were journalists in jotting down the meticulous details of the encounter of the ‘pretty’ jihadist, a science student from Mumbai’s Khalsa college,  that they forgot to ask a basic question : why she was wearing her college I-Card four days after having left her city to allegedly assassinate the Chief Minister. This and many other glaring discrepancies were overlooked by the mainstream media.

The Hindu’s Praveen Swami, known for his incredible sources in the intelligence and an expert in national security, wrote at length on how the likes of Ishrat were born as a result of a desire to avenge the Gujarat riots. In a piece dated 27 June, 2004  he also wrote of the increasing Jihadi presence in Mumbra, the suburb were Ishrat resided: “Ishrat's neighbourhood, the Thane ghetto of Mumbra, has a strong subterranean tradition of support for the Lashkar, underpinned by the influence of the local Ahl-e-Hadis seminary — the sect from which the terrorist groups derives its religious legitimacy.“ 

I met Ishrat’s family for the first time while reporting for a news channel in 2007. The mother, Shamima Kausar, was trying to make ends meet by stitching clothes, Ishrat’s younger sister had given up studies to help her mother. The family lived a hand-to- mouth existence. The brother was asked to leave his job about half a dozen times every time it was declared that he belonged to a ‘terrorist family’ . The mother had petitioned the Gujarat High Court, demanding probe into her daughter’s death, claiming it was a fake encounter. Her demand gathered momentum as the Supreme Court-monitored SIT  which had been looking into the encounter of alleged terrorist Sohrabuddin declared it fake and the top cops of Gujarat police, who had carried on the fake encounters, including D.G.Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandian were arrested. 


It was around this time that the Gujarat High Court had ordered an inquiry into the encounter.  Shamima had perhaps met a hundred odd journalists. The fatigue was obvious but I was welcomed with a glass of cold water. The girls were asked to take the sewing machine inside, the paint on the wall had chipped and the straws in the mat had begun to disintegrate. “Can you get my daughter justice ?” she asked. I tried to mumble something, she smiled,  “Poocho beta, I know you are doing your job. But I will answer your questions. My daughter was my hero, she was an ideal for her sisters, a darling of her teachers but they took her away. They say she was a terrorist, beta, that she had gone to attend terror camps in Pakistan. Why don’t they look at her college register? Not one day of absence. Why can’t you all see this, beta?” she pleaded.

My cameraperson took shots of the family, that photograph taken in a studio with a blue background. She had worn lipstick for the first time, borrowed from her sister. The same photograph  which was to be displayed a thousand times later, was sought from the cupboard so the camera guy could zoom.  But what did he want to capture? Was she the dreaded terrorist or an innocent girl who was to be sacrificed to the burgeoning political ambitions of a man. I left that day without any answers for Shamima.

I  saw a ray of hope when I met the family again in 2009. Justice Tamang, who was carrying a magisterial probe  had presented his report. The Ishrat Jahan encounter was fake, it was a cold-blooded murder of an innocent girl, 21 police officers were indicted for their role in the brutality. The report sent shock waves, but before one could react the Gujarat High Court, stayed the report. A division bench of the Gujarat High court , comprising Justice Kalpesh Jhaveri and Z.K.Sayyed  which had formed its own SIT to look into the matter also directed the Registrar-General of the High Court to institute a departmental inquiry into the conduct of Justice Tamang holding a parallel enquiry when the High court was already seized of the matter . It further added that the Tamang report could not be  made public without its permission.


It was at this juncture that Shamima Kausar approached the Supreme court to revoke the stay on the Tamang report – pleading that according to law, it was mandatory for a parallel magisterial probe to be carried along with a court-monitored probe. The Supreme court passed an order for formation of an SIT which would take into consideration the findings of the Tamang report.

Meanwhile, I had other stories to report on. As Tehelka’s reporter, I found myself in the jungles covering the Naxal issue and the Malegaon blasts. I had published sensational tapes of conversations of senior RSS leaders, Col. Purohit and other armymen conspiring to carry on the blasts and planning their moves. It was the first time a damning piece of evidence on the Right Wing terror was exposed. I began to receive threatening calls. While still investigating the case in 2010, I got a lead from Gujarat, that pointed out to then Home Minister Amit Shah’s criminal complicity in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter.

