Let these contrasts sink in.

Ishrat Jahan, a college student from Mumbra, Maharashtra, was declared guilty of terrorism after she was killed in an alleged encounter on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in 2004 – without her guilt or the innocence of the policemen who killed her ever being established in a court of law.

Pragya Singh Thakur has been declared innocent and was the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for a parliamentary seat even though she is on trial for terrorism. She won with a comfortable margin.

Police officer Hemant Karkare built an evidence-based case against Thakur, Lt Col Shrikant Purohit and others for their alleged role in the blasts in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in 2008. Karkare was killed during the terror attack in Mumbai that year and subsequently awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peace-time gallantry award. Ten years later, he has been declared guilty of torturing Thakur in custody and being a political pawn of an “anti-Hindu” conspiracy by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government based on no evidence whatsoever.

Former police officer DG Vanzara has been shielded by the Gujarat government from facing trial for Ishrat Jahan’s abduction and murder – despite a vast amount of damning evidence against him. On May 2, a special CBI court dropped proceedings against him and his colleague NK Amin in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case.

What does all this say about India’s justice system, its political system – and about Indians?

Normalising injustice

By asking us to accept the fates of Jahan and Thakur, Karkare and Vanzara as normal, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is appealing to the worst prejudices of Indians.

It hopes that Indians will be willing to assume a dead Muslim teenager must be a terrorist if the police and government say so – and accuse those who demand that her killers be brought to book of being “anti national” and “sympathetic to terrorism”.

It hopes they will be willing to assume that a woman dressed in saffron could not be a terrorist, because surely terrorists are always Muslim?

It hopes Indians will be happy to believe that Karkare, a policeman who built a terror case against members of a Hindutva outfit must be a bad cop, while Vanzara, a policeman who killed Muslims must be a good cop.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said as much at a rally in Wardha, Maharashtra, on April 1. No Hindu has been or could ever be a terrorist, he said.

It seems he wants Indians to assume that Muslims, especially those killed by policemen, are terrorists and that no one should ask questions about their deaths. He wants Indians to think that it is sacrilege to suspect that a Hindutva ideologue can commit terror, or to even examine the evidence against such an ideologue.

The double standards of the BJP and its supporters are remarkable.

When people speak of the custodial torture of Muslim, Dalit, or Adivasi undertrials by the police, they are accused of being anti-national even when there is credible evidence of such torture. “How dare you suspect our brave policemen of torture or murder,” the BJP and their supporters ask angrily.

But these very people are more than willing to defame Hemant Karkare – a police officer who displayed extraordinary moral and physical courage, and who was killed in the line of duty – of custodial torture and of framing innocents.

Are we Indians as prejudiced, as bigoted, as willing to stomach blatant communal and political double standards as the prime minister hopes we are?

Every Indian needs to look within and find an answer. They need to persuade themselves to look beyond the screen of prejudice, and look facts in the face.

Let us examine the facts one by one.

Supporters hold placards bearing portraits of Ishrat Jahan during a protest demanding justice in Ahmedabad on July 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP)/
Supporters hold placards bearing portraits of Ishrat Jahan during a protest demanding justice in Ahmedabad on July 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP)/

Is the case against Vanzara and others politically motivated?

On May 2, a special CBI court dropped proceedings against former Gujarat police officers DG Vanzara and NK Amin for their alleged role in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case after the Gujarat government did not give the CBI permission to prosecute them.

BJP representatives defended this, claiming that the case against Vanzara and Amin was a conspiracy by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that was in power at the time.

Is there any evidence to back this claim?

Jahan, along with her employer Javed Shaikh alias Pranesh Pillai from Kerala, and two alleged Pakistanis – Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana – were killed in a so-called encounter with the Gujarat police near Ahmedabad in June 2004. The police claimed that all four had links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi, then the state’s chief minister.

Guidelines laid down by the National Human Rights Commission and upheld by the Supreme Court in PUCL vs State of Maharashtra in 2014 require an FIR to be filed for every death that occurs due to police firing, and a magisterial enquiry to be held.

The Supreme Court judgement said: “A Magisterial inquiry under Section 176 of the Code must invariably be held in all cases of death which occur in the course of police firing and a report thereof must be sent to Judicial Magistrate having jurisdiction under Section 190 of the Code.”

It was one such routine magisterial enquiry that questioned the police version of events in the Ishrat Jahan case.

Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate SP Tamang, who examined the forensic evidence and post-mortem reports, concluded that the police version was an “absolutely false and concocted story”.

The magistrate found that the semi-digested food in the stomachs of Ishrat and the three other persons established that they were killed several hours before the time the police claimed the alleged encounter had taken place.

