Ishrat Jahan: The Politics of a “Fake Encounter”

The ongoing Ishrat Jahan fake encounter saga epitomizes India’s incoherence in tackling terrorism.

Ishrat Jahan, a Mumbai college student, was killed on June 15, 2004, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat. Three other individuals, Javed Shaikh alias Pranesh Pillai, Amjadali Akbarali Rana, and Zeeshan Johar, were killed along with her. Gujarat’s police claimed that they belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a dreaded terrorist organization headquartered in Pakistan. Their mission was to assassinate Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. Rana and Johar, both Pakistani citizens were LeT operatives. Ghazwa Times, a Lahore-based mouthpiece for the LeT, hailed the martyrdom of Ishrat and her accomplices. It proclaimed the deceased as their operatives and castigated the police for removing Ishrat’s veil, violating Islamic custom. The government of India, in an affidavit submitted in 2007, confirmed the legitimacy of the encounter.

Since then, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the political wing of LeT, has apologized to Ishrat’s family retracting its statement that Ishrat was their operative. The Indian government has since recanted its affidavit. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has termed the encounter, the word used by police in India when they are involved in gun battles, as fake.

The controversy surrounding Ishrat Jahan highlights three major issues. First, India is confronted with the collapse of its legal machinery. Second, India’s political leadership views national security issues through the prism of electoral politics and sacrifices national security to gain votes. Finally, India’s political class has started using institutions to launch political vendettas, setting a dangerous precedent and undermining the credibility of its institutions.

Failed Legal Machinery

India’s legal machinery has long been creaking. Now it has collapsed. Police are not trained to investigate or collect evidence. The 19th century colonial laws, which the police are supposed to uphold and which governs their functioning, are out of sync with the realities of a nation of over 1.2 billion. The judicial system is tardy and corrupt. Cases are usually pending for years if not decades. This means that criminals and terrorists get plenty of time to to tamper with evidence by intimidating witnesses or bribing them. The police, the prosecuting lawyers, and even the judges are all amenable to pecuniary gain or political influence, making conviction a near impossible goal.

Even for honest police officers, killing a criminal boss or a dreaded terrorist is often the only option. The alternative is to watch these characters continue to run their operations with impunity or even out of prison. Obviously, these killings are extra-judicial. In India, they have come to be known as “encounters” and are an unstated instrument of state policy. They are India’s answer to the US policy of eliminating enemies through drone strikes, except that they take place within India’s borders instead of in far-flung foreign nations.

Like many of India’s pernicious policies, encounters came into fashion under Indira Gandhi, India’s authoritarian prime minister, who at one point threw all her political enemies into prison. Radical communists, who have since become known as Naxalites, began a violent movement against the Indian state. Initially, their goal was to achieve justice in the form of land reform and some equity in rural power structures. Later, they degenerated into armed gangs and rivaled the police in imposing terror on the countryside. Indira’s acolyte, Siddharth Shankar Ray, the chief minister of West Bengal, annihilated Naxalites with "a head each day" policy of executions that broke their back in his state. In the early 1980s, Julio Ribeiro, the Mumbai police chief, forced the mafia to seek safer sanctuaries with his "bullet for bullet" policy of executions because it had become impossible to convict any member of the mafia in court. In the 1980s, Indira dispatched Ribeiro to Punjab where together with KPS Gill, he perfected the art of encounters to suppress insurgency in the state.

Instead of reforming the security apparatus, the legal machinery and the judicial system, Indira opted for the expedient method of beating terror through the use of state terror. The situation came about because she let the law and order machinery collapse partly through neglect and partly through patronizing criminals. It is widely known that Indira supported Bhindranwale, the extremist Sikh leader, before ordering troops into the Golden Temple when he became too much of an inconvenience.

Since then, Indian politicians regularly patronize violent criminals and even terrorists. When violence gets out of hand and the interests of politicians are threatened, they expect the police to take stringent action and restore order through the use of encounters. The Congress, India’s ruling party since 1947, is the chief proponent of encounters. In the year Ishrat was killed, Gujarat’s police killed a mere five civilians as compared to Andhra Pradesh’s police that executed 85 civilians. In Congress ruled Andhra Pradesh, the Greyhounds, a special force established to counter Naxalism, has a fearsome reputation of being trigger happy. Encounters are a terrible idea and the only way to stop them is a long overdue reform of India’s legal machinery. However, politicians have not demonstrated either the interest or the political will to reform the broken system.

The Muslim Vote

India’s political leadership no longer cares about national security. It only cares about acquiring power. In a country of 1.2 billion people with a plethora of languages and religions, identity politics has become the name of the game. This means that voters are mobilized on "wedge issues" to vote against their best interests by appealing to their religious, regional, or caste identities. The Congress has long cultivated Muslim clerics to get the community’s vote. The Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case giving alimony to an elderly woman was overturned by a constitutional amendment by then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the son of Indira, to appease conservative clerics and capture the Muslim vote. Muslim women were sold down the river for prospects of electoral gain. Under the Muslim personal law in India, Muslim men can have four wives, a privilege not afforded to them even in Muslim countries such as Malaysia. Appeasement of conservative clerics has been defined as secularism in India, and anyone who questions appeasement is labeled as communal by a national media that has been co-opted through decades of patronage by the Congress.

Ishrat Jahan is increasingly being painted as a martyr who was killed by a communal police led by a Hindu zealot named Narendra Modi. The Gujarat chief minister is reviled by India’s Muslim community for his alleged role in Gujarat’s 2002 riots, and was nearly disowned by his own party for that reason. The Congress is using Ishrat Jahan to flaunt itself as a guardian of Muslim rights. By painting Modi as a threat to Islam, the Congress is seeking to mobilize the Muslim vote for itself.

Since 2004, Modi has emerged as the biggest threat to the ruling Congress party. He has delivered good governance to Gujarat and presided over a growth rate that is more akin to China’s instead of India’s. The country’s middle class is disgusted by the corruption of the Congress. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has led the most corrupt government in post-independence India, with thousands of millions of dollars siphoned off from the state exchequer. Modi is a real threat, but his Achilles heel is his image among Muslims who form 15% of India’s population.

The Congress has conveniently ignored its own track record for ensuring the deprivation of India’s Muslims. The party pretends that it was never responsible for massacres or riots such as Hashimpura, where Muslims suffered. Mainstream media, especially the English speaking elites of Delhi and Mumbai, pretend that the Congress had no culpability for the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs, even though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have collected irrefutable evidence of Congress involvement. The 2011 Wikileaks cable reveals that the United States was convinced about the complicity of the Congress in Sikh massacres. Ishrat Jahan has become a symbol for the Congress to paint itself as a savior of Muslims, but this petty politicking is playing havoc with India’s national security.

The Murky World of Indian Politics

Finally, the Congress is using India’s key institutions to launch political vendettas. Anyone who does not fall in line with the dominant socialist and secular ideology of the Nehru family is accused of being communal. Not only is mainstream media unleashed to create a maelstrom against its enemies, the Congress is now using the full might of the state to destroy those it perceives as threats.

The Congress has been in power at the national level for an overwhelming majority of the period since independence. It is now a dynastic oligarchy where the spoils of power are shared between a few families led by the Nehru family. Modi is a an upstart with no lineage who threatens to upset the Congress applecart. The Congress is using the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to pin the blame of Ishrat Jahan’s killing on Modi and scuttle his political chances at the national level. In the process, the CBI is also turning its guns on Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s leading intelligence agency. The goal is to paint Ishrat as a martyr and Modi as a murderer. India’s Supreme Court has called the CBI "a caged parrot," but a more accurate description of the CBI might be an "attack dog" for its political masters. In the past, the CBI has been used against allies and enemies to rein them in or destroy them. But the venom with which the CBI is being directed against Modi sets a new low even for the murky world of Indian politics.

Asif Ibrahim, the IB Director, is Muslim and highly regarded for his integrity. He has told the prime minister that IB has sufficient evidence to prove that Ishrat was a member of LeT with links to Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI is most famous for training and then supporting the Taliban. It turns out that David Coleman Headley, an operative for LeT and now in US custody, confirmed that Ishrat was a member of LeT. The fact that she was with Pakistani men with known terrorist antecedents gives credence to IB’s claims. The CBI has named Senior IB Official Rajinder Kumar as complicit in the Ishrat Jahan encounter and he is expected to be charged once he retires, sending shockwaves in India’s national security community. Senior IB officials and independent observers believe that Kumar is a "collateral victim" in a vendetta the Congress is carrying out against Modi.

The CBI has gone so far as to ask the IB to reveal who provided it inputs about Ishrat. In asking the IB to reveal its sources, the CBI is breaching a cardinal rule of intelligence gathering and compromising India’s already beleaguered intelligence community. It is an old rule in intelligence and even investigative journalism that sources are not to be revealed, but the CBI is paying scant regard to such principles. Many former directors of IB and RAW believe that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has wrecked the intelligence community beyond repair. He has no power to make any decisions. Sonia Gandhi, Indira’s Italian-born daughter-in-law, is the prime minister's boss and wields real power but has no interest in national security. Between Manmohan and Sonia nothing gets done and India’s intelligence agencies have become rudderless over the years. Using the CBI to target IB might well be the final nail in a coffin of India’s intelligence agencies. In a country where political interests supersede national interests, institutions, professionals and citizens are paying the price.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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