The Many Deaths of Ishrat Jahan

Instead of asking whether the guilty have been punished, the questions around the Ishrat Jahan 'fake encounter' continue to be about if she was an LeT operative.

A file photo of Ishrat Jahan

A file photo of Ishrat Jahan

In the early hours of a midsummer morning, at the outskirts of Ahmedabad near the city’s waterworks, on June 15, 2004, the Gujarat police shot dead four occupants of a car. One of those killed was a young 19-year-old woman. Her name was Ishrat Jahan.

After the killings, the Gujarat police maintained that all the people who had been done to death, including Ishrat Jahan, were operatives of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, one of the largest terrorist organisations in South Asia based out of Pakistan. The First Information Report filed by the police claimed that it had received intelligence reports that a fidayeen attack on then-chief minister Narendra Modi was planned to avenge the Gujarat massacre of 2002 and that three men – Amjad Ali Rana, Zeeshan Johar and Javed Sheikh (Pranesh Pillai) – were charged with this mission. The first two were ‘Pakistani fidayeens’ traveling from Kashmir to Ahmedabad to ‘attempt a suicidal attack’ (sic) on Narendra Modi. The third, Javed Sheikh, was allegedly ‘arranging their local network.’

Interestingly, the FIR did not mention by name the fourth occupant of the car, Ishrat Jahan. It just describes her as a ‘female terrorist’, but does not explain what intelligence, if any, the police had about her at that time. The teenage girl was later identified as Ishrat Jahan, a college student from Mumbra, a suburb of Mumbai in Thane district.

According to the version of the police, it received information on the night of June 11, 2004 that three men were travelling from Mumbai to Ahmedabad in a blue Indica car with ‘firearms and explosives’. The car was intercepted when it reached Ahmedabad, but tried to escape, leading to a car chase. Its occupants began shooting at the police, firing over 50 rounds from two revolvers and two Kalashnikovs. The police were forced to respond in defensive fire, as a result of which the four occupants of the car were killed. The police did not explain why not a single policeperson was even injured in this alleged shootout.

Breaking the news

The same evening, a group of young strangers knocked at the door of Ishrat Jahan’s home in Mumbra, a predominantly Muslim working class Mumbai suburb. At home were Shamima Kausar, Ishrat’s mother, and her younger siblings. The visitors said they were from Ishrat’s college and they needed her passport photograph for her college forms. The strangers asked them: ‘Have you not heard the news? Don’t you watch television?’

Around eight at night, they finally broke the terrible news. They were in fact journalists. Ishrat Jahan had been killed in a police encounter. She was charged with a conspiracy to kill Modi. Television channels were broadcasting the sensational news all day. They needed her photograph to flash on television.

The cold dread and shock of Ishrat’s family was matched only by their utter bewilderment. The younger children had not even heard of Modi. None of them knew what an ‘encounter’ was. And they could not believe that their beloved Ishrat was suddenly dead and branded a terrorist. She was just 19.

But they had no time even to grieve.

By 9 pm, the police came to their home, evacuated and sealed the house, and drove the entire terrified family to the police station. Throngs of journalists and television cameras had by then crowded outside their home. The police dropped them back at 2:30 am. Their house was sealed. Shamima and the children sat up sleepless the whole night at a nearby shop.

By morning, the journalists had grown virtually into a mob. A team of women policemen arrived, opened the seal of the house and searched it, roughly throwing out the contents of cupboards, stripping the beds, over-turning all their furniture.

Ishrat’s mother then was driven to Ahmedabad by some sympathetic neighbours, to collect her daughter’s body. She was grilled and abused by the senior police officials there. Finally they gave her the body – stiff, bloodied, defaced with bullet wounds. The assembled media went wild with their cameras and questions. Back in Mumbra, they were stunned when literally tens of thousands of people attended the funeral; all their faces were grim and strained, as though for each it was a personal loss.

Ishrat’s history

I met Shamima Kausar and Ishrat’s younger siblings Musssarat and Anwar several times during their long battle for justice. This is the story they told me. Ishrat Jahan was barely 17 when her father, a small-time builder-developer, died from a brain tumour, leaving behind a large bereaved family in a small rented apartment. Ishrat was not the eldest of the seven children, but she was the brightest and most responsible. Still in high school, she started tuitions for children of the neighbourhood. The fees the children gave her became the main source of survival for the closely knit family.

Ishrat entered Guru Nanak Khalsa College for a bachelor’s degree in science. She would cook breakfast for the family, rush to college and return to teach two batches of children. Their mother Shamima spent most of her day at the sewing machine, stitching zari borders to saris. They owned no television and were not allowed to watch films, even to visit friends. They were busy just in the business of everyday living: content in their routine of studying, working, dreaming; hardly aware of the world outside their home.

The summer months after school examinations were the hardest for the family, because school children were on holiday and none came to Ishrat for tuitions. In March 2004, some relatives introduced the family to a middle-aged man Javed, who was looking for help with marketing and accounts for his perfume business. He would pay 3,500 rupees a month. It would also involve some out-station visits, for which he would pay extra.