Tamang found that while the police claimed it had fired 70 bullets during the alleged encounter, no bullets were found on the scene. He also found that the entry points of the bullet wounds on the bodies were smaller than the exit points, suggesting that the bullets were fired at close range and not from a distance.

Further, of course, was the fact that none of the police officers involved in the alleged encounter suffered any injury though they claimed that the four so-called “terrorists” had fired at them and engaged in a prolonged gun battle.

Based on Tamang’s report, the Gujarat High Court ordered an enquiry by a Special Investigation Team. This team, comprising Gujarat police officers, submitted its report in 2011, which said that it had found that the “purported encounter” was “not genuine”.

Fourteen Gujarat police officers subsequently questioned the credibility of this report and demanded a CBI enquiry. In December, 2011, the Gujarat High Court asked the CBI to investigate the case.

The CBI’s findings, presented before the court in 2013, also supported the conclusions of Tamang and the Special Investigation Team that the four people were killed in cold blood, and that the police had staged the scene to make it look like an “encounter”. It found not only material and forensic evidence but also witnesses to back this conclusion.

The CBI also pointed to the possibility that the killings had the prior approval of Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah and perhaps even Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Between 2013 and 2014, the CBI charged seven Gujarat police officers and four Intelligence Bureau officers with kidnapping, murder and conspiracy in connection with the case.

Former Indian Police Service officer DG Vanzara. (Photo credit: IANS).
Former Indian Police Service officer DG Vanzara. (Photo credit: IANS).

So far, note that there is no room whatsoever for any claim that the case against the police was a plot by the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.

In fact, after the deaths of Jahan and three others, the Union government itself had gone along with the Gujarat police version and insisted that the four of them had been Lashkar-e-Taiba-linked terrorists till the facts established by multiple enquiries emerged.

It was independent professionals – magistrate Tamang and the Special Investigation Team headed by Gujarat police officer Satish Verma – who first established that the deaths of Jahan and three others were custodial killings shoddily staged as an “encounter”.

The CBI enquiry demanded by the accused Gujarat policemen confirmed these findings and backed them up with even more solid evidence.

The political meddling in the case began after the Modi government came to power at the Centre in 2014.

Prior to that, in 2013, while Modi was preparing to run for prime minister, Vanzara wrote a series of open letters from jail with veiled threats that he would expose Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah.

In these letters, Vanzara alleged that Modi was shielding Shah while allowing police officers like himself to take the rap for killings that, he implied, had their direct sanction.

In one letter, Vanzara warned that he felt he had “a moral justification to expose real culprits behind encounter cases by calling them Spade a Spade”.

Since the police officers had only been following instructions of the state government, Vanzara said, it was only fair that if the police officers were in jail, Modi and his ministers too, “instead of being in Gandhinagar, should be in Taloja jail in Navi Mumbai or in Sabarmati Central Prison at Ahmedabad”.

Vanzara’s letter clearly warned Modi that it was “encounter killings” by Gujarat’s police officers that had given him the image of a “Brave Chief Minister”, based on which he was launching his bid to become prime minister.

He warned that Modi and Shah were “sailing in the same boat” as the accused Gujarat policemen and must “swim or sink together”. If Modi and Shah tried to “outsmart” the policemen, the barely veiled subtext of Vanzara’s letter implied, he would be forced to spill the beans. Protect the killer policemen, or else the policemen will expose you – was his clear message.

In May 2014, the CBI told the court that it did not have enough evidence to prosecute Amit Shah in connection with the case. The accused police officers subsequently got bail. Some of them have been reinstalled and promoted to positions of responsibility in the Gujarat police.

Was Ishrat Jahan a terrorist?

One excuse many have offered for shielding the Gujarat policemen from prosecution for killing Jahan and her companions is that they were Lashkar terrorists, and that Jahan had been trained as a suicide bomber.

The simple rebuttal to that argument is this: Ishrat Jahan is dead, she is not on trial as a terrorist. Her killers have to be put on trial in which they must prove that Jahan was armed and tried to kill police personnel who then fired in self defence, killing her in the process.

Remember, Pragya Singh Thakur is charged with terror and yet is contesting a national election. Jahan never got to defend herself in a court of law. How can police officers be allowed to execute a 19-year-old woman in cold blood, and then label her a terrorist in death, without any questions being asked?

Moreover, Jahan was killed 45 days after she first met her employer Javed Sheikh with whom she was travelling when both of them were killed. For 35 of those days, there is a record of her having attended college classes in Mumbra, a suburb of Thane district near Mumbai. How could she have been trained “as a suicide bomber” if she was away from home for just 10 days?

