Nineteen-year-old Ishrat Jahan, killed in a shootout by the Gujarat police in 2004, was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, said Pakistani-American terrorist David Headley in his deposition on Thursday. Headley’s statement cannot be verified yet, and Jahan’s mother has contested it, saying it is an old and baseless accusation. But in many quarters, Headley's claims have created a general sense of I-told-you-so.

Whether the teenager was really an LeT agent sent out on a mission to assassinate then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may be a matter for eternal speculation. It does not change the fact that Jahan never received a fair trial. A chargesheet produced by the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2013 called the encounter a case of “unlawful killing”, conducted jointly by the Intelligence Bureau and the Gujarat police.

The Ishrat Jahan case was widely followed because the lines of accountability led right to the top, to Modi’s henchman and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, who was charged with orchestrating the killing. In 2014, soon after the National Democratic Alliance came to power in Delhi, Shah was handed a clean chit by the CBI and the seven police officers named in the case are all out on bail. Some of them have been reinstalled and promoted to positions of responsibility in the Gujarat police.

Many dismiss the clamour for justice in the Ishrat Jahan case as politically motivated, part of an agenda to discredit the BJP leadership. Governments of all political colour have routinely used targeted killings to put down troublesome elements, the argument runs, why pick on this case?

So many Ishrat Jahans

It is true that extra-judicial violence is not restricted to Gujarat 2004. It has recurred across states and over the decades, an easy answer to a difficult situation. The phrase “encounter killing” has become a euphemism. It describes a situation where criminals are cornered by the police, apparently try to escape or attack, and are killed in retaliatory fire. Except in many cases, “retaliation” seems to have been an excuse to kill.

It was used to suppress the peasant movement and tribal assertions in Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s, first under Congress rule and then under NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party government. It has also been the favoured method of keeping the peace in states fighting insurgency: Punjab in the times of Bhindranwale, Naxal-hit Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, states of the North East struggling with ethnic militancy for decades.

Through the 1990s and until the mid-2000s, Mumbai adopted police encounters as policy, tracking down and eliminating members of the underworld. The five “encounter specialists” of the Mumbai Police became the stuff of legend and Bollywood movies. ‘‘Gopinath Munde, then home minister, openly declared he had ordered the police to shoot down gangsters,’’ former police chief Julio Ribeiro is reported to have said. The late Munde, a member of the BJP, had also been deputy chief minister of Maharashtra from 1995 to 1997.

In the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, the police have traditionally been trigger happy. Writing in 2010, retired police officer SR Darapuri blamed Mayawati, who was chief minister at the time, for using the police to put down dissent or political rivals. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2008, there were 6,015 complaints of human rights violations by the UP police. But only one complaint actually led to a charge sheet, says Darapuri.

That is not all. Under the cover of draconian laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, police forces killed and detained hundreds of people through the 1980s and ’90s. It is unlikely that their political masters were not aware of these incidents.

Flaws in the system

How far back does one go? How many cases need to be reopened? These are questions with no simple answers. But it is futile whataboutery to argue that the Ishrat Jahan case should not be pursued because the others were not.

The hype around this case should be used to shine a light on larger systemic flaws. The criminality that pervades our systems of justice, where the police abandon due process to go after criminals. The pace at which criminal trials proceed, which might tempt the forces to administer instant justice instead of waiting for the courts to deliver a verdict. The murky political interests which filter into the process of arrest and investigation, warping the course of the law.

These are the concerns that stand in danger of being overshadowed by the sensational deposition of David Headley.