With seven mouths to feed, her mother had little option but to allow Ishrat to accept the job, for the lean summer months. Ishrat made two short visits to Pune and Lucknow. On June 11, she left on her last out-station assignment. Her brother left her at the bus stand. Javed was to meet her at Nasik, from where they were to travel by car to other cities.

The police however maintained that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba had recruited Ishrat Jahan as a suicide bomber. Her out-station travels were to prepare for a suicide attack on Modi. Timely intelligence and police action succeeded in preventing the attack, and the conspirators were all killed because the police was left with no option when they shot at them. The police was tipped off and chased their vehicle, and fired into the car tyre, forcing it to halt. The terrorists are then said to have alighted from the car and fired relentlessly at the police vehicle. In self-defence, the police finally felled all four in a fierce gun battle.

Police harassment and legal developments

In a few weeks, the media forgot about Ishrat Jahan and her family, but the police did not. The neighbours were initially helpful, but if anyone tried to assist the family, they were soon summoned for questioning and harassed by the police for their ‘sympathy for terrorists’. The family was soon left almost alone. “There were times when we wondered why we were still alive,” her sister Mussarat recalled to me when I met them a few years later. “Why were we being punished?”

They moved into a new rented house, but the mundane business of feeding themselves without their father and Ishrat, loomed over their lives. Mussarat dropped her studies and helped her mother with sewing. Young Anwar also sewed and started holding computer classes. Not everyone abandoned them and there were a few in the local community who collected money for them once in a while, to help them survive.

They also assisted Shamima to file a petition four months after her daughter’s death in the Gujarat high court, seeking a CBI enquiry into the deaths. But the case remained dormant. Then in 2006, unexpected glimmerings of hope were lit. Their friends came with the news that the same Gujarat police officers led by Vanazara, involved in Ishrat’s death, had been jailed for the killing of Sohrabuddin and his wife in another ‘encounter’. Shamima wrote a letter to the chief justice of the Gujarat high court, saying that she wanted to know who the killers of her daughter were. They did not hear from the court. Shameema persisted, aided by human rights lawyers Vrinda Grover and Mukul Sinha. In 2007, Javed’s father filed a petition. Two years later, he was advised to go the Supreme Court.

As these superior courts prevaricated, an unknown junior metropolitan magistrate, S.P. Tamang, responsible for conducting what is almost always an utterly routine statutory enquiry into encounter killings, stood tall, bravely affirming justice and truth. He examined the forensic reports and statements, and in a lucid and tightly argued report on September 7, 2009, stunned everyone by concluding that the police version of how the killings occurred was an “absolutely false and concocted story”.

Ahmedabad metropolitan judge Tamang, in a 248 page hand-written report carefully analysed the post-mortem and forensic evidence to conclude that Ishrat and the three men were actually killed several hours before the alleged shoot-out from a close range, as the entry points of the bullets wounds on the body were smaller than the exit points. The post-mortem report also supported the conclusion that the police killed the four people earlier and later placed them at the scene of the crime. The police fired on their police jeep themselves and planted explosives in the car that carried those who were killed. The police had then taken their bodies to the isolated roadside near the waterworks and planted an AK 47 weapon in the hands of one of the dead men. Forensic tests found no remains of ‘exploded ammunition’ on the victims, supporting the conclusion that the police planted the guns found on them. The report pointed to several other discrepancies in the police version: police said they fired 70 bullets, but no bullets were found on the scene. According to them, they shot at the car’s left side and burst a tyre after which it hit the divider on the right, but if that were the case, the car would have swerved left and not right.

It was cold blooded murder by the police, including of an innocent 19-year-old college girl. The police cover-up was clumsy and ham-handed, the forensic evidence crystal clear, but no court had until then chosen to look this ugly and explosive truth in the face. This is what Tamang did.

Ishrat’s family received the news with complete disbelief and then a poignant sense of elation, as they distributed sweets. The grim report confirmed the brutal circumstances in which their beloved Ishrat was killed. But it also cleared her name and identified her killers to be men in uniform. The family could emerge at last from the dense darkness of isolation and stigma of the past five years, which they thought would never end. After these long years, they could once again step out of their homes with their heads high. They could begin to live and hope again. This hope was fragile, frail, tentative… But still it was hope.

SIT and CBI probe results: Not a fake encounter

After Tamang’s brave and sensational report, the Gujarat high court constituted a Special Investigation Team, with two Gujarat police officers Satish Verma and Mohan Jha, to be headed by a police officer from outside Gujarat. But a series of policemen refused to undertake this responsibility. Finally in November 2011, the SIT completed a thorough investigation and submitted its report, and Satish Verma filed an affidavit in the high court that the ‘purported encounter’ was not ‘genuine’. Many police officers in Gujarat protested against the report, and the court finally agreed to have a fresh probe by the CBI. The CBI in turn presented its findings in July 2013.

