The controversy over the killing of Ishrat Jahan in a police encounter in June 2004 has come back in the spotlight following the recent revelations that as Home Minister, Congress leader P Chidambaram had changed the original affidavit describing her as a member of a Pakistan-based Lashkar module. It now appears that Chidambaram approved the original affidavit as well as the one amended within two months in 2009 that stated “there was no conclusive evidence” against Ishrat.
Ishrat and her three other friends were killed by Gujarat Police in June 2004 in an encounter, based on feedback from the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It was said that the group was plotting to kill the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In July 2004, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had published an article on the Jamaat-ud-Dawah's website claiming Ishrat Jahan as their operative. But around this time, the Congress-led UPA assumed office. The Congress as well as many human rights activists saw the incident not as a conspiracy to kill a Chief Minister but as “a fake encounter”, emphasising the point that in a democratic country, a criminal should be punished by the judiciary alone, not the police. As the controversy grew, the LeT issued a clarification in 2007 (after three years) saying that it was wrong in naming Ishrat as its activist in India.
It was against this background that Chidambaram changed the affidavit. That Chidambaram was wrong became evident when recently David Headley, who conspired with the LeT in plotting the 26 November, 2008 (26/11) Mumbai attacks, admitted, first to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and then before an Indian court, that Ishrat Jahan was indeed a "fidayeen" (sacrificial aspirant) working for someone named Muzammil Bhat or Muzammil Butt of the LeT to target Modi. Cornered, Chidambaram and the Congress party have now reverted back to the “core issue”, which, according to them, was “the fake encounter”.
However, the main purpose of this piece is to make the point that Chidambaram’s decision on the Ishrat case should not be seen in isolation as a measure to implicate and oust Modi from the office in Gujarat. That may or may not have been the case, but that must be viewed as only a component of the more important and overall strategy to legitimise a concocted phenomenon of 'saffron terrorism'. And this strategy, fully manifested 2008 onwards, was necessitated for the Congress party to neutralise the adverse impacts of the 26/11 tragedy one the one hand and to revive normal interactions with Pakistan on the other. In the process, not only the Ishrat case but also those relating to blasts in Samjhuta express, Malegoan, Ajmer Sharif and Mecca Masjid (Hyderabad) were reopened simultaneously to implicate “Hindu fundamentalists”.
It would seem that but for the capture of Pakistani terrorist Kasab alive during the 26/11 attacks, the Congress party would have termed the incident as an act of “saffron terror”. In fact, in 2010, the internet whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks released US embassy cables in which the then US ambassador to India was told by a senior Indian minister that the death of Hemant Karkare, a senior anti-terrorism investigator killed during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was somehow orchestrated by Hindu extremists just because he was fighting 'saffron terror'. Coincidentally, this was the time when none other than Rahul Gandhi told American diplomats, as WikiLeaks revealed, that the real danger to India came from the “Hindu terror”.
And importantly this strategy went in full swing soon after the Congress party won 2009 - Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Haryana. At the time, not only at the Centre but also in Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra there were Congress governments. “Reinvestigations” of the aforementioned terrorist incidents, all occurring in these four states, and implicating “the Hindu terrorists” for these incidents (earlier all those arrested accused in these cases happened be members of the banned Muslim organisations like SIMI), and then linking it with the Ishrat Jahan case, became very easy.
It all began with Samjhauta blasts. For those uninitiated, a terrorist attack occurred around midnight on 18 February, 2007, on the Samjhauta Express, a twice-weekly train service connecting Delhi and Lahore. Bombs were set off in two carriages, both filled with passengers, just after the train passed Diwana station near Panipat. 68 people were killed in the ensuing fire and dozens more injured. The attack came just a day before the then Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri was to arrive in New Delhi to resume peace talks with Indian leaders.
Initial investigations suggested that the prime suspects in the bombing were the LeT and JeM (another outfit in Pakistan), both whom have been blamed for many high-profile bombings in the past. Importantly, on 1 July, 2009, the United States Treasury and United Nations Security Council placed sanctions on LeT and named one Arif Qasmani as having played a role in the bombing. But surprisingly, all of a sudden in 2008 Police Officer Hemant Karkare, who was heading the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), came out with a theory that one Lt Col Prasad Purohit supplied the RDX that was used in the Samjhauta Express blast. Purohit, according to him, was a prominent member of the “Hindu terror outfit” Abhinav Bharat.
Subsequently, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which the Manmohan Singh government had specially created soon after the 26/11 attacks to act as the Central Counter Terrorism Law Enforcement Agency, filed a chargesheet against five accused—Naba Kumar Sarkar alias Swami Aseemanand, Sunil Joshi (now dead), Lokesh Sharma, Sandeep Dange alias Parmanand and Ramchandra Kalasangra alias Ramji alias Vishnu Patel—in the Samjhauta Express blasts case at a special court in Panchkula. The timing was important as it was done just on the eve of the foreign secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Pakistan to talk to her counterpart there and prepare grounds for the much anticipated parleys between the foreign ministers of the two countries. Indo-Pak talks had not gathered the required pace in the absence of Pakistan’s co-operation in punishing those responsible for attacks on Mumbai on 26 November, 2008. By chargesheeting the alleged “Hindu terrorists” on the eve of Rao’s visit, the Manmohan Singh government allowed Pakistan to project a linkage between the two incidents. As veteran security expert late B Raman argued then, the Manmohan Singh government virtually walked into the Pakistani trap by relaxing the pressure on Islamabad to arrest and prosecute successfully all those involved in the 26/11 strikes and by succumbing to its pressure on the Samjhauta Express incident.
Be that as it may, although nearly seven years have passed by and “the Hindu terrorists” arrested by the UPA government under the stringent MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) are still in jail, charges against them are increasingly becoming untenable, legally and otherwise. Swami Aseemanand has told the court that he was physically forced to make the confession and was innocent. The Supreme Court of India has swung into action and has questioned the very basis of continued detention of Purohit and Pragya Thakur (a lady Hindu preacher) under MCOCA, as they had no criminal record. The court also observed that there was “considerable doubt” about their involvement in Malegaon blasts. It has directed that their bail plea should be examined by a special trial court.
As already pointed out, the theory of “saffron terror” was evolved to neutarlise the adverse impacts of the 26/11 tragedy, particularly during the electioneering for 2009 general elections. Once evolved, there were logical follow-up measures, one of which also included a proposed Bill to combat communal violence that projected Hindus as inherently communal and therefore it was they who would be proving their innocence if charged, not the other way round, as mandated by any normal jurisprudence.
In retrospect, one finds this anti-Hindu mindset of the UPA government very surprising, given the fact that despite their overwhelming majority and despite the cruel history that the community has experienced, the Hindus had no problem with having a non-Hindu Prime Minister and a non-Hindu as the chief of the country’s largest political party. In fact, when Singh became Prime Minister the first time (2004), he was administered oath by a non-Hindu President of the country as well. If anything, this proves the intrinsic secular character of the Hindus. One doubts whether in any well-entrenched Western democracy in the world, a Hindu, or for that a matter, a non-Christian, will ever be able to assume any high political office.