Truths, half-truths and falsities in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case

A special news report telecast on a 24x7 news channel last week brought to the center stage the Ishrat Jahan ‘fake encounter’ case from 2004, which essentially involved the killing of four individuals in a police shootout on an empty road stretch in Ahmedabad. Amid dark and disturbing images of menacing looking men with their faces covered and AK-47s in their hands, the anchor of the show went on to lay bare the essentials of the case, stating quite clearly that there was no doubt that there was an authentic threat to Narendra Modi’s life and thatIshrat Jahan and the three men killed with her (Javed Sheikh, Amjad Ali and Zeeshan Johar) were most likely terrorists.

Even if one were to put aside debates regarding media ethics and assume that the evidence uncovered by the news channel was in fact true, the anchor’s overt concern for the potential damage the case could do to Narendra Modi and IB officials was hard to watch. In comparison, the four — who might well turn out to be innocent Muslims — who were gunned down without being extended the right of a fair trial, weren’t offered even a shred of sympathy. The channel claimed to possess telephonic conversations “between LeT commander Muzammil and the terrorists sent to Gujarat” which according to them, make it absolutely certain that there was indeed a threat to the life of the Gujarat Chief Minister.

The case has been in the news lately for the CBI’s summoning and interrogation of IB Special Director Rajendra Kumar, who was a Joint Director with the IB in Gujarat when the encounter took place. The CBI believe that he played a far more important role in the killings than what he claims. While in 2009, an Ahmedabad Metropolitan court ruled that the encounter was staged, the Gujarat government challenged this decision in response to which the Gujarat High Court Special Investigation Team (SIT) was set up which too ruled that the encounter was not genuine and that the victims were killed prior to the date of the said encounter. According to Tehelka, in CBI’s on-going investigation, a number of Gujarat police officials have verified that Rajendra Kumar was complicit in the encounter and he is likely to be arrested soon.

The CBI’s probe into the case has obviously not sat well with the IB and the timing of these revelations is rather curious. These tapes were never brought out at any stage of the investigation before and one can’t even be sure that they are actually authentic. And yet, the channel chose to run with it and pronounce its own judgments on the case. It is rather odd when obvious questions raised by the sudden appearance of hitherto unheard of telephonic tapes aren’t raised and instead concern is expressed over the dipping morale of the IB. Why were these tapes not produced as evidence before? Why were these tapes leaked selectively? When were these tapes recorded? How can one be sure who these voices belong to and that codes such as ‘sasural’ mean Ishrat’s house? In fact, in an interview with Tehelka, Mukul Sinha, who is the lawyer for the families of those killed, has gone so far as to assert that the tapes on Modi’s assassination plot “are completely fabricated and planted.”

Instead of raising these questions, the channel went on to thwart attempts by critical panelists such as Shabnam Hashmi to raise important questions. All attempts to argue that it was in fact severely problematic to take such ‘evidence’ at face value and project people as guilty were cut short. “Whether the killing of Ishrat Jahan along with three others was a fake encounter or not, that will be decided by the court. But one thing is clear, that Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist and she was in touch with those Pakistani terrorists sent by LeT to India to kill senior politicians,” said the channel’s reporter. Similarly, the voices on the tapes were conveniently labeled ‘Salim, Terrorist’ or ‘Shooter’. Suggestions were then made that the CBI probe was motivated by Congress desire to stem Modi’s rise to power. Such suggestions have been made before. But to make such claims, while ignoring parallel claims of the deceased’s family (Ishrat’s sister told the media at the time of the incident that in her last phone call, she was scared because she was being followed by unknown people) is selective and dangerous.

Rather than getting swayed by politically motivated news reports, the focus of this case should be on the victims and why they were shot dead and their deaths covered up in a shootout. Why weren’t the four suspects taken to court? While the case has become a means to pursue personal agendas by different parties, to those who remain committed to justice, it is quite clear that the individuals responsible for killing Ishrat Jahan and her associates must be identified and punished.

Towards the end of the show Shabnam Hashmi is asked, almost pleadingly, if she at least conceded that there was in fact a threat to Narendra Modi’s life and that the CBI was taking orders from it’s political masters, to which Hashmi replied that she had absolutely no reason to believe what any of the official agencies were saying, for “even in the case of the Batla House encounter the Supreme Court ruled that it was not a fake encounter, but that does not actually make it real, does it!” If only the channel’s journalists had shown even a fraction of the cynicism and restraint that she had, watching the news might not have been such a dreadful task.

The article was first published in Newsyaps in June 2013. The website has since shut down.

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