Both the SIT and the CBI concluded that the four people killed were in the custody of the police before their killing, that they were shot at close range, their bodies placed in the location and weapons planted on their bodies later. The CBI charged 20 police officers with murder, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy and several other offences. A range of senior police officers were indicted, including P.P. Pandey, D.G. Vanzara, G.L. Singhal, Intelligence Bureau officer Rajendra Kumar and two IB junior officers. In the course of 2013, Pandey, Vanzara and Singhal were arrested. The CBI report pointed to evidence of the possibility that the fake encounter had the prior approval of the then home minister Amit Shah and even the chief minister, Narendra Modi.

The winds changed course after a BJP-led government was sworn in at Delhi in the summer of 2014. Pandey, for instance, was released on bail in February 2015 and in three days was reinstated and given charge of a probe against Satish Verma, the police officer whose SIT probe had led to Pandey’s indictment. In April 2016, he was appointed Director General Police, a first in the country for a police officer charged with murder (even if out on bail) to be given this high responsibility. All seven indicted police officers – many charged with other fake encounter killings as well, such as that of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi – are out on bail. Three have retired, the remainder have been promoted. Retired police officer Vanzara returned to Gujarat on bail to a hero’s welcome. On the other hand, Satish Verma was denied promotion and faces several probes. Although years have passed since the CBI completed its probe, there is no sign of the trial commencing.

Deliberate muddying of the water

The evidence that the ‘encounter’ was fake is so strong that it is clear that it would be difficult to establish the police version that the killings were a genuine incident of police firing in self-defence in a shoot-out against armed militants. The attempt then shifted to establishing that the persons killed were terrorists, including Ishrat Jahan.

The UPA government in its first affidavit in the case had charged that Ishrat Jahan was indeed an operative of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. After reviewing the information on which this allegation was based, the government later changed its affidavit – essentially withdrawing a charge against Ishrat that it was is no position to substantiate. Years later, in March 2016, the then home secretary Gopal Pillai went public with the sensational charge that despite evidence that Ishrat was indeed a terrorist, the home minister, P. Chidambaram, ordered altering the affidavit to clear her name. This added fuel to speculations that were already rife, after double-agent and court approver David Headley selected Ishrat’s name from three to charge that she was an LeT militant. (Oddly enough, the same Pillai is on record as having said in 2013 that he cannot say with any certainty that ishrat was a terrorist and thus he would give her the “benefit of the doubt.” He was no longer home secretary at the time he said this and was under no compulsion to defend the UPA government on this matter.)

Ishrat Jahan's mother, Shamima Kausar at a press conference about David Headley's statement at Thane. Credit: PTI

Ishrat Jahan’s mother, Shamima Kausar at a press conference about David Headley’s statement at Thane. Credit: PTI

On cue, a renewed discussion broke out about Ishrat’s alleged terror antecedents and the indicted police officers, the ruling BJP-led government in both Delhi and Gujarat and majoritarian opinion, found in these charges against Ishrat Jahan justification for the killings in the suburbs of Ahmedabad in the summer of 2004. G.K. Pillai sadly chose to add charges that she slept in the same hotel rooms as Javed Sheikh, as though this added evidence proved her guilt as a terrorist! Satish Shah of the SIT confirms that the hotel records show that they could have stayed in the same room, but suggests that these records could also have been manipulated by the investigators. Vrinda Grover, Shamima Kauser’s lawyer dismisses this as a misogynist view of working women.

Even if Ishrat Jahan and her alleged fellow-travellers in the car were terrorists, it still does not justify their killing in cold blood. Her guilt or otherwise should have been left for the courts to decide. Instead she was illegally taken into custody, killed in cold blood and then charged with terror crimes.

The SIT investigation reached a firm conclusion that she could not have been a terror operative. It is undisputed that she met Javed Sheikh for the first time on May 1, 2004. She was killed 45 days later. Of these days, college attendance registers prove that she was attending college in Mumbra for 35 days. She travelled with Javed for ten days. How could she in this time have become a terrorist, a suicide bomber? The SIT concluded that she may have come to know of Javed’s illegal activities in smuggling and counterfeit currency, but there is no evidence that she had any terrorist links.

For Ishrat Jahan’s family, the journey into the long dark night that started in that midsummer dawn on June 16, 2004 seems to have no end. Her mother in a public statement in 2013 declared: “I have a right to know the complete truth – who killed my daughter Ishrat Jahan, who masterminded her murder, who stood to gain from the cold blooded killing of a young Muslim girl. I have a right to complete justice and for that it is necessary that the entire conspiracy is unearthed and all those responsible for eliminating my innocent daughter are indicted, charged, prosecuted and punished”.

But today it is not enough for her to prove that Ishrat was killed in cold blood by police and intelligence officers. Her mother is determined to fight to prove that her daughter was innocent of the charges of being a terror operative. “My daughter was not a terrorist. We had run into very hard times, she stepped in and took responsibility for the whole family. I cannot let her be pronounced a terrorist”.

Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer