Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ishrat Jahan – What is the Real Issue?

Ishrat Jahan refuses to rest in peace! For one or other reason, she keeps coming back to haunt the Indian judicial system and the ruling establishment.  The latest round stems from the so called revelations by a convicted terrorist, David Headly that Ishrat was a terrorist belonging to the Laskar e Taiba group, and the revelations by former Home Secretary and reportedly a current Director of Adani Group, Mr. GK Pillai that the affidavit on Ishrat Jahan was changed as per a decisions taken at the political level.

            I am not competent to assert whether Ishrat was indeed a terrorist or not, in the absence of any evidence on either side. Nor is it the subject of this post. In this post, I would like to discuss what I consider as the real issue in the controversy relating to the killing of Ishrat Jahan by the Gujarat Police.

            The real issue is, even if Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist, out on a mission to kill the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Narendra Modi, would her killing be justified? The answer depends on whether the encounter itself is genuine or fake. The only judicial scrutiny of the encounter, so far, was conducted by the Metropolitan Magistrate of Ahmedabad, way back in the year 2009. A 243 pages report by the Metropolitan Magistrate had clearly established that the encounter was a fake one. According to the news reports, the magisterial report stated, "Ishrat was innocent and was killed only because she was a Muslim and fitted the Gujarat Police's idea of a terrorist."  

            Pardon this slight digression, but it is not out of place to mention that the Gujarat Police’s “idea of a terrorist” and the style of terror investigations could not stand the test of judicial scrutiny by the Supreme Court, in the infamous Akshardham temple terror case, as well. In a significant judgment that was ignored by the media (which was in love with the then sensation Narendra Modi and his Gujarat Model), the apex court concluded that the case “would go to show clear non-application of mind by the Home Minister in granting sanction.” The then Home Minister in question was none other than Mr. Narendra Modi and his ‘non-application of mind’ (or was it a clever application of criminal mind?) and the ensuing fake inquiry led to the concurrent judgments of the POTA Court and Gujarat High Court, awarding, inter alia, death penalty to three persons and life imprisonment / rigorous imprisonment to the remaining three! All six accused persons were acquitted by the Supreme Court, and that included one accused who did not appeal as he has already completed the sentence while others have spent more than ten years in jail. But for the apex court’s intervention, those three innocents would have been executed in what some Indian would surely consider as judicial killings (For a more detailed analysis of the judgement, you may read my posts Counter-Terrorism - POTA Style and Supreme Court Verdict in Akshardham Terror Case- Some Thoughts).

            From the Akshardham judgement, it is clear what Gujarat Police and the then Home Minister were capable of doing, to project an effective and successful anti-terror image! Be that as it may, if the Ishrat and her companions were indeed Lashkar terrorists, what should a responsible police do? Shouldn’t they catch them alive, interrogate, and find out the larger network of terror? Why should they eliminate the terrorists and lose possible critical intelligence? If the police chose to eliminate the suspected persons in a fake encounter, as evident from the Magisterial report and subsequent CBI charge sheet, there is no doubt the action was not in the national interest, though it might be in the interest of a Chief Minster with ambitions of becoming the Prime Minister!

            The larger point pertains to the fairness of the system. No court has ever declared Ishrat Jahan, a terrorist, or even an absconder. Even if she had indulged in terrorist activities, as being suggested now by David Headly and Mr. Pillai (howsoever suspected their motives in making those statements might be), the Indian Constitution guarantees a fair trial before a court of law. Under no circumstances can the police or political leadership be allowed to accuse and eliminate a person, without a fair trial.  If we draw a parallel to the present times, we can easily observe that the Narendra Modi regime has not learned any lessons. Look at the manner in which the President of the students union of JNU was accused of sedition, arrested, and then allowed to be physically beaten up by the criminal elements wearing the robe of lawyers! The judicial system must protect the citizens from the highhandedness of the police and the rulers. Ishrat Jahan was also a victim of such highhandedness.

It is disheartening to note that some of the responsible elements of our society are projecting a line of argument that justifies Ishrat’s killing on the ground that she was a suspected terrorist!  As if suspected terrorists can be murdered at will! Same as in, suspected seditionists can be lynched by any group in robes of lawyers or lawless patriots!

I clarify, I am not denying the instances where it might be necessary to eliminate terrorists while engaged in gun battles or other operations. However, based on the information available as of now Ishrat case does not fall into such genuine operations.

 To conclude, in my opinion, the only pertinent issue is whether Ishrat Jahan was murdered in a fake encounter or not. In answering that issue, whether she was a terror suspect or not is immaterial. If it indeed was a fake encounter, as suggested by both the magisterial inquiry and CBI charge sheet, the killers must be punished according to the law of the land! 

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