Tuesday, Jun 06, 2023

Close Encounters 

Close Encounters 

There is trouble brewing for the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat as the CBI advances its investigations into the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case

FILE PHOTO: Mayur Bhatt

On June 24, while addressing youth at a state-organized function at Mahatma mandir in the state capital Gandhinagar, BJP's prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi warned the CBI of dire consequences. ”I warn all those who are trying to appease their political masters by becoming a potent tool in their hands. Modi is not afraid of CBI which is nothing but the Congress Bureau of Investigation. Nobody is going to rule Delhi for ever,” he thundered.

Twenty four hours later, the chief minister was huddled at his residence with Amit Shah, his former minister of state for home, and Gujarat BJP in-charge Om Mathur, discussing among others, the fall-out of CBI investigated fake encounter cases coming to fruition in July this year.

The timing of the threat to the CBI was not lost. The apex investigating agency is under court directions to file the charge-sheet in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case by July 4. In public domain Modi was alluding to the manipulation of the CBI by the UPA government while the fact is that the investigation was handed over to it by the Gujarat High Court. 

As recently as on June 14, the High Court division bench of justice Jayant Patel and Abhilasha Kumari had harsh words for Gujarat government, blaming it for resisting the probe. Additional Advocate General Tushar Mehta representing the state government was advised by justice Patel ”not to get psychologically disturbed” when he suddenly bolted out of his chair interrupting the CBI counsel saying, "Has the CBI become so insolvent that it cannot work without an officer." Mehta was referring to IGP Satish Verma, a 1986 batch IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre. 

If the guilty are brought to book in this case, it will be because of the doggedness of the Gujarat High Court—fending off waves of brazen onslaught by the official establishment to thwart a proper probe—and its protection of Verma, a fine police officer whose investigation has been invaluable for justice and a thorn for a handmaiden police and a collusive governance. 

Last year Verma was dumped in the Police Training School (PTS), Junagadh, but when called to assist the CBI, the state took the plea that it desperately needed his services back. Verma had in 2012 challenged his transfer before the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) contending that it was done to hamper the Ishrat case probe. The CAT on June 26 asked the Gujarat government to justify the transfer.

Why is a constitutional authority like chief minister Modi targeting CBI which is acting under the direct supervision of a High Court monitored (Ishrat Jahan-Sadik Jamal) or a Supreme Court directed (Sohrabuddin Sheikh-Kauserbi-Tulsiram Prajapati fake encounter) investigation and going out of its way to victimize its own officers for not falling in line? 

The reasons are not far to seek.

There is trouble brewing for the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat as the CBI advances its investigations into the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case and top cops get sucked in with every passing day. Finger pointing has already begun and the sword of Damocles now hangs over political heads, the then minister of state for home Amit Shah and the chief minister who also held the home portfolio as also a line-up of police top brass and men who connived in unlawful criminal acts or acquiesced to their political masters in ‘dutiful’ performance. 

Modi has a determined prime ministerial bid lined up for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and close confidante Amit Shah catapulted to national general secretary’s job in the BJP looking after UP sees a bright future beckoning. Both could end up in a so-near-and-yet-so-far situation politically if the charges stick after judicial scrutiny. Shah has already had an extended stay in Sabarmati jail in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case and is out on bail.

In fact, the ghosts of the Mumbra college student Ishrat and four others who were gunned down by a team of the Ahmedabad crime branch on June 15,2004 seems to be extracting poetic revenge.

The then joint commissioner of police in-charge of the Ahmedabad crime branch, P.P.Pandey, an officer of the rank of additional DGP, is on the run; the then police commissioner K.R. Kaushik, a retired DGP, has been summoned by the CBI as an accused; a joint director of the Central Intelligence Bureau, Rajendra Kumar is in the dock. 

If Pandey headed the crime branch which carried out the encounter under the leadership of serial encounter cop deputy Inspector General of Police (IGP) D.G.Vanzara, already behind bars in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, Kumar, who was Central Intelligence head in Ahmedabad from 2001 to 2005, is alleged to have provided ‘doctored’ intelligence reports to aid the planned police led extermination. Kumar’s name also figures in a similar role in the 2003 Sadik Jamal Mehtar fake encounter case as well. Kumar may have escaped arrest by the skin of his teeth, thanks largely to the inter-organisation fracas between the CBI and the IB but he retires in July this year and the case is still under investigation. 

Pandey, a proclaimed absconder had sought solace from the Supreme Court, but faced rejection and was directed to the High Court where a single judge bench has pointed him to the division bench seized with the case. Two SPs N.K.Amin and G.L.Singhal, besides deputy SP Tarun Barot, have ended up behind bars for the offence as well.

