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Ishrat Jahan case: Intelligence won't survive the investigation

In 1988, the President of India handed Ajit Kumar Doval a small silver disc exactly one-and-three-eights of an inch in diameter, emblazoned with the great wheel of dharma, a lotus wreath and the words Kirti Chakra. It was the first time a police officer had ever received the medal, among the highest military honours our Republic can bestow.

He won that medal for unspeakable crimes.

It’s still unknown what Ishrat was doing with Sheikh; nothing, bar 26/11 convict David Headley’s claim she was a suicide bomber, is on record. Image: Ibnlive

It’s still unknown what Ishrat was doing with Sheikh; nothing, bar 26/11 convict David Headley’s claim she was a suicide bomber, is on record. Image: Ibnlive

Like many former intelligence officials, Doval considers himself bound not to discuss past operations. I have his permission, though, to speculate that it may have involved the cold-blooded execution of a Pakistani intelligence officer, the illegal detention of terrorism suspects, torture, the smuggling of arms and explosives across India's borders, and the use of false identities.

Lawyers have numbers and words for these things: 302, 304, 364, 120B, the Arms Act, the Explosives Act.  These are the laws India’s intelligence services break every single day — to defend the Republic.

To comprehend this is to comprehend why India’s intelligence services simply won’t — at least in their present form— survive the Ishrat Jahan Raza murder investigation. Ever since their inception, the Intelligence Bureau and its sister-services have functioned without any legal mandate. This means authorisation for anything they do. Every time an intelligence officer initiates a covert operation, launches agents across the border or engages in the lethal deceptions that constitute the warp and weft of spycraft, she or he breaks the law and violates the constitution.

It’s worked because of an unwritten consensus that has historically cut across political parties.  Last week, it all fell apart.

Few in the Intelligence Bureau privately dispute the contours of the secret story behind Ishrat Jahan’s death.  In February, 2004, the Intelligence Bureau was able to locate two Gujarat-based jihadists, trained in Pakistan, on the basis of information recovered from the body of a Poonch-based Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, Ehsan Illahi.  The two Gujarat-based are men are referred to in Central Bureau of Investigation documentation simply as C1 and C2.

C1 and C2 were persuaded, possibly with bribery or threats, to change sides.  They informed their Lashkar handler, Muzammil Bhat — the key military commander of the 26/11 plot — that they were ready to stage an attack against top political leaders in Gujarat, including Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The Intelligence Bureau was thus waiting for Gujranwala-based Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zeeshan Zohar, despatched to Gujarat in April on Bhat’s instructions.  They were waiting for his Sargodha-born colleague Amjad Ali Rana — earlier injured in fighting in Jammu and Kashmir — who showed up the following month.

Intelligence officers, helped by the police, coerced the two men — it’s possible torture was involved — to continue communicating with Bhat, allowing him to believe the plot was going well.

From immigration records, we know this: on 29 March 2004, Pune resident Javed Sheikh flew to Oman, on passport E6624023, identifying him as Praneshkumar M Gopinath Pillai — a travel document obtained illegally, in addition to an earlier one in his Muslim name. He flew back to Mumbai on 11 April.  He purchased the second-hand car that was to carry him to his death.  And he repeatedly communicated with Bhat — who finally authorised him to travel to Gujarat in June, believing C1, C2, and the two Pakistani fidayeen were ready to initiate their attack.

It’s still unknown what Ishrat was doing with Sheikh; nothing, bar 26/11 convict David Headley’s claim she was a suicide bomber, is on record. Her family insists she was just an innocent teenager, hired by Sheikh for his — non-existent — perfume business.

This much, we can say: if the police had done what they ought to have done, arrested and charged C1 and C2 with terrorism-related crimes instead of illegally inducing them to cooperate, they’d never have got to Zeeshan Johar.  If they’d arrested Johar, and produced him before a magistrate, they’d never have got to Amjad Ali Rana.  If they’d arrested Rana, they’d never have got to Javed Sheikh.  If they hadn’t got to these men, innocents might have died. And if they hadn’t killed the suspects, C1 and C2 would have been useless for further operations — and possibly dead.

Let there be no doubt about this: no democratic republic can countenance extrajudicial executions and torture. There’s just no way for what happened in Gujarat to be made acceptable.  Leave aside all the ethical concerns. Police officials who have the power over the life and death of terrorists today can, tomorrow, use it against political opponents and all the rest of us. Encouraging such acts isn’t patriotism: it is a sure-shot way of turning us into Pakistan, or worse.

Few ethical principles, though, survive encounters with the real world un-bruised — which is why only those who never exercise power have the luxury of moral pieties.

India has long confronted insurgencies and terrorism where state had to make a choice between law and order, after all its non-coercive institutions collapsed.  KPS Gill’s campaign against the Khalistan insurgency was brutal—but the thousands of people not killed in Punjab since 1993 is surely some moral mitigation of that violence.

The West has, for the most part, offshored these dilemmas.  The Cold War was fought with great violence — but in other peoples’ countries.  The Soviet Union and United States, unlike Pakistan and India, didn’t ever bomb each others’ cities through their intelligence services or proxies. In the post 9/11 world, the United States is known to have used third countries to torture.

For decades now, India has dodged a serious debate on what’s acceptable, what’s not and how to make the system to better.  Indians need to ask what a functional counter-terrorism legal framework might look like, how it is to be administered and who will make sure it isn’t abused.

I doubt this is going to happen, though, because the status quo suits the political leadership.  The same lack of regulation and oversight which has now put genuine national-security operations at risks also allows the Intelligence Bureau to be used for things that would invite criminal prosecution in most democracies.

Five of the Intelligence Bureau’s 28 joint directors in New Delhi, by my count, deal directly with counter-terrorism issues — but the rest are involved in various kinds of analysis and political surveillance. In stark contrast, the Intelligence Bureau’s operations directorate—the hub of its counter-terrorism effort—has some 30 analysts and field staff, all told; another 30-odd track Maoists.  Local counter-terrorism teams set up in 2008 have had to be dismantled due to staff shortages.

This is true of the police services, of the Research and Analysis Wing and other specialist intelligence services, too—and when you expect people to deliver results without the necessary tools and resources, you’ll get crude solutions.

In 1975, Doval won the police medal for meritorious service after just six years in service instead of the usual seventeen; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote a note on the file saying she wouldn’t normally do this, but the circumstances were unusual.  It had something to do, it’s said, with the circumstances in which six of Mizo insurgent leader Pu Laldenga’s seven military commanders became Intelligence Bureau assets.

Gun-running. Bribery. Killing.

Doval was inside the Golden Temple in 1989, when Indian forces killed 41 terrorists and forced 200 to surrender, without damaging the revered shrine.  The terrorists thought he was an Inter-Services Intelligence bombs expert, a misunderstanding that had some bearing on the eventual outcome.

Gun-running. Bribery. Killing.

Let’s accept that there are things that the republic must do to survive. Let’s have a serious conversation about how best to do these things.