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Ishrat Jahan: The inconvenient story no one wants to tell

Late in the summer of 2004, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s top operations commander Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi held the terrorist organisation's first meeting with David Headley, the young Chicago drug dealer-turned-jihadist at the heart of the 26/11 project. Lakhvi told Headley he would be working with Muzammil Bhat, the full-bearded 6’4” giant in the room, who counted among the Lashkar’s most able operatives. Bhat’s achievements, Federal Bureau of Investigations interrogators recorded Headley as being told, included multiple strikes in Kashmir and recruiting a “female suicide bomber named Ishrat Jahaan [sic].”

“Zaki,” Headley went on, “mentioned Muzammil’s plans to attack Akshardham temple, Somnath and Siddhi temples. These attacks were revenge for the 1988 attack on the mosque in Yuppe [sic, the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh].”

Nine years  since a hail of bullets ripped through Mumbra resident Ishrat Jahan Raza’s body, a Central Bureau of Investigations into her killing, along with three men, threatens to indict the highest leadership of India’s intelligence services for cold-blooded execution.

Ishrat Jahan. IBNLive

The whole truth about Ishrat Jahan's life and death will likely not please anyone.  IBNLive

Even as the CBI works towards finding out just how Ishrat died, there’s a growing mass of evidence that suggests the United Progressive Alliance government has been economical with the truth about her life and her death.

Last year, the National Investigations Agency told Gujarat High Court judges Jayant Patel and Abhilasha Kumari they had nothing but “hearsay” on Ishrat. Firstpost’s documentation on the FBI interrogation of Headley shows the union government knew otherwise—but remained silent.

It isn’t the only thing it has chosen to be silent on.

Early on the morning of 15 June 2004, Ishrat Jahan, Javed Sheikh, Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana were shot dead on the road leading to the Kotarpur waterworks on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. KP Singh was at that time director of the Intelligence Bureau; Nehchal Sandhu, who is today deputy national security advisor, was then in charge of  counter-terrorism operations; MK Narayanan, who is today West Bengal governor, was then advisor on internal security. And Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, then as now.

The first three, without doubt, would have known of the IB warning that went out to all states on 22 April 2004, warning of imminent attacks on top Hindu nationalist politicians, including LK Advani.

Later, the IB’s Gujarat station would provide the Gujarat Police more detail, telling Ahmedabad’s police chief there were two Pakistani terrorists with Punjabi accents planning an attack, in coordination with a Pune resident.

From accounts given to Firstpost by three separate intelligence sources, the IB’s operation had its genesis in February 2004, when the Jammu and Kashmir Police shot dead Poonch-based Lashkar operative Ehsan Illahi.

Letters found on Illahi’s body led the police to an Ahmedabad-based lawyer. From there, the operation rolled on. There’s some reason to believe the Lashkar’s plot was penetrated. First Information Report 8 of 2004, filed by the Ahmedabad Police Crime Branch after the killing, records that the authorities knew of the imminent arrival of a blue Tata Indica carrying the victims, bearing the licence plate number MH02 JA4786—suggesting the Intelligence Bureau had an informant on the inside.

“No one suggested that based on an intelligence input you should kill someone,” former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said in 2009. That’s true, but it neatly dodges the question of what the UPA did when four terrorists whom its intelligence services were following ended up dead.

The CBI hasn’t sought any answers, so far, from any of the people who can answer that question.

We know next to nothing, too, about what led Javed Sheikh to his death. Born Praneshkumar Pillai at Thamarakulam village in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, Sheikh met and fell in love with Sajida Sheikh in 1986. He converted to Islam in an (unsuccessful) effort to overcome her family’s resistance. In September 1995, though, the two married and moved to Mumbai’s Mumbra area. Then, they shifted to Pune after a business dispute turned violent. Sheikh’s life continued to be turbulent; the police filed four rioting cases against him in 1997 alone.

In 2003, Sheikh left for Dubai, securing a job on a forged Indian Technical Institute certificate. He returned, according to Sajida Sheikh’s testimony, embittered by videotapes he had seen of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

On 29 March 2004, Sheikh again flew to Oman, on passport E6624023, identifying him as Praneshkumar M. Gopinath Pillai—having obtained this in addition to a passport in his Muslim name. He flew back to Mumbai on 11 April carrying Rs 2.5 lakh in cash, which he used to purchase the Indica he drove to his death.

The government said, in a 2004 affidavit, that Sheikh “was in regular touch with Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, particularly Muzammil Bhat.” Government sources say there is wiretap evidence to back this up, but the UPA hasn’t ever ordered it made public, and the CBI hasn’t sought it.