Ironically it is the release of Singhal and Barot, among others, on default bail that has the might of the Gujarat government queasy in the stomach. The CBI did not file the chargesheet within 90 days of arrest paving the way for the release of IPS officer Singhal, Barot and three of their subordinate officers. This itself is seen as astounding since five senior IPS officers including Vanzara and numerous other subordinate ranks have been behind bars in connection with the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi and close associate Tulsiram Prajapati for over six years now, with no respite from the CBI in sight.

Singhal who quit the IPS in disgust against the inability of the Modi dispensation to stand by its officers, and Barot with some of the subordinate officers, are however out on default bail. Singhal has been keeping a low profile, spurning all attempts of the Modi establishment to reach out. There is speculation that the cops have been allowed out in return for defining insights into the encounter, though they may have stopped short of turning approvers.

Strategically placed sources say that Girish Singhal has the Modi establishment breaking out in cold sweat. The man who was upfront in the Ishrat elimination team has reportedly spilled the beans. The change of heart is reported to have been brought about by the tragic death of his 17 year old son Hardik, who hanged himself in February 2013. The reason given for the school going son ending his life was academic pressure but sources say that it was the reports of the father’s ‘handiwork’ splashed all over and piled day on weary day that hurtled the young one to an untimely end. This proved the turning point for the man who allegedly played a key role in the elimination of 19 year old Ishrat. Singhal has since reportedly collected admissible evidence that could prove a bombshell for those directly or indirectly involved. And this is said to include audio-tapes of key people conspiring to thwart the probe. Singhal was arrested two months after his son’s death.

The CBI which went through the call records of most of the top cops connected with this encounter with a fine comb, have stumbled on information that shows that some of these officers were in touch with someone in the Chief ministers office (CMO) both before and after the encounter. A senior IAS officer is in the line of fire.

A blue in the face Modi establishment has let loose an army of intelligence operatives to keep a hawklike vigil on the released police officers. The presence of a top Gujarat state legal functionary in the apex court when Pandey’s plea came up though the government was not a party has led to considerable consternation. Interestingly the CBI has already subjected the chief public prosecutor Sudhir Brahmbhatt to a gruelling interrogation over three days. His call details showed him to be in frequent contact with home minister Shah and crime branch officers on the day of the Ishrat encounter.

The Modi establishment has all along made herculean efforts to subvert the investigations into the case at every step but it goes to the credit of the Gujarat High Court that it has frustrated all such attempts, even passed strictures on the conduct of the government in relation to the probe. Magistrate SP Tamang was the first to term the encounter a fake one and had indicted 21 police officers including the then Ahmedabad police commissioner K.R. Kaushik. The 243 page handwritten report of Tamang was challenged by the Gujarat government which raised doubts about the accuracy of the report in the High Court. Incidentally, CBI investigations today seem to be proving the authenticity of Tamang’s observations.

According to the FIR filed by the crime branch in 2004, Ishrat, Pranesh Pillai alias Javed Sheikh, Zeeshan Ali and Amjad Rana, all Lashkar-e-toiba operatives, were travelling in a private car from Pune to Gujarat to assassinate chief minister Modi but were intercepted by the cops on a tip off by the central intelligence and killed in the encounter that followed. The CBI probe, however, tells a different tale. While Ishrat and Pranesh were picked up together, the other two were picked up separately, kept confined and later all killed together.

The case has a chequered history. In 2009, the investigation of the case was handed over to a SIT comprising IPS officers Pramodkumar, JK Bhatt and Mohan Jha. When they failed to conclude it, the Gujarat High Court formed a new SIT comprising IPS officers Satish Verma, Mohan Jha and Karnail Singh of the Delhi Police as its head. Singh cried off on pretext of a Mizoram posting. He was replaced by Maharashtra IPS officer Satyapal Singh who said he did not know Gujarati and declined. He was followed by Andhra Pradesh IPS officer R.R.Rumudu who refused on health grounds and was replaced by R.R.Verma as head of the SIT. It was this SIT report which termed it as a fake encounter. 

Subseuquently RR Verma also left and so did Gujarat IPS officer Mohan Jha, thus leaving a solitary officer Satish Verma. The Court then handed over the investigation to the CBI on December 1, 2011 with Verma assisting it. Ever since, the Gujarat government has left no stone unturned to victimize Satish Verma. An old fossilized case of 1993 has been re-opened against Verma and the Modi establishment which has chosen to sideline him all along, has been desperately pleading for the urgent return of Verma’s services. It is the High Court’s rocklike stance that has been Verma’s saviour all along. Highly placed sources say that the ruling establishment is desperate to avoid Pandey’s interrogation with Verma assisting the CBI. He is expected to surface now that Verma has gone back to his parent cadre.

The High Court has been stinging in it’s criticism of the Gujarat government for obstructing the course of investigation in this case. "It has come on record from the investigation carried out by the SIT and CBI that officers who have been named as accused are being sided, protected and shielded”. 

The last has not been heard yet, there are more fireworks to come, said a top investigator connected with the case. ”It’s going to be interesting,” is how he put it.

By R.K.Misra in Gandhinagar