The Hindu

Politicising Ishrat Jahan

R. K. Raghavan

March 08, 2016

New revelations of bureaucrats being bypassed or browbeaten in the 2004 case must be looked into. It is also time to repair the relationship between the CBI and the IB

It seems the Ishrat Jahan controversy over an alleged fake encounter near Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004 – in which the 19-year-old girl from Mumbai and three others, all suspected of having links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), were killed – will never die away.

The episode has acquired heavy political overtones, with reports of an alleged cover-up by the then United Progressive Alliance government being aired every day, much to the delight of our TV channels and the confusion of their viewers. Caught in the crossfire have been a few civil servants and police officers, many of whom are honourable men merely discharging their duties. Some of them could have been overzealous, or had possibly buckled under political pressure. But, to date, none of them has been accused of a personal agenda.

New twists in an old plot

What has given new life to the controversy is the totally unexpected press statement by former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai a few days ago. A normally low-profile and suave civil servant, one with a huge reputation for integrity, Mr. Pillai sprang a surprise, saying in unequivocal terms that a vital change to the second affidavit filed in the Gujarat High Courtin 2009 – about a month after the previous one – was drafted not by him, but by someone above him at a political level. It was obvious he was referring to the then Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

Mr. Chidambaram is not apologetic about the change he made in the affidavit to omit a reference in the earlier affidavit which had identified Ishrat as an LeT person. No one can dispute his right, as the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) supreme boss, to tinker with the draft affidavit put up to him. What is being questioned by the Bharatiya Janata Party and others is his reason for doing so.

The point is the charge that Ishrat was an LeT operative was based on categorical Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports. To date I have not come across any claim that the information was flimsy and uncorroborated. Mind you, the IB is an attached office of the MHA. This means Mr. Chidambaram disbelieved his own organisation, one that enjoys an enviable reputation for blunting the edge of terrorism. Nothing else could demoralise as sensitive an organisation as the IB as this rejection of its stand.

The IB is neither omniscient nor infallible. It can commit a mistake, and has done so on several occasions. But then what we would like to know is whether there was a dialogue at all between the then Director, IB, and Mr. Chidambaram on this. If so, was Mr. Pillai involved with the process? Did Mr. Chidambaram go on record with his reasons for omitting the reference to Ishrat? If indeed he had, that would establish his honest intentions, and lend him the reputation of a dissenter with an honest approach to national security.

Intimidated into silence

As regards Mr. Pillai, he needs to explain what warranted his making a statement that has caused such a furore. The popular belief is there was no provocation so late in the day for it. Mr. Pillai went to town saying that the draft affidavit as passed by him was changed at a political level. If this were so, the draft as amended by Mr. Chidambaram should have passed through him again on its downward journey, unless he was totally kept out of this process too. If this were so, what did he do to protest against this amendment? Even if he was not shown the revised draft – an unlikely scenario – before it was submitted to the Gujarat High Court, would he not have been told of this grievous tinkering by any of his deputies, including the now famous (then) Undersecretary R.V.S. Mani? I do not for a moment suggest that Mr. Pillai should have quit, but he should have gone up to Mr. Chidambaram and made an issue of this. If he did not, that was a grave omission. The civil service, especially the Indian Administrative Service, is diminished by this error in judgement of a senior officer. If Mr. Pillai can be intimidated into silence, who cannot be?

A graver matter is the charge of Mr. Mani that he was coerced into signing the second affidavit, and was also tortured by Satish Verma, a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer who was earlier heading the Special Investigation Team probing the Ishrat Jahan case. The torture was by means of the end of a burning cigarette pressed on his trousers. If this charge was true, all Indian Police Service officers should hang their heads in shame. Mr. Mani added that he had brought the barbaric treatment meted out to him to the notice of top officials of the Urban Development Ministry to which he was attached on transfer from the MHA but it was ignored. The National Human Rights Commission should look into this without delay.

An unfortunate fallout of the Ishrat Jahan episode is the strained relationship between the CBI and the IB. The then Special Director of the IB in Gujarat, Rajendra Kumar, and two of his deputies have been charge-sheeted by the CBI, along with a few Gujarat police officers for their role in the encounter. The MHA has, however, denied sanction to the CBI for prosecuting the IB officers. It is for the present heads of both organisations to repair the damage. The IB should understand that it was not the CBI which took the initiative to investigate the encounter; it was only executing a court order. If any of its officers displayed any overzealousness in the process, there are ways by which the executive at the highest level – especially the Prime Minister’s Office – can ensure that the CBI plays by the book in future. In the end, the IB and the CBI are not adversaries. They complement each other in the gargantuan task of protecting the nation from its enemies.

(R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau.)

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