The death of Ishrat Jahan and the cover-up that followed

People carrying the body of Ishrat Jahan from her residence on the outskirts of Mumbai for burial on 19 June 2004 REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe PP/BY
18 February, 2016

On 15 June 2004, four people suspected to be Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives were killed by members of the Crime Branch (CB) of Ahmedabad City Police in an early-morning shootout on the outskirts of the city. Top police officials such as KR Kaushik, who was the commissioner of the Ahmedabad police at that time, and the CB claimed that Ishrat Jahan, Pranesh Pillai alias Javed Ghulam Sheikh, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar were on a mission to assassinate Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat who is now India’s prime minister, for his alleged inaction during the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Four years later, in September 2009, the Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate SP Tamang was the first to call the incident a “fake encounter.” In his 243-page, hand-written report, Tamang explained how the concerned policemen had abducted the deceased from Mumbai and brought them to Ahmedabad on 12 June 2004, before killing them on the night of 14 June in police custody. According to Tamang, the policemen concocted the narrative of an encounter the next morning. The report concluded that these policemen had committed “cold-blooded murder,” and planted weapons and explosives to implicate the deceased, with the motive of earning the appreciation of the then CM.

Some of the policemen accused in this incident—such as the then Additional Commissioner of Police, CB, and “encounter specialist” Dahyaji Gobarji Vanzara and his then deputy in the CB, Narendra K Amin—have also been implicated in a similar encounter in November 2005, during which the gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi were killed. Vanzara and Amin were also accused in the case of the custodial death of Tulsiram Prajapati on 28 December 2006. Prajapati was a witness to Sheikh’s death. Yet, at present, all those who were accused in these cases are out on bail, and most of them have been reinstated.

As for the alleged terrorist links in Ishrat Jahan encounter case, no conclusive evidence has been produced in court apart from rumours based on hearsay and unsubstantiated claims in the media. These include the recent testimony of David Headley, presently convicted in the United States for his role in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008. In 2010, and on 11 February 2016, Headley identified Jahan as an LeT operative. At the time of her death, Jahan was a 19-year-old student who was pursuing a degree in Bachelor of Science (BSc) student in Mumbai.

On the day of the purported encounter, JG Parmar—then a police inspector at the CB, in Ahmedabad—filed a First Information Report (FIR), detailing the background and the circumstances of the shootout. The report painted an elaborate and graphic narrative. Parmar claimed that on 1 June, KR Kaushik—then Commissioner of Police (CP), Ahmedabad City—received information that three suspected terrorists were on their way to Ahmedabad “to attempt a suicidal attack” on CM Modi. Soon after, on 14 June 2004, at around 11 pm, PP Pandey—then the joint commissioner of police (JCP), CB—received information that a “blue coloured Indica car” carrying three men with firearms and explosives would reach Ahmedabad from Mumbai the following morning. Prompted by this information, DG Vanzara organised “under his direct guidance a light nakabandi (blockade)” at six locations around Ahmedabad.

At around 4 am, the car crossed Narol Chokdi, which is located on the southern outskirts of Ahmedabad. Parmar was stationed at this spot with NK Amin and his team. A chase ensued, with the officers-in-charge constantly communicating the car’s position through their mobile phones. Finally, as the car turned towards Airport Road on the northern outskirts of the city—with ACP Amin’s team still in pursuit—the team stationed at the nearby Indira Bridge Circle, led by ACP GL Singhal, laid an ambush on the Airport Road “near the sharp turning to [Kotarpur] Water Works.” This was nearly 20 kilometres away from Narol Chokdi, where the car was first spotted.

According to Parmar, the car slowed down at this turning and a commando from his team fired at its rear tyre, whereupon the car came to a halt. Its occupants responded by firing back indiscriminately. Following this shootout between the two police teams and those in the car, three dead bodies were found inside the vehicle. Jahan was on the passenger seat, and a fourth person was lying dead near the road divider.

Over the years, various investigations have been conducted by magistrates, Special Investigation Teams (SITs), and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). All of these have concurred that the encounter was not genuine. At the same time, a number of cases have been filed by Jahan’s mother Shamima Kausar, Pillai’s father Gopinath Pillai, and the policemen involved. All such matters were heard by a division bench of the Gujarat High Court (HC). Then, a year after the release of the Tamang report, the Gujarat HC ordered a fresh SIT probe on 24 September 2010.

On 19 July 2011, Rajiv Ranjan Verma, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the 1978 batch, was appointed the new chairman of the SIT, after two of his predecessors had asked to be relieved of the charge, and a third had refused it on grounds of ill health. On 1 December, the HC ordered him to register a fresh FIR with the CBI. Consequently, FIR 851/2011 was registered with the CBI, Mumbai on 16 December 2011.

The SIT’s report deconstructed Parmar’s original FIR, and charged twenty policemen—including KR Kaushik, PP Pandey, DG Vanzara, GL Singhal and NK Amin along with seven inspectors, one of whom was JG Parmar, four sub-inspectors, three commandos and one constable—for the fake encounter. Echoing the claims of the Tamang report, Verma revealed that there was evidence to indicate that the car, carrying Sheikh and Jahan, was intercepted by officers of the CB, Ahmedabad at the Vasad Toll Booth in Anand district of Gujarat, two days before the alleged encounter. Similarly, the report claimed that Amjad Ali was kept in illegal confinement at a farmhouse near Koba Circle, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, before the purported encounter.