Above all, the “Ishrat is a terrorist” red herring distracts from the main issue: that in a democracy, the police cannot be allowed to take lives except in self-defence.

Godse as hero

In his Wardha speech, Modi declared that no Hindu can ever be or has even been a terrorist, and that Congress and the United Progressive Alliance should be punished by Hindus for the insult of filing terror charges against Hindus.

This statement, which he has since repeated, is Modi’s most direct insult of the Indian Constitution, which says that the law must not distinguish between accused persons on the basis of their faith.

Anyone, whether Hindu or Muslim, if charged with terror must be proven guilty of terrorism in a court of law, and will have the right to defend themselves in court.

Modi’s Wardha speech implies that to charge a Hindu with terror (or rape, rioting, or violence of any kind) is an insult to Hindu civilisation.

No wonder then that Modi’s followers see Gandhiji’s assassin Godse as a hero, not a terrorist. It was his followers who also held rallies in support of the men accused of raping an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir last year. They also defend convicted rapists like Asaram and Ram Rahim, and garland members of lynch mobs who have killed Muslims.

There also seems to have been an attempt to scuttle investigations into Hindutva terror cases since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014.

In June 2015, Rohini Salian, special public prosecutor in the Malegaon blasts case, said that under Modi, the National Investigation Agency pressurised her to go soft on the accused in the case.

In 2016, statements of witnesses in the 2008 Malegaon case – recorded under Section 164 before a magistrate and therefore admissible as evidence –disappeared from court.

The funeral of Hemant Karkare in 2008. (Photo credit: Reuters).
The funeral of Hemant Karkare in 2008. (Photo credit: Reuters).

Double standards

Another case of the BJP’s double standards is evident in its stand on the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad.

Thakur said that the squad, under Karkare, committed the “sin” of falsely framing organisations and individuals who follow Hindutva ideology under instructions from the Congress government at the time.

But the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad under the present BJP-led state government has also arrested several Hindutva activists on charges of terrorism.

These include Vaibhav Raut of the Sanatan Sanstha from whose home they recovered a cache of arms and ammunition in 2018, and MD Murli whom they claim is a terrorist mastermind connected to the Sanatan Sanstha, and who is evading arrest.

Are the officers of the current Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad also deserving of “curses” for the “sin” of accusing Hindutva activists of terrorism?

Similarly, take the case of 2008 Malegaon blast accused Lt Col Purohit, the first serving Army officer to be arrested on terrorism charges. In 2012, in an interview to Outlook magazine, he claimed that he was a military intelligence officer spying on the terrorist outfits Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sanstha – both inspired by India’s first terrorist Nathuram Godse.

If Modi indeed believes that Purohit, a Hindu, is an innocent man and is telling the truth, he would also have to admit that the Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sanstha are in fact Hindutva terrorist organisations. Why doesn’t he?

Pragya Singh Thakur with BJP national vice president Prabhat Jha after her candidature was announced for the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency, on April 17. (Photo credit: PTI).
Pragya Singh Thakur with BJP national vice president Prabhat Jha after her candidature was announced for the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency, on April 17. (Photo credit: PTI).

Thakur has not been cleared by court

After receiving flak for fielding terror-accused Thakur in the elections, BJP leaders have been claiming that Thakur has been cleared by a court.

But Thakur is still facing charges in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blasts. She was granted bail on health grounds by the Bombay High Court in April 2017. (She is clearly healthy now, as seen in her ability to campaign, and must be sent back to jail.)

On April 24, a special National Investigation Agency court, while dismissing a petition seeking to bar Thakur, from contesting polls, took the investigating agency to task for its statements suggesting that Thakur was innocent and pointed out that the court had framed charges against her because it found prima facie evidence in the Anti-Terrorism Squad chargesheet even though the National Investigation Agency had taken over the investigations by then.

Justice must be done

As the BJP and Modi manipulate the deep-seated Islamophobic prejudices of Indians to drive them to protect policemen accused of executing Muslims illegally and malign an honest policeman who was investigating Hindutva terror, Jahan’s mother, Shamima, has been trying to make sure her daughter gets justice.

Can we stand up for justice? Can we stand up for Jahan, a 19-year-old college student trying to support her impoverished family?

For this, none of us need to believe that Vanzara, Shah and others are guilty. We simply have to say loudly and firmly that all the accused must face trial and get every chance to defend themselves in court. They cannot be allowed to evade trial by declaring that Jahan, who is not alive to defend herself, is guilty and deserving of an extra-judicial execution.

Kavita Krishnan is secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.