Ishrat Jahan encounter: Unanswered questions

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The CBI's 1500-page chargesheet in the Ishrat Jahan encounter only confirms what several investigating teams had already found, that it was not a heavily armed LeT group that was on the move towards their targets. Instead, the CBI found that the four people, already in custody, were moved into a place wearing blindfolds and executed.

But the CBI chargesheet raises as many questions as it answers, of the forces at play behind the encounter, which many say holds the key to unravelling the mystery of the killings. 18 months after it took over the case, the CBI began to zero-in on the role of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), especially Rajinder Kumar, head of the IB's Gujarat station.            

But as friction with the IB intensified, the Gujarat High Court told it to concentrate on the genuineness of the encounter.

If the CBI had moved forward, it may have found what we were told by a senior bureaucrat who was in the Home Ministry in 2004, that this had begun as a controlled operation of the Intelligence Bureau where moles are used to lure potential terrorists on the false premise of a strike, and then captured.  Except this case, admitted this official, went so horribly wrong that even the initial explanation, as well as every subsequent claim remains in doubt, from the motive behind the operation to the premise that those killed were terrorists.  

The man known as Zeeshan Johar, one of the two alleged Pakistanis, was the first to arrive in the last week of April. But instead of meeting with his members of his module, Zeeshan, the CBI says, stayed in house no. 164/165 in Gota Housing Colony, off SG Highway, Ahmedabad, helped by Rajinder Kumar's informants Owais and Asad.

The CBI says the flat was bugged for audio surveillance, and Zeeshan's movements kept under watch by an IB team living in a neighbouring flat.

The CBI says the first time Zeeshan met the rest, allegedly fellow members of the same terror module, was the morning of the June 15, just minutes before they were shot.

The Special Investigating Team, whose probe into Ishrat encounter preceded the CBI, said in its 2011 report that "Zeeshan Johar was identified on the basis of a fake identity card issued from Udhampur, J&K, in the name of Abdul Gani.  But that the investigation conducted so far reveals nothing else about him, his movements, or his real identity. However, since nobody came to claim him suggests that he might be associated with some terrorist organization, which can be established only after further investigation."   

The man known in the FIR as Amjadali Akbarali Rana alias Salim alias Rajkumar, the other alleged Pakistani, arrived about a month later. 

Unlike Zeeshan, Amjad was given a very different welcome. The CBI claims he was picked up by the cops from Ahmedabad's Gota crossing area, and taken to Arham Farms, where he was allegedly subjected to tough interrogation.

What the CBI doesn't mention though, but for which it has collected evidence, is that Amjad may have driven to Ahmedabad by the remaining two: Javed Sheikh and Ishrat Jehan on the May 25. They have confirmation of this from Sajida, Javed's wife, who says Javed and Amjad left from Pune, and from eyewitnesses who saw them drive up together.

What the CBI is also silent about, is Amjad's Kashmir connection.

A month after the encounter, Amjad is said to be identified by three men jailed in Srinagar - Majib Hussain, Pervez Ahmed Khan and Abdul Aziz Shah. They said they had treated the wounds Amjad had sustained while crossing the border.

A team from Gujarat Police asked for their custody, which was granted. But here is where matters become confusing. The Gujarat Police team that visited Srinagar says that they could not bring them back becausethe jailer refused to hand them over, which the J & K police deny.

Later all three were released on bail, and remained untraceable.

The CBI has yet to probe this Kashmir link. Instead, it seems to rely verbatim what Amjad allegedly told one of his Gujarat Police interrogators, that he had "come with a plan to commit a terrorist act at some crowded location in Ahmedabad."

Even if their antecedents are unclear, the IB could still argue that there is enough to suggest that this fits in with the original idea of a controlled operation to capture those with militant links. But where that explanation starts to unravel is with the entry of Javed Sheikh and Ishrat Jahan.

The CBI says they have found nothing to suggest whether Javed did or did not have  LeT links. In fact, they say that his activities remain a mystery. 

By talking to families and witnesses, the CBI has pieced together the following: In 1994, Javed, originally Pranesh Pillai, converted to Islam to marry his wife and moved to Mumbra in Thane. Here he would repeatedly get into skirmishes leading to several cases against him, which at best suggests he was a petty criminal.

He then left for Dubai, where for a few years he worked in Dubai's state electricity utility. He then returned to Pune and began to sell smuggled goods that he would bring from Mumbai's Manish Market but that business didn't work out. It is at this point that Javed's career becomes a mystery with unclear, often conflicting answers about what he did.

