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Ishrat Jahan case: Blast from the past

Mazhar Farooqui recollects his investigation in the 9-year-old Ishrat Jahan case that has stirred a hornet’s nest in India

Image Credit: Reuters
Workers walk past a poster of Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi installed at the construction site of the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) building at Gandhinagar in this file photo. India’s Intelligence Bureau still insists Ishrat Jahan and three others were on their way to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
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Dubai: As the Ishrat Jahan case snowballs into a political storm in India, my mind goes back to June 15, 2004, when a 19-year-old Muslim girl, Ishrat Jahan, was gunned down by Gujarat police along with three others in a pre-dawn shootout in Ahmedabad.

I was a correspondent with The Times of India in Lucknow and was intrigued by reports suggesting that Jahan and Javed Shaikh visited the Uttar Pradesh capital thrice in two weeks just days before they were ambushed.

To this day, India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) insists they were on their way to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Shaikh, alias Pranesh Pillai, was a new convert to Islam and was one of the three men killed.

My question was: Why would they come to Lucknow if they were out to eliminate Modi who lives in Gujarat?

It didn’t make sense.

So I rang up Gujarat police headquarters. My call was put through to the then Ahmedabad’s additional commissioner of police DG Vanzara, who is now among the top seven policemen charged in the Jahan case by India’s national investigation agency.

Vanzara, currently in jail in connection with another extrajudicial killing, told me — and I quote him ad verbatim: “Javed and Ishrat went to Lucknow to procure weapons from Lashkar modules.”

Travelling more than 1,300 kilometres to Lucknow from Mumbai for weapons was like carrying coal to New Castle. I was not convinced.

“But couldn’t they get them from elsewhere. Why do they have to come to Lucknow of all places?” I enquired.

“We are still trying to figure that out,” Vanzara replied. “In Lucknow they met Lashkar terrorist Salim alias Amjad Ali, who was nursing a gunshot injury. I believe they wanted to carry out a major operation in Lucknow but changed their plan,” Vanzara said and then went on to explain how Lucknow’s proximity with Ayodhya made it a potential terrorist target.

So we had three hardened terrorists, including one with a bullet wound, scampering across the country with no clear target, and every few days visiting a city where they were very unlikely to find any weapons.

It stretched credulity but at that time I had no reason to suspect Vanzara who was yet to emerge as the hatchet man of the powers that be.

“We are certain about their identities. The staff of Hotel Mezbaan where they stayed have recognised Javed and Ishrat from their photographs,” Vanzara said enthusiastically.

The hotel staff, however, didn’t appear that confident.

“I have seen the photographs of Javed and Ishrat in newspapers and TV channels. The lady who checked in under the name of Ayesha did bear a slight resmblance to Ishrat, but then I cannot say that with 100 per cent certainty. Maybe she was Ishrat. Or maybe my mind is playing tricks and I am imagining,” Mezban receptionist Mohammad Urfi told me. Another hotel staff said he didn’t recollect anything.

At the end of the day, there was nothing to conclusively prove that the couple who checked in under the names of Ayesha and Abdul Rahman on May 7, 2004 were Jahan and Shaikh, much less their dubious links.

Yet an Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer seconded Vanzara’s claim, and like many other journalists, I was also made to believe that Jahan & Co. were indeed scouting for arms and targets in Lucknow.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have jumped the gun on them. More so because there had been a raft of eeringly similar encounters in Uttar Pradesh between October 2000 and March 2002 when the state was ruled by current BJP President and Modi’s most ardent supporter — Rajnath Singh.

One such IB-police combo etched in memory is the April 2001 killing of ‘three dreaded terrorists’ by a special police unit. Police said they had set out to attack Ayodhya where a disputed religious site has been a flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims for years.

The encounter took place on the outskirts of Lucknow when police waylaid the trio as they trudged to Ayodhya, 130km away, on foot, carrying sophisticated weapons in a big, green canvas bag slung across the shoulder.

The bag was shown to the media at a press conference later that evening. Blazoned on it was ‘PAKISTAN’ in capital letters.

In another head-scratching oddity, the names and ages of the three ‘Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists’ had an uncanny similarity with those of three Muslim youths picked by the police from different cities a few days earlier. Their arrests were even reported in local dailies.

Assuming this was a one in a million coincidence then where are the terrorists’ namesakes apprehended by the police? I asked in my article.

Twelve years on this question, like many others, still begs an answer.

The author is Deputy Editor at XPRESS