Ishrat Jahan case, Operation Greenhunt and the convenient morality of P Chidambaram

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 4 March, 2016. It is being republished in the context of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's statement that the Congress 'seriously compromised' India's national security with its handling of the Ishrat Jahan case.

The eminence of a lawyer is often directly proportional to her/his ease with words and use of convenient logic. Former Union home minister P Chidambaram is an eminent lawyer. His capability to defend the indefensible can hardly be underestimated.

File image of P Chidambaram. PTI

File image of P Chidambaram. PTI

But truth, even if buried deep down, has an uncanny habit of resurfacing at inconvenient moments. The revelations of sarkari hanky-panky in the Ishrat Jahan affidavits filed before the Supreme Court, is one such inconvenient moment for Chidambaram that will not go away in a hurry.

Those aware of his role in the case know that Chidambaram’s part in this murky affair was not limited to his personal interest in drafting the second affidavit that erased Ishrat’s Lashkar-e-Taiba links.

Chidambaram’s role was much deeper — going right back to the manner in which he brought in a controversial IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre Kuldip Sharma as adviser to the home ministry. Chidambaram threw all norms to the wind and inducted the officer without even the mandatory approval of the Gujarat government.

Was Chidamabaram enamoured of Sharma’s professional calibre and efficiency? If this is true, Sharma would surely be one of the tallest police officers the country has ever produced. But Sharma is hardly known for his outstanding policing. Far from it. He was accommodated in the North Block to actualise Chidambaram’s plan to implicate the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the fake encounter case. Sharma, who had fallen foul of the Modi administration, was just a handy tool to harass the state.

In an article in Governance Now on 9 July, 2013, I wrote the following:

"Hearsay, these days, seems to have acquired greater validity than truth. Look at the manner in which the CBI has been trying to implicate Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case. All it has so far got is specious verbal evidence of an low-rung officer claiming to have heard another senior officer telling a third that 'black beard and white beard' (obvious reference to Shah and Modi) had okayed the execution.

"The CBI had no problem making a mischievous mention of this bit of first rate hearsay in its chargesheet in the Ishrat case. But it conveniently omitted any mention of the recorded statement of David Coleman Hadley that Ishrat was indeed an LeT operative because that is supposed to have been mere hearsay. Headley’s statement, recorded by the National Investigating Agency (NIA), would not have undermined the CBI’s basic charge that the encounter was staged. But since the CBI is seeking to build a case that a minorities-unfriendly administration bumped off an innocent college girl, it chose to treat the NIA records as hearsay.

"Government agencies are past masters at resorting to hearsay and half-truths when it suits them. But rarely have they influenced the political discourse so much as they are doing now in the Ishrat case. In this context this bit of hearsay about Amit Shah is worth recounting. After he was arrested in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case by the CBI, Amit Shah was under constant pressure to turn approver and implicate Modi. "Arre bhai aap bania parivar se ho (Look, you are a bania) why are you putting yourself through so much trouble, just name Modi and be done with it," he was constantly nagged by CBI officers. Shah dutifully passed this information to top BJP political bosses.

"The rest is history. But what is particularly galling is the use of the home ministry as an instrument to stoke revolt in the IPS officers of Gujarat cadre. The office of Kuldip Sharma as adviser to Chidambaram came in handy to carry out these designs. There have been umpteen stories of the union home ministry encouraging police officers to revolt against the state government. The protective umbrella of the home ministry was a perfect indemnity for these officials."

The manner in which Chidamabaram altered the affidavit is no less culpable than a similar attempt made by his colleague in the Union government, Ashwani Kumar in relation to the coal scam case. But Kumar earned the ire of the Supreme Court and lost his job while Chidambaram emerged stronger after this indiscretion. There is a reason behind it. Unlike Kumar, Chidambaram was working to execute a political plan apparently vetted and approved by the Congress high command, particularly AICC president Sonia Gandhi.

And those aware of the intrigue in those times (four years before the 2014 General Election) would know about stories of late night meetings at the residences of either Ahmed Patel or former CBI chief AP Singh, in which the then CBI chief Ranjit Sinha was a regular attendee. At times when Singh was not there, his junior officers attended those meetings to finetune plans to implicate Modi and Shah in the Ishrat Jahan encounter. However it came a cropper because of the stout resistance from two home secretaries — GK Pillai and RK Singh.

At the same time, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) practically revolted against the political leadership for its move to implicate some senior IB officials being complicit in the encounter. As the 2014 elections drew near, CBI chief Ranjit Sinha developed cold feet and declined to include Modi's name in the chargesheet as an accomplice to the fake encounter.

Notwithstanding Chidambaram’s moral grandstanding, he was certainly not oblivious to the fact that the encounter that killed Ishrat Jahan and three others, was carried out with the approval of the internal security establishment of the UPA government. The then national security adviser (NSA) and old top sleuth MK Narayanan, was involved at every stage of the case and has recently acknowledged in this Hindu article the fact that the intelligence agency knew of Ishrat’s links to the LeT. The IB followed the precedent of handing over “suspected terrorists” to the state police for elimination.

Anyone with even an elementary brush with the intelligence operations in the country would know how agencies carry out counter-terrorist operations in insurgency-prone areas. Chidambaram was no novice in the home ministry. His own operation against Maoists across the country known popularly as 'Operation Greenhunt' was nothing but a ruthless pursuit and elimination of “suspected naxals” jointly by the intelligence agencies and security forces. But what was acceptable to Chidambaram in 'Operation Greenhunt' was unacceptable to him in the Ishrat Jahan case.

This change of heart for Chidambaram has far less to do with the killing of a hapless 18-year-old Muslim girl than to obtain his political objective of implicating Modi. His protestation of morality and lectures on ethics to the intelligence agencies is quite contrary to his conduct as the country’s home minister.

But then Chidambaram is an eminent lawyer.

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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2016 13:21 PM

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