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Unanswered questions in the Ishrat Jahan case

July 01, 2004

Have you heard of 'Occam's Razor'? No, it is not something that you can find at the local barbershop. It is actually a philosophical principle that states: 'Plurality should not be posited without necessity.' To put it in simpler language, the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The Gujarat police insist they intercepted and shot four terrorists on Tuesday, June 15. One of these, and the only woman of the quartet, was a 19-year-old student named Ishrat Jahan Muhammed Shameem Raza. Another was Javed Ghulam Sheikh, born a Malayali Hindu named Pranesh Kumar Pillai who converted to Islam to marry a Muslim girl whom he loved. The last two were Pakistanis. (Or so say the Gujarat police; at the very least, nobody in India has come forward to claim the bodies.)

The quartet was supposedly in Gujarat to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi. This has been denied vehemently by the families of Ishrat Jahan and of Javed Ghulam Sheikh. Fair enough, I donšt think there is any parent in existence who can bear to think ill of his or her offspring, and to be told that your child is a terrorist is a horror so great that your mind would simply refuse to accept it. But the unwavering faith in the innocence of Ishrat Jahan and Javed Ghulam Sheikh, which is understandable -- perhaps even admirable -- in a close relative is no excuse when it comes from a politician.

According to news reports, Nationalist Congress Party MLC Vasant Davkhare has offered Rs 1 lakh to Ishrat Jahan's family.  Amarsinh Chaudhary, a senior Congressman from Gujarat, has denounced the episode as a 'fabrication.' demanding that the incident be given to the CBI because nobody trusts the Gujarat police. This demand has been echoed by Mumbai-based Samajwadi Party leader Abu Asim Azmi.

Nobody is denying that there have been cases of false 'encounters' in India. But does that also mean that terrorism and political assassination are strangers to this country? So, before jumping to judgment, can we take a look at the undisputed

Everybody agrees that Ishrat Jahan disappeared from her house on June 12. Her mother Shamima Jahan Sheikh says she kept quiet about her daughter going missing because she didn't want a scandal. This is understandable enough (although
some parents might have consulted the authorities to make sure that a child was safe, scandal be damned). But it begs the question: what was Ishrat Jahan doing between June 12, when she disappeared from her mother's house, and June 15, when she was shot in the company of alleged terrorists?

One theory doing the rounds is that the young lady was kidnapped by the Gujarat police for use in their 'false encounter.' And it is at this point that Occam's Razor begins to cut through the chaff.

Let us assume for argument's sake that the Gujarat police wanted dead bodies to file a charge of an 'encounter.' Why on earth would they choose a completely unknown girl from Thane as a victim? I am sure there are other, far more likely candidates, grown men with a known criminal background, in Gujarat itself. The Gujarat police could have plausibly chosen any of them and there would have been nary a murmur.

Second, the newspapers and television channels have been filing stories about Ishrat Jahan's college-mates, her teachers, and her neighbours telling the world what a good girl she was. She was, they all insist, the last woman who could be
suspected of 'fundamentalist' tendencies. Once again, such assertions fly in the face of common sense. If you were a terrorist, would you actually go around announcing to the world that you intended to shoot Narendra Modi? Or would you
keep quiet until the time came to act?

How about Javed Ghulam Sheikh? His father Gopinatha Pillai is adamant about his son's innocence. But here too there are questions which beg to be answered. I suppose there could be some reason why he possessed passports both as Pranesh Kumar Pillai and as Javed Ghulam Sheikh (although under Indian law he should have surrendered one or the other). But is it true that he also had a third such document under the name of Sayyad Abdul Wahid? And what of his own sister's supposed statement that one of the two alleged Pakistanis killed in the encounter had stayed with her brother?

The human brain is versatile enough to think up several reasons why two hitherto unknown Indians were caught in the company of armed foreigners. Occam's Razor suggests that nobody would leave their homes and families to escort strangers unless they shared some common purpose.

The law in most countries assumes that the accused is 'innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt'. Both Ishrat Jahan and Javed Ghulam Sheikh undoubtedly deserve this protection, especially since they are no longer around to speak for themselves. But to the professional 'secularists' it is not these two who stand accused of intent to murder, it is the Gujarat police that is guilty of 'state terrorism'. So why are they unwilling to grant the same presumption of innocence to the Gujarat police?

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T V R Shenoy

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