The CBI said although the investigation pointed towards Amit Shah, there was no clinching evidence. A month later, wading my way through official papers, I was able to make  the most sensational disclosure of the year.  Amit Shah’s phone call records, which were published in Tehelka, that proved that the minister was in constant touch with junior officers while they carried out the cold-blooded killings. 365 phone calls and an internal note obtained in a case of breach of official secrets revealed that it was at the behest of Amit Shah that Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauser Bi were killed. The CBI was forced to act on the expose. Shah became the first Home Minister in the history of independent India to go behind bars on charges of murder. 

My life changed overnight. Phone calls began to be tapped. My movement was monitored. Text messages on my phone in the middle of the night from anonymous numbers started coming in: “We know which hotel you are staying at?” There were attempts to malign my reputation as a Muslim reporter seeking revenge. BJP politicians developed selective amnesia over my reportage on Dalit issues, the Indian Mujahideen and justice for the displaced slum dwellers. 

Despite this breakthrough, there was something that bothered me. As I read through the Sohrabuddin, Sadiq Jamal and Ishrat Jahan, Sameer Khan Pathan encounter documents, I realised all FIRs read similar. The motive remained the same --- to assassinate Modi, the Hindu mascot. But somehow what most investigations skimmed through, or perhaps even overlooked, was the Intelligence Bureau link. If the encounters were being declared fake, if the role of the cops was being scrutinised, why were IB officials who were providing the concocted inputs to the state police let off the hook? A 2010 report in Times of India stated that Ishrat Jahan had met David Headley and was a fidayeen. The newspaper quoted NIA sources to justify its story.

However, the NIA denied making any such comment or having come across any such finding. Where then did the TOI get its story from? The newspaper refused to divulge its source, conforming to the ethical tenets of journalism.

In 2011, the Gujarat High Court appointed a thre-member SIT after much dilly dallying. Political pressure kept on building --- Amit Shah was given bail but on the condition that he would not enter Gujarat. In November 2011, the Gujarat High Court-monitored SIT  gave its report, endorsing the Tamang committee’s findings. For the first time, the SIT noted that the role of the IB was suspicious and needed further investigation by the CBI, which was later handed over the case by the Gujarat High Court. The government found itself on the  backfoot with only one member of the SIT recommended by the State itself.

There was not a single IB input that was to be found,  officials suggested that unlike Sadiq Jamal, this encounter did not have any documentary proof. But truth has a way of revealing itself.

A Gujarat officer, then heading the coastal services and who had been an investigating officer in the Sadiq Jamal case, wanted to depose. He was scared that his life was under threat. There were earlier examples of police officers being superceded or given punishment postings. The officer got in touch with me through a lawyer only on the condition that I pursue nothing but the truth. “There was pressure to make it look that Sadiq was a terrorist,” he told me. On condition of anonymity, he handed over three documents market as “secret and important”. In 2011, Sadiq Jamal made headlines with our expose. The CBI, which had been investigating the case, sought help from Tehelka in the form of the internal documents and call records published by us to aid the investigation.  

The truth, though, was still far from being discovered. The CBI team was stonewalled for documents and help from the state. Meanwhile, the political climate in New Delhi had been changing.  Modi had made it clear that he wanted to be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 elections. He had also held the Sadbhavna rally in an attempt to consolidate his secular image. Meanwhile, the Ishrat and Sadiq case dragged on. In May 2013, I was in Goa for the BJP national executive . Amidst great fanfare, Narendra Modi was made the election in-charge of the 2014 elections. This was touted to be just the beginning of his road to victory. I remember sitting by the balcony filing my story with the television set on when a ticker on a news channel flashed  “CBI gets clinching evidence in the Ishrat Jahan case.”