His wife Sajida told the CBI that Javed would send migrant labour to Dubai, but on camera is evasive when asked.

Some argue that Javed's ambivalent career may not simply suggest he is a LeT liaison, but that he might also be an IB mole. This would explain his delivering Amjad to the police in Ahmedabad, and, as we reported last week, the CBI has records, of a series of phone calls   between a PCO in Gandhinagar, Javed's cell, and the cell number of Rajinder Kumar.
The arrival of Javed is the only incongruity in the Ishrat Jahan story, which otherwise speaks of extraordinary resilience, of a girl who lost her father when she was 17, and who supported her six siblings by giving Maths and English tuitions.

All of this is well chronicled, and easily verified. What is less so is her association with Javed, which began in April 2004, based on an old association between Javed and Ishrat's father.

The SIT report says that Ishrat "may have understood that Javed was engaged in illegal activities involving smuggling and counterfeit currency. A statement of Rashid, who introduced the two also indicates, that she had knowledge about Javed's illegal activities before she joined him."

If she did, then the family gives no indication of it. They maintain that he employed Ishrat as an accountant for his cosmetics business, paying her Rs 3000 a month.  

But would this explain their travels to Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Surat chronicled through hotel records, where they would often sign in with an alias?

Javed's father says this might be because his son is also running a travel agency.
Javed's unexplained activities, have by extension, raised doubts over Ishrat: was she complicit or simply an observer?

Even so, from that to infer that she was a Let terrorist seems like a leap of imagination. But that exercise to label her a terrorist began in Ishrat's case posthumously starting with the FIR fled by the Gujarat police which referred to her as a' woman terrorist whose name and address are not known'. That claim was emboldened by the LeT statement a day after the shooting, which said she was "a Lashkar activist".

Retracted 12 days later by the spokesperson of the parent body of the Lashkar, the Jammat Ud'dawa, Yahya Mujahid and once again in 2007, by the JUD's Abdullah Muntazir who wrote a letter of apology to Ishrat's family. 

But despite this, the attempt to sustain that narrative of Ishrat as a terrorist escalated higher, with the Home Ministry filing an affidavit in August 2009 suggesting all four were terrorists. The CBI claims that Rajinder Kumar admitted to playing a key role in drafting the first affidavit.

They are questioning the then Home Ministry officials on the second affidavit filed month later, which suggested that that intelligence inputs should not always be seen as reliable.

A year later in 2010, an alleged statement made by David Headley to the FBI that Ishrat was a suicide bomber kept the theory alive.

Headley is said to have also mentioned Ishrat when he was questioned by the NIA in June 2010, which the NIA found so weak that it deleted those two paragraphs from its interrogation report.

Those deleted paragraphs however mysteriously resurfaced, suggesting more hearsay, than damning proof: On being asked about Ishrat Jahaan, Headley allegedly tells the NIA that "in late 2005 Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi introduced Muzzammil to me. Zaki talked about the accomplishments of Muzzammil as a Lashkar commander. Zaki also sarcastically mentioned that Muzzammil was a top commander whose every big 'project' had ended in a failure. Zaki added that Ishrat Jahaan module was also one of the Muzzammil's botched up operations."

Headley stated that "apart from this he had no other information/knowledge about Ishrat Jahaan."

Lawyer for Ishrat's family Vrinda Grover says that these are canards being used to demonise Ishrat. 

But the IB continued to stand by Headley's original description, referring to it in a letter to the CBI in March of this year.

The high profile war between government agencies will ensure that Ishrat's identity and why she was killed becomes even harder to pinpoint. But some suspect the explanation could be chillingly mundane.

By accompanying Javed and Amjad to Ahmedabad, as the CBI has found, had she become an inconvenient witness?

Mukul Sinha, lawyer for Javed, says this is a possibility since Javed and Ishrat may have witnessed Amjad's abduction.

The CBI chargesheet records that amongst those who planned the execution, killing Ishrat was not an easy decision, with arguments between the cops involved, even at the encounter spot.

Whatever the reason, it is ironically that one decision, which ensured that the encounter did not become a statistic.

Nine years later, the Gujarat cops, who allegedly planned and carried out the execution, have been charged with murder, like DG Vanzara, NK Amin, Tarun Barot, JG Parmar and PP Pandey.

But if there are higher powers who sanctioned and benefited from these and other fake encounters in Gujarat, the CBI is yet to act against them.

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