From Jawaharlal Nehru's historic "At the stroke of midnight" speech on India's independence day in 1947 to Narendra Modi's fiery "India will not bow before terrorism" address, Delhi's Red Fort has always been witness to the greatest moments in Indian history. It has borne the marks of time and watched centuries of change sweep through the country.
But 16 years ago, it was on this day that the premises of the majestic fort were shaken up by gunshots, as Lashkar-e-Taiba militants shelled the military shelter inside the fort, killing two soldiers and one civilian.
The assault and the conspiracy
On a winter evening on 22 December, 2000, LeT militants sneaked into the Red Fort on the pretext of watching the light-and-sound show that retells the tale of the historic structure. According to a report in The Hindu, six militants, with their arms hidden under leather jackets, entered the Red Fort around 7 pm through the Lahore Gate, the main entrance to the historic structure. They headed to watch the show scheduled for 7:30 pm. However, they later sneaked into the military shelters under the cover of darkness and fog.
According to another report in The Times of India, around 9 pm, the militants started firing indiscriminately on the guards of seventh battalion of Rajputana Rifles, killing two soldiers and a civilian guard. The militants then escaped through the Fort's rear wall.
According to the report, the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan and funded by top LeT operatives. The report further states that funds were transferred to terrorists through a Delhi-based hawala account operator, who was later nabbed by the Delhi police.
The Hindu report states that the prime accused, Ashfaq Ahmed, set up his base in India and opened a computer centre in Gaffur market as a cover for his activities. He then contacted five other terrorists — Abu Samal, Abu Sadd, Abu Sakhar, Billal and Haider, and set them up at a rented house in Delhi's Batla House area. The terrorists did a recce of the Red Fort, it being a prominent tourist spot.
Ashfaq was later nabbed by the Delhi police based on some notes recovered from behind the Red Fort, according to the report.
The militants, the report states, had come to India on the behest of Pakistan's intelligence wing ISI in 2000. The prime accused Ashfaq Ahmed, lodged at Tihar jail since 2000, came to India and married Rehmana Yousuf Farooqui, a girl of Indian origin. Rehmana was also arrested as she was reportedly in full knowledge of Ashfaq's plan and assisted him. Another militant was later killed in an encounter on 26 December.
The legal battle
The Delhi police, after conducting an enquiry in the matter, finally filed a chargesheet against Ashfaq and 21 others in February 2001. However, the special sessions court hearing the matter framed charges only against 11, including Ashfaq and Rehmana, according to a report in Hindustan Times. The court sentenced Ashfaq to death, while his four accomplices, including his wife, were give seven years in prison. Two more militants convicted in the case were given a life term.
Ashfaq later approached the Delhi High Court against the verdict. The high court, however, upheld the lower court's verdict and ruled that life sentences should be awarded to Ashfaq for waging a war against the country and murdering three people.
In a rare move, the Supreme Court put Ashfaq's death sentence on hold in April 2014, according to Live Mint. Ashfaq appealed in the apex court that he has already served 13 years in prison, and the death sentence awarded to him would therefore be akin to a double punishment for one crime. He also petitioned that he had been suffering mentally and physically due to the long delays in judicial proceedings.
The apex court's move was deemed rare as it had, in August 2011, upheld the sentence awarded by the sessions court and termed the attack on Red Fort as a "brazen and arrogant assault to overawe India".
However, the Supreme Court in January 2016, took cognisance of Ashfaq's appeal and has admitted his plea for a hearing. The Constitutional bench led by Chief Justice of India TS Thakur, hearing the matter, emphasised the finality of the death sentence and agreed to an open court hearing on why his punishment should be reversed, according to a report in The Indian Express.
As of now, Ashfaq is lodged at Tihar, and is awaiting the Supreme Court's order on his fate.
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2016 21:04:10 IST