Verma listed the various oversights in the initial investigation of Parmar’s FIR. These included the failure of the investigating officer (IO) Parixita Gurjar—then ACP of the women’s cell under CB, Ahmedabad—in obtaining the call data records of the mobile phones used by the policemen involved. Gurjar also failed to examine the weapons or the logbooks of the vehicles used by the police during the encounter. The SIT found that some of the listed vehicles were not used during the purported operation, and that empty cartridges from the shootout had not been deposited for investigation. Also, in what appears to be a glaring lapse, soon after the deaths, the IO mentioned the names and addresses of the deceased in a letter to the sub-divisional magistrate, Ahmedabad, requesting permission to conduct an inquest on the four bodies. However, as Verma said, “the IO could not have known these details before the inquest.” He added that “several officers of the [CB] who were involved in the purported encounter were tasked with investigative work of this case,” and that this was against the guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission.

Additionally, some of the photographs from the crime scene proved to be inconsistent with the police’s account of the encounter. For instance, certain bullet holes that were found on the car during the examination were missing in the photographs taken on the spot. The SIT also found video clips that showed the concerned police officers “handling and changing the positions of important exhibits like firearms.” Verma then noted, “the personnel deployed on the same route during the stated nakabandi by seven police stations of Ahmedabad City do not corroborate any such nakabandi.”

On the matter of the purported shootout, Verma began, “The incident happened on a dark road, before sunrise during a moonless night.” He went on to list the various discrepancies in the police account based on an analysis of the bullet trajectories, firing positions and blood spatter forensics. Two of the nine millimetre (mm) bullets recovered from the bodies, and “eight empty cartridge cases of nine mm ammunition recovered from the Indica car,” did not match with any of the guns that had supposedly been used by either side. Upon subsequent analysis, the “gunny bag containing 17 kg of yellow powder” that was seized from the car was not found to be “an explosive mixture.” Verma refuted all of Parmar’s charges, and concluded that “the right of private defence for causing death of the four deceased persons does not legally accrue to the concerned police officers.”

Two years later, on the basis of this FIR and further investigation, the CBI filed its first chargesheet in the CBI court at Mirzapur in Ahmedabad on 3 July 2013. It accused seven policemen—JG Parmar, DG Vanzara, PP Pandey, GL Singhal, NK Amin, Tarun Barot and Anaju Chaudhary—out of the twenty named in Verma’s FIR under the same charges (Sections 302, 364, 368, 346, 120-B, 201, 203, 204, 217, 218 of IPC; and 25(1)(e) and 27 of the Arms Act).

The CBI also filed a supplementary chargesheet on 6 February 2014, accusing four Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers—including its former special director, Rajendra Kumar—of conspiring in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case. Kumar, in particular, was charged with generating the intelligence about the plot to kill Modi, which set off the chain of events that led to the encounter. However, in June 2015, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) turned down the CBI’s request for sanction to prosecute the IB officials. That month, NK Amin, who was out on bail, was reinstated as the deputy superintendent of police (DSP). The matter remains pending in the CBI court in Ahmedabad—right where it all began.

In December 2015, I visited advocate Vrinda Grover in south Delhi. Grover has represented Jahan’s family since 2008. She told me that, based on the statements of the policemen who had witnessed the abduction and detention of the deceased, the CBI chargesheet had enough material to indicate that the murders had political sanction. “It was within the knowledge of the present PM, Narendra Modi, as well as the present president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah. But that trail of evidence was never pursued by the CBI,” she alleged.

In his resignation letter, dated 1 September 2013, Vanzara—who was incarcerated in 2007 for his involvement in four fake encounter cases, including those of Jahan and Sohrabuddin, and had received bail in February 2015 after spending eight years in various jails of Ahmedabad and Mumbai—validated Grover’s assessment. Vanzara stated, “We, being field officers, have simply implemented the policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters.” In the same letter, he also claimed that Modi was under the evil and misguiding influence of Amit Shah, and that Shah’s “unholy grip over the state administration is so complete that he is almost running the government of Gujarat by proxy.”

Meanwhile, the BJP formed the union government in May 2014 after a massive victory in the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections. Moving out of Gujarat, Modi and Shah assumed two of the most powerful positions in the country as the prime minister and president of the ruling party, respectively. Referring to the MHA’s refusal to provide sanction for the prosecution of the four IB officials, Grover commented, “The IB anyway operates in a zone where there is no check on its actions, and now the accountability process has been abducted by the executive.” As for the reinstatement of the accused policemen, she asked, “What is the signal they have sent? That the government thinks it’s perfectly fine to kill whoever it thinks should be dispensed with—and that if you do what you’re asked to do, you’ll be rewarded and the law will not be able to touch you.”

Moreover, Grover is yet to see the supplementary chargesheet. She sought permission from the CBI court to inspect it twice. She was told, on both occasions, that the document was not available in the court. “This is a case where the state is prosecuting, why is the state not worried if documents of such importance are disappearing?” she asked, before adding, “Whatever we had to do, we have done. But the CBI is yet to begin the trial.” As for the claims of Jahan being a terrorist, Grover said, “Instead of throwing such statements through the media, people should furnish the evidence before the appropriate authorities. And even if the other victims had links with terrorism, Indian law does not permit them to be killed.”