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India: The murder of Ishrat Jahan

by Praful Bidwai, 14 July 2013

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The News International, July 13, 2013

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation has charged eight Gujarat policemen, including senior officers DG Vanzara and PP Pandey, with premeditated murder for the 2004 ’encounter’ killing of teenager-student Ishrat Jahan and three others. They were falsely accused of plotting to kill Narendra Modi. The police abducted and unlawfully detained the victims, blindfolded and drugged them, and pumped 70 bullets into them. The First Information Report had already been fabricated.

This wasn’t the first time that policemen like Vanzara, Pandey, NK Amin and GL Singhal were implicated in fake ’encounters’. Gujarat has one of India’s highest ’encounter’ rates, for which a large number of policemen have been jailed. The targets were always ’foreign-inspired’ terrorists out to eliminate Modi. What better proof of his Great Patriotism?

However, the Ishrat Jahan case is special – first, because of the testimony of deputy police superintendent DH Goswami, admissible as evidence, that he heard Vanzara telling Singhal that he had obtained Modi’s permission to kill her. A second element is the Intelligence Bureau’s involvement. According to the CBI, IB Special Director Rajinder Kumar was the operation’s ’kingpin’, who hatched plans with Vanzara and Pandey to eliminate Ishrat.

The IB has been planting stories to claim that Ishrat wasn’t an innocent hardworking science student and family breadwinner. She was connected with, and given arms training by, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Even assuming this is true, it would be patently unjustifiable and illegal to kill Ishrat – instead of trying her in a court which would duly punish her if the charge were proved. Nothing can condone coldblooded summary execution, even less so when it’s conducted by the guardians of the law.

The IB earlier tried to vilify Ishrat by citing Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley’s custodial interrogation in the US, linking her to the LeT. But India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), which examined Headley, says the IB’s claim is based on hearsay. Headley, a double (or triple?) agent, is prima facie unreliable.

On Ishrat, the IB clearly overstepped its brief. Thanks to overzealousness and some of its officers’ grandiose self-image as the defenders of national security, it collaborated with Gujarat’s criminalised policemen to kill Ishrat.

The CBI’s case against Rajinder Kumar is reportedly ’watertight’. He apparently generated or instigated a series of false ’inputs’ in 2002-04, out of vengeful motives. One of the worst pertains to Sadiq Jamal from Bhavnagar, killed in 2003 in another fake ’encounter’, after being handed over to the Gujarat police by Mumbai’s notorious ’encounter specialist’ Daya Nayak.

Kumar is likely to be named in the next CBI charge sheet. Confronted with probable comeuppance, the IB is resorting to familiar dirty tactics: ducking responsibility, planting disinformation, obfuscating the pertinent issue – extrajudicial execution – and claiming it was only doing legitimate intelligence-gathering in Gujarat.

The IB has no legal sanction or mandate, no formal charter, and works in a constitutional vacuum. It was created not by India’s sovereign parliament, but by an executive order passed in 1887 by the British secretary of state. Its main function until 1947 was to spy upon the colonial state’s enemies, especially leaders of the freedom movement. "It has remained like a ghost, without a statute, all these 125 years", says former senior IB official RN Kulkarni in a public-interest petition.

The IB isn’t answerable to the cabinet, leave alone parliament. It uses secrecy as a shield against accountability. It famously misled Nehru in 1959-62 on the border tensions with China. Successive governments have used it to spy on political opponents, trade unionists and civil society activists.

Indira Gandhi relied on IB ’inputs’ on the opposition’s alleged plans to destabilise her – and imposed emergency rule in 1975. New disclosures show that in January 1977, when Gandhi was planning to lift the emergency, a committee – which included the IB’s TV Rajeswar (later its director and West Bengal governor) – argued for its continuation.

The IB, like the external spy agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat), has always stood to the right of elected governments. These agencies follow the paranoid dictum, ’it’s better to be safe than sorry’, and exaggerate threats to ’national security’, of which they are the self-appointed guardians.

Both agencies long followed an unstated policy of not recruiting Muslims. With the advent of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and especially after the September 2001 attacks, the Islamophobic edge in the IB’s counterterrorism approach was strengthened. This changed only recently, and perhaps marginally, when Syed Asif Ibrahim was appointed the IB director last December. Equally pertinently, the IB has cultivated a mindset that’s suspicious, even contemptuous, of human rights.

The IB perfected questionable means like torture and other brutal methods early on – in the northeast. With rising extremism in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir later, it gained unprecedented importance as India’s main domestic counterterrorism agency and colluded with the police in extrajudicial killings in several states.

It’s of the utmost importance that the IB be brought under proper oversight – if necessary through a special parliamentary committee on intelligence, which observes a degree of discretion on crucial national security considerations. But this must not sacrifice genuine accountability or dilute strict compliance with the guidelines stipulated by the National Human Rights Commission regarding custodial deaths, with no exceptions allowed.

However, the extrajudicial execution menace will remain as long as India has policemen who believe in shooting first and asking questions later. They invariably abuse their power, as countless ’encounter specialists’ from Daya Nayak, Praful Bhonsle, Pradip Sharma, Rajbir Singh to Vanzara prove. They must be systematically weeded out and exemplarily punished.

Above all, India’s public and legal discourse must urgently move towards privileging human life and the highest respect for rule of law – regardless of the provocation. It simply won’t do to argue that civil liberties can be subordinated to reasons of state because the fight against terrorism is an ’asymmetrical’ one in which ’the enemy doesn’t play by the rules of the game’; state agencies cannot succeed if made to follow ’rules applicable to common criminals’.

Civil liberties are too valuable to be subordinated to reasons of state without undermining democracy. It’s specious to argue that ’war is hell’, or ’all’s fair’ in war. It’s not. Wars, even just ones – when waged against tyranny – must also be fought in a just manner, with scrupulous regard for non-combatant immunity, without indiscriminate violence or disproportionate use of force, or cruel and degrading methods. ’Encounter’ killings violate all these criteria.

Those who think summary killings were necessary to win against Khalistani militants in the 1980s don’t understand why the Punjab insurgency lost support – because of the militants’ senseless violence. They also underrate the terrible cruelties visited upon ordinary civilians, exemplified by the en masse cremation of thousands of unidentified bodies in many districts.

’Controlled’ killings and torture lead the path to a slippery moral slope. Once the state stoops to torture, it’s liable to sink into tyranny. State tyranny can be far worse that the violence of terrorist groups, as the examples of Salwa Judum, Gujarat, Kashmir, Punjab and the northeast show.

Many more people were killed in unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than under Saddam Hussain or on 9/11 in the US. Tyranny, however ’controlled’, can never produce justice or lasting peace.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1 at


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use