On Sunday, 28 February 2016, the former home secretary GK Pillai alleged that during his tenure as home minister, P Chidambaram rewrote a 2009 affidavit submitted to the Gujarat High Court on the death of Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old resident of Mumbai who was killed in 2004 in Gujarat. At the time, the police had stated that Jahan, along with three others, was suspected of plotting to kill then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Pillai alleged that Chidambaram had “bypassed him” and excluded the proof of Jahan’s alleged ties to the militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba from the affidavit. Chidambaram refuted Pillai’s claim. “It is disappointing that the former home secretary who is equally responsible wants to distance himself from that now,” he said. Earlier today, the Parliamentary Affairs minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader M Venkaiah Naidu alleged that the decision to change the affidavit was taken at the “political level” by Chidambaram, then prime minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress president Sonia Gandhi. “The entire plan was to stop Narendra Modi, defame Narendra Modi, implicate Narendra Modi,” Naidu said. Following Pillai’s remarks, yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a plea to quash the criminal cases against the Gujarat police officers accused of being involved in Jahan’s death.
While reporting for his 2012 profile of Modi, “Emperor Uncrowned,” Vinod K Jose, the executive editor of The Caravan, attended the Gujarat High Court judgment on the Jahan case, in 2011. In this excerpt from the profile, Jose recalls how the court set aside the claims of the Gujarat Police that the encounter was genuine, and asked to prosecute the perpetrators and file a fresh case against them. Despite the state’s insistence, the court referred the matter to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
In November 2011, Gujarat High Court issued its judgment in one fake encounter—the killing in 2004 of a teenaged girl named Ishrat Jahan and three other young men. The police declared the four were terrorists linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba on a mission to kill Narendra Modi; the families of the dead insisted they were innocent, and filed a case challenging the allegations.
The courtroom was packed with lawyers, police, politicians and local journalists, and I stood by the second row, behind the defence and prosecution lawyers. There was complete silence as the two judges entered and addressed Kamal Trivedi, the advocate general for the state of Gujarat. Justice Jayant Patel delivered the verdict: “The encounter is not found to be genuine. It is a unanimous judgment from both of us. A fresh case has to be filed, prosecuting those who are accused.”
Patel then addressed Trivedi and the lawyer representing the victims, Mukul Sinha, and said, “Now the court would like to hear from the counsels, which agency would you prefer to investigate the matter?”
Trivedi requested that the case remain inside the state: “Gujarat police should be given one more chance. Please allow them to investigate the matter.”
Sinha spoke next. “It is Gujarat police who are the accused,” he said, “so the investigation should be carried out by one of the central agencies. In the past there has been political opposition to the central agencies from the state government, but I still suggest it has to be either NIA [the National Investigation Agency] or CBI.”
Trivedi scoffed, “Mukul Sinha says there’s political opposition—” but Patel cut him off mid-sentence: “Should we not listen to him?”
A ripple of laughter broke out in the courtroom, and Trivedi raised his voice almost to a shout. “Don’t laugh out. Don’t laugh out. There is no situation of the government not respecting the law or the honorable court. I plead a fresh look be given on the case, and Gujarat police be given one more chance.”
The court did not heed Trivedi’s plea, and handed the investigation to the CBI, which will investigate the same police officers who executed the “deadly terrorists” on charges of murder. It was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the Gujarat government, culminating in an order this January from the Supreme Court, which issued a three-month deadline for a panel of inquiry to reopen more than 20 alleged fake encounters in Gujarat between 2003 and 2006. The ongoing case against Amit Shah, who held 10 portfolios in the cabinet and was known as “Modi’s conscience keeper” in Gujarat, presents another major headache for Modi, one that will get much worse if the ongoing investigations into Shah’s extortion racket and the fake encounter cases begin to ask questions about whether the responsibility extends upward beyond the deputy home minister.
In the years before the fake encounter cases began to unravel, Modi loudly hailed his officers after the killing of each “terrorist.” At an election rally in December 2007, the chief minister all but celebrated the murder of the gangster Sohrabuddin. Modi called out his name, with each slowly enunciated syllable—“Sohrrraa-bu-deeeeen”—leaving no doubt as to his religion. “Congressmen say that Modi is indulging in encounter, telling that Modi has killed Sohrabuddin … You tell me what to do with Sohrabuddin,” Modi asked. The crowd chanted in response. “Kill him, kill him.”
Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.