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Encounter or Murder?

By Sukla Sen

29 June 2004

Four bodies, four blood stained motionless bodies - fully stretched, lying side by side on their backs close to the central divider of the road, only part of which is visible, perhaps wide enough to allow the traffic to flow, perhaps with speed somewhat lowered down. In the foreground lies a girl, with hands on her sides, calm and serene - even if looking a bit helpless, clad in a striped matching kurta-pyjama - in soft orange. While one foot is clad, the other one is bare - the helplessness is somewhat accentuated. An Indica in contrasting blue forms the backdrop. The number plate is clearly visible : MH-02-JA-4786.

This is a visual that has assaulted us too many times over the last three weeks. Thanks to the electronic, and print, media. No, itís not a shot from a promo for a soon-to-be-released Bollywood film. It's real.

On 15th June, the Ahmedabd police claimed to have killed the four terrorists in Indica car, at a desolate location near Kotarpur on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on their way to the city, after a thrilling chase in a pre-dawn ëencounterí, on a deadly mission to assassinate Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. The bullet ridden bodies were neatly arranged on the road on display before the clicking and roving cameras for the benefit of millions of (voyeuristic?) viewers. The terrorists, it has been claimed, are from the Pakistan based Lashkar-e Toiba. Two are from Pakistan, and the other two, including the nineteen year girl, are Indians. The lifeless bodies were prized trophies, on display, won in a hardly fought battle in an ongoing war - war against ëterrorismí, led by the ubiquitous enemy.

But the expected applaud got severely marred. Cynics and sceptics raised uncomfortable questions, found serious flaws with the script. How come in an ëencounterí - fire having been exchanged between the police force and the terrorists carrying AK-56, no one from the police suffered even a minor scratch? While the bullets killing the ëterroristsí pierced through
the rear glass, why there was no sign of the car coming to a sudden halt (with punctured tyres) or having gone out of control?

Then the timing was evidently suspect. Modi was facing perhaps the most serious crisis in his political career having been under attack from the foremost national leader of his own party, and also rebels from the state party unit. And no proof whatsoever, except for the claim of an
advance tip off, was provided to substantiate the story that the deceased were out to kill Modi. Amarsinh Chaudhary, the opposition leader from the Congress - and an ex-CM himself, openly alleged that the ëencounterí was fake and the story was concocted to generate sympathy and support for the cornered Modi.

Till date the Gujarat, and Maharashtra, police have failed to produce any evidence that the nineteen year old girl, Ishrat Jahan Shaikh - a resident of Mumbra, some 35 km north of Mumbai, and second year BSc student in a city college, had any criminal antecedents. Faced with a barrage of criticism, particularly on account the perceived innocence of Ishrat, Ahmedabad police belatedly produced a hand-written diary, purportedly of hers, showing receipts and transactions of large sums of money. Not only the diary remains to be checked by handwriting expert(s) to verify the claim as regards its authorship, the fact that the rent for the meagre single room flat, where her rather largish family resides, remains to be paid for the last seven months flies in the face of such hypothesis.

The other one identified as Indian is Javed Gulam Mohammed Shaikh, who had earlier been Pranesh Kumar Pillai, is a married man of 32 years - a Malayalee and a resident of Pune. Javed, the father of three, appears to be a shady character. But nothing goes to show that he was a terrorist - at least as yet.

The other two were identified as Pakistanis. The Ahmedabad police claimed to have full details of their names and residences in Pakistan. But when the external affairs ministry was approached for handing over their bodies to the Pakistan high commission, the ministry asked for further clarification and confirmation.

Many questions remain unanswered. There is also a report that the deceased had been in the custody of Surat police, in Gujarat, before the incident. The post mortem reports, if honestly done, can throw some light on how these four were killed. But there is no word in the media as yet on
these. What is of central importance here is to find the precise nature of the ëencounterí. It is even more important than verifying the veracity of the seemingly fantastic claim that the deceased were out to kill Modi. In a civilised society even the proven criminals are treated as per the provisions of law. In fact that is a principal marker how civilised a state and society is. Unbridled state terrorism is definitely no answer to non-state terrorism. Innocent citizens, most often, have to pay the price in terms of their lives as the victims of the both varieties of terrorism.

The National Human Rights Commission, three days after the incident, sought a report from Gujarat police. Taking suo moto cognisance of media reports, the NHRC has directed the Gujarat Director General of Police and Ahmedabad Senior Superintendent of Police to ensure the probe is
undertaken as per the guidelines of the Commission and furnish a report within six weeks.

But given the seriousness of the allegations and counter-allegations made, and grave implications of either, a full-scale judicial enquiry headed by a serving supreme court judge, assisted by a team of dedicated professional investigators, is very much the need of the hour. The government of
India must move in that direction without any further loss of time.