Sheikh met Ishrat and her mother in Mumbra on 1 May 2004—where Sheikh said he needed a salesgirl for a new perfume store. There is no evidence that Sheikh ran a perfume business.

On 30 May, he drove his wife and children to the family home in Alappuzha. From 6 June  to 9 June, the family stayed at Sajida Sheikh’s family home in Ahmednagar. Then, Sajida Sheikh said, her husband called on the morning of 11 June to say he had to go to Mumbai on unexpected work. Two days later, when Sajida Sheikh called her husband, his cellphone was out of network reach.

Hotel staff at the Tulsi Guest House in Bardoli, on National Highway 6 outside of Surat, say Sheikh and Ishrat checked in after 2 am on 12 June 2004. On 14 June, their car developed mechanical trouble. The staff at the Shakti Motor Garage outside Ahmedabad told the police that Sheikh paid Rs 1,025 for repairs.

Earlier this month, additional solicitor-general Indira Jaisingh told the Supreme Court the CBI has evidence the group was kidnapped on the orders of former state intelligence chief PP Pandey at least a day before they were shot dead. Last month, the CBI interrogated former Gujarat Intelligence Bureau station chief Rajinder Kumar, now in charge of counter-intelligence operations. The organisation is reported to be seeking his arrest, saying he was responsible for having the alleged terrorists “detained illegally and brought to Gujarat.” It’s hard to see how his superiors wouldn’t have known—and why they aren’t being asked about it.

Funnily, though, the five police officers alleged to have been actually present when Ishrat was allegedly kidnapped and killed—Girish Singhal, Tarun Barot, JG Parmar, Bharat Patel and Anaju Chaudhary—got bail after the CBI failed to file charges against them in the 90 days allowed by law.

This presumably happened because the CBI doesn’t have enough evidence against them to sustain a prosecution—though it claims to have witnesses to the kidnapping and illegal detention.

Nine years ago, no one knew for sure whether Ishrat was a terrorist or not, and whether she was killed in cold blood or a legitimate exchange of fire.

It’s unclear why the CBI hasn’t spoken to large numbers of people who might have something to add to this story.

From the testimony of Faizabad resident Muhammad Wasi, made before an Ahmedabad magistrate, there’s reason to believe Sheikh shopped for pistols and a sten gun in Uttar Pradesh sometime after February 2004. Wasi claims Sheikh was introduced to him by another Faizabad resident, Muhammad Mehrajuddin—whom the CBI hasn’t even sought to locate.

The CBI hasn’t questioned Muhammad Abdul Razzak, an alleged jihadist held by the Delhi Police in 2005, who claimed to have told interrogators he sent Sheikh to a jihad training camp.

Kashmir residents Majid Husain Qadri, Pervez Ahmad Khan Abdul Aziz Shah, alleged to have helped Amjad Ali Rana after he was shot trying to cross the Line of Control, have never once been questioned. Investigators say the three men had Johar treated in New Delhi, at the City Clinic in Paharganj. Siddharth Sahai, who performed surgery on Rana, identified him when the police showed him photographs.

Then, there’s Headley’s testimony—totally ignored so far.

For years now, we’ve got plenty of things that make headlines, but nothing resembling even part of the truth.

In 2009, metropolitan magistrate KS Tamang indicted the police for faking the encounter, but in a report full of mind-boggling nonsense: “given the nature of women, none usually wears her college identity card during journey”; “when any lady travels from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, she invariably carries her purse and handkerchief in her hands.” It made multiple errors of appraisal, from misreading forensic evidence to presumptively declaring the suspects “innocents”.

Gujarat’s High Court responded to petitions by the families of Ishrat and Sheikh by appointing a special investigation team. From the outset, there was contention with Karnail Singh and Mohan Jha, among allegations of bias. Notably, lead officer Satish Verma rejected the findings of forensic experts who concluded that the encounter didn’t appear faked at all. Verma himself faces allegations relating to alleged negligence in the landing of smuggled explosives and extrajudicial killings—and the targets of investigation claim, rightly or wrongly, that he harbours biases against them.

Like all truths, the whole truth about Ishrat Jahan’s life and death likely won’t please anyone. It’s critical, though, to the credibility of India’s criminal justice system, and the future of our struggle against terrorism. Nothing anyone has done so far, though, suggests anyone really wants to tell the story—and nothing the CBI is doing gives reason to think that’s going to change.

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