Shortly before dawn on June 15, 2004, a Muslim female student and three men were led to a deserted road in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad and shot dead by police officers, according to charges filed by India’s top investigation agency.
Initial news reports featured a shocking picture of Ishrat Jahan, the 19-year-old student, dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez, lying near a road divider next to the bloodied corpses of the three other men.
Jahan and the three men, the early reports noted, were suspected members of the banned, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group on a mission to kill Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat.
The police claimed they were shot in an armed exchange. But an enquiry by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) found the four victims were picked up separately, killed in custody, and weapons were arranged to make it look like there was shooting on both sides.
Almost a decade later, “the Ishrat Jahan case” – as the high-profile investigation came to be called – inched a step further last week, when the CBI filed charges against four intelligence officials in connection with the extrajudicial killing.
The charges mark a symbolic step in a long-fought struggle by activists, victims’ families and legal professionals against extrajudicial killings in a country where “fake encounters” are all too common and security services are often protected by laws engendering a widespread culture of impunity.
“It’s a very important development because too often only junior police officials are punished, without holding those responsible to account for actually conspiring or condoning such killings,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If officials from the intelligence bureau are also prosecuted, it will send a strong message that the state will not go back on accountability.”
Ten years ago, when the news of Jahan’s killing first hit the headlines, few would have imagined that the death of a Muslim teenager hailing from India’s struggling lower middle classes could shake up the system.
But the Ishrat Jahan case has underscored the excesses and cover-ups being made in India’s fight against terrorism. It has also exposed the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which has functioned in a constitutional vacuum since it was founded in 1887 under British colonialism.
Finally, as the world’s largest democracy heads for critical general elections later this year, the case threatens to wittingly or unwittingly ensnare the man who could be India’s next prime minister.
‘My daughter is not India’s first woman terrorist’
Shortly after the June 15, 2004 killing, the Gujarat police insisted they were acting on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau that the four were terrorists who planned to assassinate Modi, the chief minister who is now the opposition BJP party’s candidate for prime minister in the 2014 elections.
But the official version of Jahan’s death began to unravel when her family insisted the university student was not “India’s first woman terrorist” – as the Gujarat police insisted – and demanded an inquiry.
“It takes a very strong family to sustain such allegations,” explained Ganguly. “It’s not easy for a family to sustain the social boycott and pressure. But Ishrat Jahan’s family – particularly her single mother – kept saying my daughter is not a terrorist.”
Initial inquiries found that Jahan had no criminal record and a 2009 report by the metropolitan magistrate said the teenager was killed in a “fake encounter” by top police officials in the state of Gujarat.
Following the 2009 report, the CBI filed its first charge-sheet last year, accusing seven senior policemen of “criminal conspiracy” to abduct Jahan and the others, keeping them in "illegal, wrongful confinement and thereafter killing all of them in a fake encounter”.
Despite reports that the responsibility for the killings extended further up the political and security services chain of command, intelligence officials were not charged.
That changed of course with the second charge-sheet filed last week, when former Gujarat Intelligence Bureau chief Rajinder Kumar and three other serving IB officials were accused of conspiracy and illegal confinement.
But the charge-sheet conspicuously omitted to mention any possible motive for the killings.
It also failed to press charges against former Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah, a close aide to Modi. The omission made the headlines in several newspapers, including a leading national daily, which called it “a morale booster for the BJP” ahead of the elections.
Plotting to kill Modi, ‘the saviour of the Hindus’
The fact that the initial police report stated the four were plotting to kill Modi, a controversial Hindu nationalist politician, has served as a lightning rod for the minority Muslim community and civil rights activists.
In his statement to the CBI, G.L. Singhal, a top police officer, said he voiced his disagreement with his superiors when the motive in the initial police report stated Jahan and the three men were plotting to kill Modi. “This was wrong,” said Singhal, “I knew the motive was different”.
The frontrunner in the 2014 race, Modi is banned from traveling to the US due to his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which killed more than 1,000 people.
According to Pratik Sinha, an activist with the Ahmedabad-based human rights group Jansangharsh Manch, the international outcry following the 2002 Gujarat killings fueled a move by Modi’s BJP associates to “create the image that Muslim terrorists were trying to kill Narendra Modi because he’s the saviour of the Hindus. The basic political motive was to keep up the image of Modi as the poster boy of the Hindus”.
Fake encounters spark condemnation
Extrajudicial killings are a common feature among India’s security services – including the military and police forces – prompting condemnation by national and international rights groups, as well as the UN.
Official statistics released last year found 555 fake encounters registered across India from 2009 to 2013. In the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir alone, the National Crime Records Bureau estimated that 1,224 people died in fake encounters between 1993 and 2008.
Fake encounters are especially frequent in the Kashmir area – where the defense services are fighting an armed insurgency – and in Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital, in the 1990s, when the police launched a crackdown on mafia groups.
Gujarat did not have a track record for a particularly high number of extrajudicial killings – until after the 2002 riots, when a spate of high profile custodial deaths led the Supreme Court to order a probe into fake encounters in the western Indian state from 2002 to 2006.
But while any whiff of a link with the Gujarat chief minister and prime ministerial candidate inevitably makes media headlines across India, few expect the case of the extrajudicial killing of a 19-year-old Muslim girl to affect Modi’s prospects at the polls.
“While many might believe that Modi, as chief minister, should have ensured that the Gujarat police are not engaging in human rights violations like fake encounters, there is no evidence linking him to this case,” said Ganguly. “The issue is, if he is prime minister, will he hold his advisors AND STAFF accountable – that’s the question.”
It’s a question that is likely to engage voters – particularly members of India’s minority Muslim community that has borne the brunt of extrajudicial killings – as the country heads to the polls later this year.
Date created : 2014-02-10