Last week, D.G. Vanzara, a former Gujarat police officer accused in the killing Ishrat Jehan and her associates, as well as Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati, returned to Gujarat after his bail conditions were modified to permit him to re-enter his home state. Instead of slinking home, as most people accused of murder would be wont to, Vanzara returned to a rousing reception where he danced, waving a silver sword presented to him by his family and announced that he would be entering public life. Two days later he participated in a new year event in Ahmedabad where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and senior BJP leaders were present.
Following his release, Vanzara said, “Delhi knew about the encounters, which were based on the inputs provided by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials… still the anti-nationals of the country falsely created these cases.” Former IB special director Rajendra Kumar, who was supposed to have passed on the information, has denied that the IB was in any way involved.
Ishrat Jehan, Javed Shaikh, Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana were shot dead in June 2004 on the outskirts of Ahmedabad allegedly by a police team led by Vanzara. The police claimed that Ishrat and her associates were Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) operatives on their way to kill Modi. Whether Ishrat was indeed a member of the LeT is a matter of controversy.
In 2009, a magisterial probe ruled that the encounter had been staged. The decision was challenged by the state government and taken to the high court, which set up an special investigation team, whose report in 2011 broadly confirmed the magisterial report and which led the CBI to file its first chargesheet in an Ahmedabad court saying that the alleged killings had been done in cold blood.
But the Ishrat killing was not the only one Vanzara had been involved in. He had been arrested in 2007 for the killing of Sohrabuddin, a gangster, in yet another fake encounter in 2005. Investigations revealed that Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausar Bi had been arrested from a bus traveling in Maharashtra. Sohrabuddin was a well-known criminal, but after his death, inspired reports sought to paint him as an ISI agent who was trying to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat at the time. The key witness to his killing, another criminal Tulsiram, was killed in yet another allegedly staged encounter a year later, in 2006.
As for Kausar Bi, we were initially told she disappeared. But accounts suggest that she was held in custody in two different farm houses and eventually strangled to death and cremated near Vanzara’s home village of Illol. This information was conveyed by the Gujarat government counsel to the Supreme Court in 2007.
In September 2012, the CBI filed a charge sheet in a Gujarat court against 37 accused, including Amit Shah, current president of the BJP, and various police officers, including Vanzara. Within months of the BJP coming to power in New Delhi, Shah was discharged in the case. Subsequently, some other of the accused were discharged and Vanzara was given bail.
The hawkish narrative in the cases is not bothered about the genuineness of the alleged encounters that led to the deaths of Ishrat or Sohrabuddin. The suggestion is that since Ishrat — an LeT agent — and Sohrabuddin — an ISI operative — were plotting Modi’s death, they got what they deserved.
But what about Kausar Bi? No one, but no one, says she was an LeT operative, or for that matter a criminal or, horror of horrors, a conspirator to kill Modi. She was a housewife who was travelling with her allegedly criminal husband. No encounter has been alleged in her case. Is she ‘collateral damage’? Was she killed because she was the wife of a bad man? If yes, then you can argue parents, spouses and children of terrorists are fair game and, maybe, you could say that his/her community are also fair target.
Killing a human being has been a serious business in all societies and civilisational progress has been measured by the latitude provided for it. In olden days, a king or a feudal lord could order an execution at will. In modern India, the Supreme Court has decreed it to be the “rarest of rare” penalties. Under our law, only the judiciary can order a killing and that, too, after due process. No one, not the president, director general of police, the army chief or even the prime minister, and most certainly never the police or the so-called ‘encounter specialists’, can kill someone with impunity. Exceptions are provided in designated areas for the armed forces by a special law, but only in exercise of their duty.
Sadly, in the blood thirsty climate of our times, not many will be bothered by the illegal executions of ‘terrorists’ like Ishrat and Sohrabuddin. But surely, someone should spare a thought for the hapless Kausar Bi.
Manoj Joshi is a columnist with Jagran Group publication mid-day. This article first appeared in the daily on April 12, 2016.