Thursday, April 26, 2007

I stand vindicated

With the recent news about the arrest of three IPS officers in Gujarat, charged with the murder of an individual in a fake "encounter", I feel vindicated. In the light of the findings submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of the killing of Sohrabuddin, questions are being raised about several other similar "encounters" where the alleged "terrorists" were apparently plotting to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. One such "encounter" involved a young woman from Mumbra, just outside Mumbai, Ishrat Jahan, who was killed on June 15, 2004 in Ahmedabad while travelling in a car with three men, suspected "terrorists" on an apparent mission to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Her story caught the attention of the media in Mumbai and much was written about her and her possible involvement with "terrorists". Her funeral procession drew a huge crowd in her neighbourhood. But since then, Ishrat has been erased from our memories. But wait. Could her name come up again if there is a proper inquiry into all recent "encounter" killings?

I post below a piece I had written shortly after the Ishrat incidence which never saw the light of day. More on the reasons for the rejection in a later post. But I felt I should post the article now, as a record.


A question guilt or innocence

By Kalpana Sharma

The recent gunning down of four suspected “terrorists” in Ahmedabad on June 15 raises several important and uncomfortable questions. To date, there is no clear explanation either from the Gujarat police or the intelligence agencies (the glaring loopholes in the various versions were evident from the stories carried in this paper recently) about how the information about the intentions of these four was ascertained and why they were killed. The unease is compounded by the death in the encounter of the 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan. What was a young Mumbai college girl doing with a group of “alleged” terrorists? Was she also one?

Everyone who knew Ishrat said it was improbable that she would knowingly join such a group. No one had heard her voice an opinion about Gujarat or about the injustice meted out to her community. She was perceived as a cheerful, hard-working girl who filled her day with activities to generate money to support an impoverished family. Had she been duped? Had her desperation for money got her into something about which she did not know all the details? Or was she a willing accomplice?

We will never know because the girl is dead. In fact, that is the frustrating aspect of all these stories. The public has to accept what the State puts out as the alleged motives of those gunned down. No one will ever know the complete truth because the dead cannot defend themselves.

So far, all that has appeared in the media about Ishrat’s “motives”, “intentions”, “sentiments” is conjecture. The Gujarat police have quoted from her diary but no forensic test has established whether in fact it is her handwriting. The results of the post mortem report on her death have also not yet been released. We still do not know whether she was shot in the back or how she died. One unpublished photograph shows her slumped back in the front seat but there is no sign of a bullet mark on her clothes. Javed lies slumped sideways, sitting in the driver’s seat but with his head on her lap. The only photograph that has appeared in the media shows Ishrat laid out next to the other three slain men.

The Gujarat police have records of Ishrat’s phone calls to the driver of the car, Javed Sheikh who is alleged to be a Lashkar operative. That too has not been conclusively established although intelligence agencies are convinced. The nature of Ishrat’s conversations with the dead Javed will never be known. Just the fact that she spoke to a man who is allegedly a terrorist does not make the girl guilty by association. Yet, a Home Ministry official is quoted as saying, “Legally and morally, she too was a terrorist”. How has such a conclusion been reached?

The media has also carried stories about a possible “love angle” between her and Javed. Would that explain the phone calls? Her mother, Shamima, has compounded the mystery by first refusing to acknowledge that Ishrat or she knew Javed and then acknowledging, during her interrogation by the Gujarat police, that she did know him. In the end, no one really knows whether Ishrat was duped by Javed, infatuated with him, or was a willing and knowing accomplice. And no one, except Ishrat’s family will speak up for her because they fear that if they do, they too will be questioned, and possibly implicated.

What is worse is that in this rush to establish guilt by association all of Mumbra, a township of 600,000 people on the outskirts of Mumbai is being referred to as a “hotbed” of terrorists activities. It is true that some suspected terrorists have been apprehended from this area. But a handful of such characters do not justify calling a place, which is a Muslim majority area, “terrorist infested”. Mumbra and Kausa are old settlements that grew when many Muslim families were forced to leave their homes in Mumbai after the 1992-93 communal riots. Some families moved because they found they could get a bigger place for the value of just one room in the overcrowded areas of central Mumbai.

Yet, the emergence of a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts does not automatically mean that its youth will turn to terrorism. In fact, one of the striking aspects of the changes that have taken place in Muslims in and around Mumbai since 1992-93 is the thrust given to education, particularly education of girls. In successive matriculation examinations, Muslims girls have done exceedingly well in the last decade. The community’s welfare organisations have made a deliberate effort to push for both education and employment.

At the same time, it is also true that organisations like the banned Students Islamic Movement of India have grown and recruited young men. But the existence of such extremist groups in any community, Hindu or Muslim, does not mean that large swathes of that community have the same mindset.

It is entirely possible that the intelligence agencies will be able to prove their suspicion about the four killed in Ahmedabad. But there is also a good possibility that Ishrat was innocent, that she was the “collateral damage” of the State’s “war against terror”. The chances of proving that are slim because there is no independent authority to investigate such encounter killings. Yet, we must remember that after the Godhra tragedy, the Gujarat police and government had a watertight story about what happened. Yet in the last weeks, the testimonies before the Nanavati Commission are exposing the many holes in that story. Given the lack of credibility in the case made out by the state in many such instances, it is perfectly legitimate to ask questions about what really happened on June 15 in Ahmedabad.

If indeed the authorities conclusively prove that Ishrat was a terrorist, a girl who knew what she was doing and that she aided and abetted men with guns, the import of such a finding will be enormous. This will be a first, for a young Indian Muslim girl to actually join the ranks of terrorists, that too one with their roots in Pakistan. So far we have known of women in the ranks of the LTTE, or women supporters of the militants in Kashmir, or women who are prominent in the ranks of the “naxalites”. But there has not been a “mainstream” Muslim women implicated in terrorist activities in India. In the twin bomb blasts in Mumbai on August 25 last year, a woman, the wife of Sayad Mohammed Hanif, has been implicated. But the charges have only just been filed in the special POTA court. And their daughter Farheen, who was also held on grounds of suspicion, was discharged when no evidence was found against her.

Ishrat’s death is not going to be forgotten, particularly in parts of Mumbai. Already, young Muslim women who are in college or venturing in a career are apprehensive about how other communities will view them. One such woman told this writer that she fears that her parents will now stop her frequent trips with the social service league in her college. Muslim women activists fear that the backlash from the Ishrat case will result in a rise in conservatism, particularly in areas like Mumbra, leading to young Muslim girls being sequestered and ordered to stay indoors. Ishrat, on the other hand, like many young men and women from Mumbra, travelled a couple of hours every day to attend college in Mumbai city.

The Ahmedabad encounter has played into the hands of those who want to reinforce the stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist. Initially questions were raised and Ishrat’s killing in particular was close to becoming politicized. But once the media began putting out the different versions set out by the police or the intelligence, this questioning was silenced.

But the questions remain and they must be asked. Can terrorism be stamped out if the State kills every single “suspected” terrorist? Or as we have seen in so many other countries, such extra-judicial killings will isolate and anger people of one community and destroy their faith in the rule of law and in justice, thus laying the grounds for more violence. Surely, the answer to terror and injustice is not more terror, and more injustice.

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