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Encounters Of A Fascist Kind

By J. Sri Raman

16 July 2004
t r u t h o u t

Chennai, India - Four blood-splattered bodies lay sprawled on a road in Ahmedabad, capital of the State of Gujarat in India.

That was on June 15 of this year. Two years before, over the four months from February to June, some 3,000 bodies littered the streets, lanes and bylanes of the entire state.

The killings of the four grew out of the earlier massacre, and are no less a tragedy than the larger-scale carnage.

What equalizes them are the reactions - and non-reactions - to the June killings. These are what make these killings a tragedy equal to the mass anti-Muslim offensive in the State under a fascist regime.

Behind the killings then and now looms the same bearded figure that has come to symbolize Indian fascism at its most brazen. It is the diminutive figure of diabolically crafty Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat through both the tragedies.

Modi presided over the government-aided pogrom against the Muslim minority in 2002. And the four Muslim youths - including a teenage girl - were officially described as "terrorists" involved in a plot to assassinate Modi. They were said to have been shot dead in an "encounter" with the police near the Chief Minister's residence.

The official story had no surprises about the source of the alleged threat to Modi's life. The plot against a passionately anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan patriot like Modi was linked to Kashmir militant organization Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and, hold your breath, to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.

There were apparently no other witnesses to the "encounter" that was said to have taken place at "an isolated spot" in the early hours of the day. The bodies had firearms across them. Not a single policeman, however, had a scratch to show for the claimed "shoot-out" of about 30 minutes.

This placed the incident in the category of "encounter killings", a phrase by now familiar to India's newspaper-readers and television-viewers. The phrase has been made familiar by civil rights campaigners over the years. It refers to mystery-shrouded police killings of targets, especially "extremists" of various kinds, to killings for which lawless law-keepers see no need to provide elaborate explanations.

Hitherto, only the minuscule community of civil rights campaigners had been raising the issue of "encounter killings". A welcome change was witnessed after the Ahmedabad affair.

The initial public and political reactions to the killings was heartening indeed to anyone attaching any importance to human rights. Notable, above all, was the way the overused official formula of such occasions failed to work this time. Talk of the Kashmir "terrorists" and Pakistani ties failed to prompt tears for Modi.

The story, in fact, elicited a cynical reaction in the streets. The entire episode was widely seen as a ploy by Modi facing trouble then inside his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, facing inner-party flak for losing the recent general election, blamed the defeat on Modi and the massacre of 2002. The campaign for Modi's removal from power was gathering momentum in the party when his police announced the assassination of four would-be assassins.

Popular sympathy went, in particular, to the girl, Ishrat Jahan, of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Everyone who knew the girl, a young breadwinner for her family, was emphatic in dismissing all talk of her as a possible "terrorist". Her funeral procession in Mumbai was an emotional upheaval, kept in check only the resolve of the community to refuse further grist to the fascist mill.

The political reactions were swift and sharp as well. The opposition Congress Party in Gujarat minced no words and called for a federal investigation into the incident. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), partnering the Congress in power in Mumbai, capital of neighboring Maharashtra State, presented a hefty purse to Ishrat's family.

Civil rights activists called for an inquiry into the episode by India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). They did not think that the NHRC had done its duty by asking the Gujrat police, of all the agencies, to investigate the incident.

For full four days, the Gujarat police had no evidence to present the persistently demanding opposition and sections of the media. Then, it came out with two "diaries", allegedly kept by the "terrorists": who could not question any official tale. The "diaries", of course, had "details" that ostensibly bore out every bit of the police story.

With that, suddenly, as if on cue, the situation changed - a la the situation in Iraq, for some people, with the adoption of the latest UN resolution on it! The Gujarat police had no further evidence to exhibit - and it is a fair guess that it has not gained in credibility since the dark days of 2002. Others have not cited other evidence, either. Modi, however, has become a near-martyr, even to political and media quarters that should know better.

Protests against the "encounter" provoked a growl from the Shuv Sena, a far-Right party, and its founder-fuehrer Bal Thackeray, in Mumbai. The NCP waited for no more. It hastened to question Ishrat's connections," and forced her indignant family to return the party's money. The Congress has opted for quietness on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Kashmir police - not the last word in credibility either - has dropped very dark hints about discovering links between the LeT and the Ahmedabad affair. And New Delhi has not dissociated itself from the finding.

This may be seen as the shadow of the coming elections in States, including Maharashtra, on the Congress and the NCP. The cynical idea may be to deny the NJP the deemed advantage of an anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan vote. This, however, cannot explain the somersault performed by a so far proudly secular media.

For an example close to home, 'The Hindu', a national newspaper based in Chennai, known for its pro-secularism policies, has just carried a series of front-page reports on the Ahmedabad killings. The unconcealed purpose of these reports is to preach the gospel according to the Gujarat police.

TV channels - initially quick to raise uncomfortable questions about the incident - have all chosen to come belatedly to the aid of the beleaguered Chief Minister. All their amended stories, again, rest as solidly ass they possibly can on the story of the Gujarat police and no other source.

Significantly, in the process, the debate has been reduced to: was it a plot to kill Modi or not? No political party or media pundit is raising the more fundamental question about "encounter killings". It is days, too, since we have heard the demand for an independent investigation of the incident.

The episode, perhaps, is an illustration of what even a brief encounter with fascist power can do to a country.

It is also a call to the people for a continued encounter of a militant kind with a force that an election alone cannot exile.

J. Sri Raman A freelance journalist and a peace activist of India. Her is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA).