Soon after Ishrat Jahan, Javed Sheikh alias Pranesh Pillai and two Pakistani nationals, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Jowher, were killed in an encounter on 15 June, 2004, a Lashkar-e-Taiba mouthpiece declared them martyrs. But the claim was contested by secularists and liberals in India. They went to town saying that an innocent Mumbai girl was murdered by the trigger-happy Gujarat Police.
It was not yet another encounter, fake or genuine, which happen in all parts of the country. It had taken place in Gujarat where Narendra Modi was the chief minister. The minister for home and law in the state then was Amit Shah, not so well-known at that point, except that he enjoyed the total confidence of his leader and he won assembly elections with record margins. The Congress-led UPA government had assumed power at the centre only a month ago. The Intelligence Bureau would have, as is the norm, informed the top leadership in the government – the prime minister, the home minister and the National Security Advisor - the incident and situations leading to that.
But nobody in the then ruling establishment cared about the details. It had become a political issue. Ishrat’s Mumbra home soon became a place for secular-political tourism and then came an avalanche of political statements. Nobody, of course, talked about the credentials of three men whom she accompanied on the secret Gujarat trip.
An attempt was made to portray Ishrat as a symbol of young aspirational India and Modi as a diehard Hindu communalist who would go to the extent of approving her killing simply because she was a Muslim in suspected bad company. Nine years later, in July 2013, when JD(U) boss and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar parted ways with the BJP, he called Ishrat Jehan ‘Bihar Ki Beti’ (Bihar’s daughter). Since then she has remained a part of the secular-versus-communal narrative in the country.
In his deposition before a designated court in Mumbai on Thursday, David Coleman Headley aka Daood Sayed Gilani is said to have named Ishrat Jahan as a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative. This has re-ignited the old debate. What Headley told the Mumbai court was not unknown. The NIA had this information since 2009, the year they interrogated him in the US. But the agency, apparently under political pressure from the Congress-led UPA, conveniently chose to ignore this fact. It was not mentioned in its report and later it told the Gujarat High Court that it was mere “hearsay”. The Congress government, for obvious reasons, didn’t want to talk about the credentials of Ishrat.
What makes the difference today, both in terms of legality of the case and public debate, is that Headley has placed it on oath in a court that Ishrat was an LeT operative. Headley described it as a “botched up” operation. There would still be questions as to how that gave the licence to the Gujarat Police to kill them in a fake encounter on the basis of suspicion only. The merits of the case are still being deliberated in the court of law and the verdict will come in due course.
Headley’s deposition will have immediate and significant bearing on the public discourse on the subject. The Congress leadership, successive home ministers of the UPA, Shivraj Patil, Sushil Kumar Shinde and P Chidambaram (if not then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), then CBI chief Ranjit Sinha, who never thought of finding what Ishrat was doing in the company of Pakistan-based terrorists and their Indian accomplice, Javed Sheikh, need to answer some questions.
Ranjit Sinha also needs to answer why he never coordinated with NIA to investigate the “hearsay”. He also needs to answer why he brought the Intelligence Bureau into direct conflict with CBI and why he made all possible attempts to jail IB’s then special director Rajinder Kumar. All through the investigations and charge sheet, CBI remained silent on the credentials of the men and woman who were killed by the Gujarat Police. Sinha has subsequently landed himself in trouble in the 2G case, but he can throw some light on the case.
Will Nitish Kumar and his colleagues in JD(U) still call Ishrat Jahan as “Bihar Ki Beti”, or apologise before the nation following Headley’s revelations? Patil, Shinde and Chidambaram need to explain why they kept the proof gathered by NIA, through the interrogation of Headley and evidence provided by the FBI, under wraps. Even if it was “hearsay” it surely needed to be investigated further since it’s a case which impacted national security and fate of several senior police officers and the chief minister of a developed border state.
Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, IB officers and a number of other accused police officers in the case would feel relived today. They have for long suffered a vilification campaign. Though Modi and Shah were never named as accused in the case, there have been long-drawn legal battles to implicate Shah and by implication his then boss in Gujarat government, Modi. The CBI had eventually given a clean chit to Shah in the Ishrat case but the campaign never ended.
The Congress is making a nuanced response, making a distinction between Ishrat’s bonafides and the “fake” encounter but it’s time they respond to some straight questions.