 I jumped off the sofa and called up my lawyer friends Mukul Sinha and Vrinda Grover who were doggedly pursuing the encounter case over the years and were responsible for the CBI inquiry. They too had heard of it but there was no clarification. I remembered the CBI officer who had called me a couple of months ago to seek information on Rajinder Kumar, the IB  officer whose role I had exposed in the fake encounter of Sadiq Jamal. Kumar was the head of central intelligence in  Gujarat. I had obtained documents on him diligently over the past two years . What I was not privy to were the statements by witnesses, by cops who were being interrogated.

 I had to visit Gujarat. It was this trip that was to bring forth some sensational revelations. Four days of extensive travelling, late night phone calls from ‘safe numbers’, persistence, and the fifth day was fruitful. I had in my possession some of the most crucial findings of the CBI.  My report in Tehelka the next day read “ Rajinder Kumar met the 19-year-old woman, Ishrat Jahan, while she was in illegal police custody before being killed. Another testimony by a cop claims that an AK-47 assault rifle, which the police said belonged to the terrorists killed, had actually been sourced from the Gujarat unit of the IB, to which Kumar belonged then, and planted on the four dead bodies.”

There were other damning revelations, including the mention of a sting tape in which the top cops, administrators from Gujarat were heard obfuscating the investigation.  The news created a furore. Senior IB officials jumped to the rescue of their colleagues, with the likes of AK Doval questioning Tehelka’s and my integrity.

On a news debate, the BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi called me a Congress stooge who could not be trusted. In another television debate, Lekhi went to the extent of casting aspersions on Ishrat’s character.  “What was a young girl of nineteen doing with three men ?” Feminist and activist Madhu Kishwar called me a “Muslim” who was out to defame Narendra Modi.  A week into the incident two senior news editors , one from a respected news magazine and the other the editor of a news channel  along with  senior  cops called me to inform of a rumour doing the rounds. Some MHA and IB officials had off-the- record conversations with journalists asking them to disbelieve my story. They were told that there was a CD of me with CBI officers floating around. Nothing else was said leaving a despicable space for speculations . My phone call records were checked, so were my bank accounts. As they say, if it’s a man label him as corrupt, if a woman, assassinate her character.

I had heard numerous stories of the establishment’s vindictive behaviour, but now I was experiencing it first-hand. An editorial by Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury punctured the rumours, but the paid bigots on Twitter continued to ridicule me, calling me names and abuses. The intention of those spreading these rumours was to dissuade me from further investigation into the case.

As luck would have it, my perseverance paid off. In August 2013  I obtained the sting audio  that ran into an hour. The conversation was damning. A background into the sting. One of the key officers involved in the Ishrat Jahan encounter was G.L.Singhal who at the time of the SIT investigation (2011) was in-charge of the ATS. Singhal lived in fear that he would meet the same fate as his senior colleagues who despite their proximity to the Modi dispensation could not be saved from being arrested. He feared he would be made a scapegoat. So a day before the SIT could submit its report when senior officials and bureaucrats from the Modi government converged to discuss damage control, Singhal secretively began recording the conversation. From the advocate general of Gujarat to the Chief Secretary and top cops, all were discussing ways of disrupting and misleading the investigation. There were references to Amit Shah who, according to one of the officials, was kept in the loop. It was now left to the CBI to investigate further. The tapes were handed over to the CBI by Singhal after he was arrested by them.

Seven months later, earlier this week, the CBI has filed its chargesheet, indicting four of the country’s top officers with murder and conspiracy. For the first time in the history of Independent India, a special director ,IB , has been nailed and charge-sheeted for a crime as serious as murder and criminal conspiracy. But the killing of innocents cannot be washed away by a chargesheet. The murder of Ishrat Jahan, Sadiq Jamal , and Samir Khan Pathan demands answers.  

We have taken the first step to justice but that’s not enough.  The CBI chief has said that they could not find strong evidence against Amit Shah. This is coming months after Shah was accused of illegally using the state machinery to snoop on a woman. Shah, the election in-charge of the Uttar Pradesh elections is  on bail in the Tulsiram Parajapati and Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. He also faces a commission to look into the snoopgate scandal. The wheels of justice grind slowly they say, but grind exceedingly fine.  


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