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How the tide turned for the BJP in Ishrat case

By Archis Mohan
March 13, 2016 10:30 IST
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'Amid the different versions of truth on the Ishrat case, what is certain is that Ishrat's mother Shamima Kausar, who has continued to maintain that Headley's confession was nothing but an attempt by powerful people to save themselves in the case, is unlikely to find a closure anytime soon.'
Archis Mohan reports.

Ishrat Jahan, the Mumbra teenager, with the others, killed in an encounter by the Gujarat police. Photograph: PTI

IMAGE: Ishrat Jahan, the Mumbra teenager, with the others, killed in an encounter by the Gujarat police. Photograph: PTI


Amid differing versions of the encounter that killed Ishrat Jahan and three others in Gujarat in 2004, David Coleman Headley's reported revelations on her links with the terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayiba have added a new spin to the case, giving the Bharatiya Janata Party a rare chance to claim the moral high ground.

It has been nearly 12 years since 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed in an 'encounter' by the Gujarat police on June 15, 2004. Nearly every aspect of that encounter, including whether Jahan was indeed a terror operative on her way, along with her associates, to assassinate the then Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, or if at all that encounter was genuine, has been in dispute ever since.

But if her 'extra-judicial' killing by the Gujarat police -- current BJP chief Amit Shah was then the junior home minister in the government that Modi headed -- made the BJP's ideological opponents push the party's current leadership into a corner, it's now the BJP government at the Centre that finds itself with an opportunity to brand all who had questioned the actions of the state police as anti-nationals.

For the BJP and the government, the controversy got a new life on February 11 when David Coleman Headley, who had conspired with the Lashkar to carry out the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, told a Mumbai court via teleconferencing that Ishrat was indeed a terror operative.

There were reports in 2013 as well that Headley in his deposition had identified Ishrat as an LeT operative, but the National Investigation Agency had denied it.

The revelation couldn't have come at a better time for the BJP and the government, which was then in the midst of fighting a losing political battle after the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. It had received flak for the intervention of two of its ministers in student politics, which ostensibly drove Vemula to end his life.

The Ishrat case, at least since 2013, was known more for how the Gujarat police carried out a fake encounter than her alleged links with the LeT. That year, the Central Bureau of Investigation had vindicated an investigation by a court ordered Special Investigation Team that the encounter was staged.

The CBI had filed a chargesheet against seven Gujarat police officers as well as some Intelligence Bureau officials for their role in the killing. Headley's disclosure helped shift the debate from the question of extra-judicial killing of Ishrat and others to the certainty that they were indeed terror operatives and were meted out justice before they could have mounted a terror attack.

Senior BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad lost little time to highlight how the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government filed two contradictory affidavits related to the case within a space of two months in the Gujarat high court in 2009. The affidavits were in response to the petition filed by Ishrat's mother.

What is less known is that the additional judicial magistrate hearing the case had already cast doubts on the genuineness of the encounter, forcing the Union ministry of home affairs to file a second affidavit.

Unlike the first affidavit which had sought to prove that there indeed were intelligence inputs about Ishrat's terror links, the second affidavit stated how there was no conclusive proof.

In February this year, G K Pillai, the home secretary at the time of filing of the two affidavits, claimed that P Chidambaram as home minister then had altered the second affidavit 'bypassing' bureaucrats, and that the minister totally rewrote the affidavit.

The BJP demanded a judicial inquiry into the case and into Chidambaram's role. The party alleged that Chidambaram was attempting to frame Modi and Shah just before the Gujarat elections and on the orders of the Congress leadership.

Chidambaram has claimed the second affidavit was 'absolutely correct' and that Pillai was a party to it. In his defence, Pillai, currently a non-executive director with Adani Ports, has claimed that he didn't put a dissent note on the file then as Chidambaram was his political boss. Pillai retired in 2011, observed the two year cooling off period and joined Adani Ports, a company founded by Gautam Adani, who has earlier been targeted by the Congress for his proximity to Prime Minister Modi.

Within days of Pillai's claims there surfaced an interview he had given in 2013, two years after he had retired. Pillai had then said how he didn't think there was any conclusive evidence against her (Ishrat).

'Unless there is any proper investigation carried out, we will have to give her the benefit of the doubt.' Soon other police officials and bureaucrats came forward with newer revelations, including R V S Mani, the under secretary who had submitted the affidavits. Mani alleged that he was tortured by a court appointed Special Investigation Team to probe the Ishrat case.

Satish Verma, an Indian Police Service officer, rebutted Mani's claims. Currently the chief vigilance officer with a public sector unit and posted in Shillong, Verma said the SIT probe was extremely detailed, spoke to several witnesses and recorded confessions before magistrates to establish that the encounter was premeditated.

Verma said as part of the IB operation, two LeT men from Pakistan were lured to India, possibly with the help of Javed Shaikh. The SIT found that the intelligence input was about three men, and had no mention of a woman.

Verma said that the probe found that one of the men was detained 40 days before the killing and the second 15 days later, while Javed and Ishrat were caught travelling from Mumbai to Gujarat two days before the killing.

All, says Verma, were kept in illegal custody, taken to a predetermined spot, weapons were planted on them and then they were shot dead. He has said that the first affidavit cited a Pakistani Web site having carried her name as evidence of her terror links.

On Thursday, the Lok Sabha took up a calling attention motion to discuss the 'alleged alteration of affidavits relating to the Ishrat Jahan case.'

Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed that letters sent by Pillai to the then attorney general in relation to the second affidavit were missing, and the corrected draft of the second affidavit was unavailable. He slammed the 'flip-flop' on the issue by the UPA government and its 'attempt' to defame the then Gujarat CM. The home minister said his ministry was conducting an internal inquiry of the entire issue.

BJP MP Satyapal Singh, one of the three IPS officers to have headed the SIT, told the House how the UPA government manipulated the names of those who were part of the probe team, and prodded them to come up with a report that proved that the encounter was fake.

He also questioned the SIT's final report, pointing out how much of the evidence that proved Ishrat's terror links was ignored.

It was left to the Biju Janata Dal's Kalikesh Bahadur Singh to point out how both the Congress and BJP have played 'vote bank politics' on Ishrat's killing, and how both governments -- the Congress-led UPA at the Centre and the BJP's in Gujarat -- rewarded or punished officials based on what suited their respective agendas.

The MP said the case being heard in the Gujarat high court isn't whether Ishrat was a terrorist or not, but about its extra-judicial nature.

Amid the different versions of truth on the Ishrat case, what is certain is that Ishrat's mother Shamima Kausar, who has continued to maintain that Headley's confession was nothing but an attempt by powerful people to save themselves in the case, is unlikely to find a closure anytime soon.

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Archis Mohan
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