Ujjwal Nikam: Are there female suicide bombers in LeT?
David Headley: No, I don't know.
Nikam: Can you name a suicide bomber?
Headley: I can't name.
Nikam: Was there a botched-up operation in India?
Headley: There was a botched-up operation which I learnt while Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi was talking to Muzzammil Bhat.
Later I asked Muzzamil and he told there was a female member of the LeT who was killed in a police shootout at a naka (picket). Exact place I cannot recall.
Nikam: I gave you three options, which one of them was it: Noor Jahan Begum, Ishrat Jahan or Mumtaz Begum?
Headley: Ishrat Jahan.
Lakhvi (architect of 26/11) and Bhat (LeT deputy commander, the terrorist handpicked by Lakhvi to attack India) are safely ensconced in Pakistan. Ishrat Jahan and her alleged handlers and recruiters are all dead. So, we are unlikely to hear their side of the story unless some day Lakhvi also decides to help Indian investigators.
There is nothing to doubt Headley's intentions so far. Maybe he is genuinely helping India nail the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks in lieu of an official pardon. So, for the sake of argument, let us accept that Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist because a terrorist told this to another terrorist.
But, how does the gospel of David Coleman Headley change a simple fact: That several reports based on investigations by government agencies — not testimonies of pardoned terrorists — concluded that Ishrat Jahan was killed in cold blood, in a staged encounter by top-ranking cops of Gujarat?
Does Headley's statement make the encounter less fake? Or exonerate those who took law in their hands, killed Ishrat Jehan — and three other persons travelling with her — and meted out instant justice on the roads of Gujarat?
That the encounter was fake was first argued by SP Tamang, metropolitan magistrate of Ahmedabad, in a 243-page detailed report on the incident.
Tamang said officers of the Gujarat crime branch "kidnapped" Ishrat and three others from Mumbai on 12 June, 2004. They were then brought to Ahmedabad and killed two days later in police custody. But the police claimed that they were killed in an encounter on the outskirts of Ahmedabad the next morning.
Tamang argued that rigor mortis had set several hours before the encounter. This, he said, clearly pointed to the fact that the police fired at dead bodies and planted weapons on them to give the impression of an encounter.
A special investigation team (SIT) constituted by the division bench of the Gujarat High Court also corroborated the findings of the metropolitan magistrate. The three-member team, in its 22-page report, revealed Ishrat and her three companions were not only gunned down in a fake encounter, but the killing was a "well-planned, brutally executed murder".
On 1 December, 2011, the Gujarat High Court declared that the SIT had discovered that the murder of the Mumbai teenager and her companions — Javed Sheikh, Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana — was executed in a "not genuine" encounter by the notorious Ahmedabad crime branch, with the defamed DG Vanzara at the helm of affairs.
The division bench, comprising justices Abhilasha Kumari, also declared that the fake encounter would be probed by the CBI. The SIT was assigned to hand over the probe within two weeks to the central probe agency. Additional DGP and SIT chairman RR Verma on 15 December handed over the 22-page FIR to the CBI, following which the agency filed a fresh FIR in Mumbai against 20 Gujarat Police officers.
During the course of the trial, several police officers who claimed to have witnessed the 'encounter' deposed before the court and gave statements under section 164 of CrPC, corroborating the allegation that the killing was staged.
In his statement to the CBI, GL Singhal, an assistant commissioner of the crime branch, said: "He (Vanzara) had showed me a complaint written in his own handwriting wherein some contents (names, number of rounds etc) were not written. It was pertaining to this case and the story of encounter in the complaint of what was registered later as Ahmedabad City DCB PS I CR No. 8/04. I had voiced my disagreement to Shri Vanzara on reading this draft complaint. My differences were basically on two points. One, the motive in the draft FIR mentioned a plan to kill the Chief Minister Shri Narendra Modi; but this was wrong. Since I had interrogated Amjad Ali (one of the alleged terrorists killed in the encounter), I knew the motive was different. Two, I had serious objections to killing the girl, Ishrat. I had said we let her go, and had promised to ensure that she would not spill the beans about this operation to anyone. Despite my strong objections, Shri Vanzara insisted on keeping the motive involving the Chief Minister and on killing the girl and branding her later as a woman terrorist."
On 6 June, 2103, Devendragiri Himmatgiri Goswami, deputy SP, Gujarat Police, had this to say under section 164 about the encounter: “On 14/6/2004 afternoon, I, along with GL Singhal, went to the chamber of DG Vanzara, Bungalow No 15, Shahi Bagh office. Vanzara handed over one written complaint to GL Singhal. There was (a) plan to kill some persons of Lashkar-e-Taiba who intend to kill (the) chief minister. GL Singhal was disagreed regarding the draft complaint as there was something to do about the girl Ishrat, but Vanzara was adamant.”
Clearly, there is a mountain of institutional evidence suggesting Ishrat and her accomplices were killed in a fake encounter. Some activists even allege that Ishrat's accomplice, Javed Sheikh aka Pranesh Pillai was an informer of the Intelligence Bureau.
Physicist-lawyer Mukul Sinha, a bitter critic of Modi, even alleged that the plan drawn up by Rajinder Kumar (chief of State Intelligence Bureau) and Vanzara was to use their informers and/or decoys to abduct at least two Kashmiri youths having some link with underground militants, bring them over to Gujarat and stage an encounter to make it appear that the terrorist had come to Gujarat to kill the Chief minister.
Does Headley's revelation change anything? Does it give a clean chit to the officers accused of extra-judicial execution of the terror suspect?
Ajmal Kasab's trial and Headley's deposition are classic examples of the benefits of keeping a terrorist alive. It helps intelligence agencies get valuable insights into terror networks and priceless diplomatic ammunition against countries that support terror. Executing them without a fair trial is not just illegal — incidentally, this is exactly what terror outfits like ISIS do in the name of justice — but also counterproductive. By punishing terror suspects before proving beyond doubt their culpability, countries often end up turning them into martyrs and victims, convenient toys in the hands for the divisive games of politicians.
The truth is, the entire political class stands to lose if the truth behind Ishrat Jahan's encounter is revealed. Fingers will be pointed at the Intelligence Bureau, the then UPA government, which leaked selective information on the encounter and changed its stance on several occasions for political reasons, the then National Security Advisor and the entire government machinery of Gujarat. Politicians, intelligence officers and cops at every level of government, both at the Centre and in Gujarat, have a lot to hide.
It is precisely for this reason, the real questions that need to be asked about Ishrat's death would be buried in the noise about her identity.
Finally, a question for Nikam.
Sheikh and Ishrat's families owned up their dead bodies. But, nobody knows who Johar and Rana, the other two persons killed in the encounter, were. Since Nikam was so keen to give Headley mutiple-choice questions to Headley to establish Ishrat's antecedents, can we now expect him to quiz his star witness on the identity of the other two alleged assassins?
Or, would it be a futile exercise since nobody gets a clean chit by finding out who they were?