Was Modi LeT's target?

UPA's overwhelming desire to fix a charge of a fake encounter in Ishrat Jahan case was apparent as he rose to national prominence.

 |  9-minute read |   03-03-2016
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In February 2004, India's intelligence Bureau (IB) began a special operation to hunt down an active Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terror module.

According to credible intelligence inputs, the module had been tasked to assassinate "senior political leaders" in Gujarat. The obvious target was then chief minister Narendra Modi.

The module comprised four members: Javed Sheikh (alias Pranesh Pillai), Amjad Ali (a Pakistani national), Zeeshan Johar (also a Pakistani) and Ishrat Jahan (a college student in Mumbra and an alleged LeT suicide bomber).

Who were the men privy to the events that followed? Among others, there were three senior UPA government officials: National Security Advisor MK Narayanan who served as NSA in the Manmohan Singh government and was later appointed by it as governor of West Bengal; GK Pillai, home secretary when P Chidambaram was home minister between 2008 and 2012; and former Intelligence Bureau director Rajinder Kumar, again a UPA government appointee. All three have corroborated the events that unfolded.

Also read: The political murder of Ishrat Jahan 12 years after her encounter

Acting on specific intelligence inputs (including electronic intercepts between February and June 2004) on the LeT module's plan to assassinate Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and former deputy prime minister LK Advani, the IB planned its strategy carefully. Surveillance of the module was carried out over a period of several months. The movements of the four LeT terrorists were monitored as they travelled to Gujarat. They were confronted and gunned down on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004.

Was this a fake encounter like the several hundred that take place routinely in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere in India but rarely attract media attention? Or was it a controlled counter-terrorism operation, based on credible intelligence, to abort an imminent threat by a terrorist module against an Indian politician?

This is what GK Pillai, one of India's most respected former home secretaries, who served during the Congress-led UPA government, said in a recent television interview: "It was a very successful intelligence operation. We managed to entice the LeT to send their shooter to India and were able to monitor their activities in India and to catch them. It was a very planned operation… something intelligence agencies around the world do."

But doesn't "entrapping" a terrorist module amount to a fake encounter?

Pillai elaborated in his interview: "You are using the sources of LeT people... to be able to pass on information... It is always better to know when your enemy is coming in rather than wait for collateral intelligence where someone plans something without your knowledge."

Such pre-emptive counter-terrorism operations are conducted whenever a serious terror threat is clearly identified by intelligence agencies.

It is important to underscore that whether or not Ishrat was an LeT terrorist, a fake encounter is murder by other means and unacceptable in civilised society. The issue is whether the encounter on June 15, 2004, was staged by the police or a legitimate counter-terrorism operation.

Turn now to MK Narayanan, former NSA and IB chief. Did he believe the encounter was fake? In an article in The Hindu on February 18, 2016, this is what Narayanan wrote: "Intelligence agencies… were aware that (Ishrat) was an LeT operative and a key figure in a carefully planned LeT operation. The operational trail went from Pakistan to Dubai, Kochi, Kashmir and finally Ahmedabad."

When the encounter took place on June 15, 2004, just outside Ahmedabad, the LeT terror module was primed to carry out its well-planned operation. It was armed with weapons and ammunition. The police engaged the terror module. All four members, including Ishrat, were killed.

Satish Verma headed the three-member SIT set up by the Gujarat High Court to help the CBI, then under the careful gaze of home minister Chidambaram, probe the Ishrat-LeT case. Verma, whose reputation precedes him, said flatly in an interview on March 2, 2016, to the Indian Express (one among several media interviews he gave earlier this week): "Our investigation has found that Ishrat along with three others had been picked by IB (Intelligence Bureau) days before the encounter. In fact, there was no intelligence input with the IB that a woman would be accompanying the alleged terrorists. There was no input on Ishrat. These people were kept in illegal custody and then shot dead."

Also read: Trusting Headley's revelation on Ishrat Jahan is dangerous for India

This version contradicts the statements of three men of unimpeachable integrity: MK Narayanan, GK Pillai and Asif Ibrahim (the former IB chief). It is also sharply contradicted by a highly-placed intelligence source who said in an interview with DNA on March 2, 2016: "The first affidavit was based on credible intelligence inputs from Maharashtra police, Gujarat police, Intelligence Bureau and RAW that unequivocally opined that Ishrat Jehan and her three accomplices were part of a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) module formed to launch an attack on Modi. It is clear now that Chidambaram played politics to file the second affidavit by removing these intelligence inputs. If the case was related to a fake encounter, why did he do this?"

Affidavit

Why indeed did the home ministry change its affidavit in September 2009, deleting the portion in its original affidavit that clearly stated Ishrat Jahan was part of an LeT terrorist module? In its first affidavit, filed in the Gujarat High Court on August 6, 2009, the UPA government said Ishrat was a member of the LeT. It filed detailed, intelligence-backed evidence pointing to Ishrat being an LeT terrorist.

Within weeks, according to GK Pillai, someone at the "political level" ordered the affidavit to be changed. The new affidavit, filed in court on September 29, 2009, removed all mention of Ishrat being an LeT operative.

It is unprecedented for a government to recant within weeks a key part of an affidavit it has filed in court. When Chidambaram was asked at his recent book launch to explain why this was done on his watch, he did not offer an answer but in later television interviews attempted to defend his ministry's actions. Chidambaram acknowledged that he ordered a revised affidavit because the first one filed by his own ministry was "ambiguous".

The Supreme Court has meanwhile agreed to hear a public interest litigation (PIL), possibly this Friday or next Monday, seeking contempt proceedings against Chidambaram for perjury and misleading the court. The PIL also calls for quashing the charges against the Gujarat policemen accused in the Ishrat Jahan case and seeking compensation for the time they have spent in jail.

Evidence

What do the facts tell us thus far:

One, that Ishrat Jahan was an LeT terrorist. Three senior, credible officers with close knowledge of the case have gone on record to say so: ex-NSA MK Narayanan, former home secretary GK Pillai and ex-IB director Rajinder Kumar. Asif Ibrahim, the highly respected former head of the IB, has also confirmed Ishrat's LeT links.

Two, that Ishrat was killed not in a fake encounter but in a controlled counter-terrorism operation, along with Sheikh, Ali and Zeeshan, as they headed towards Ahmedabad to carry out a terrorist attack. Ali and Zeeshan were identified as Pakistani nationals.

Also read: Fake encounter case - How Vanzara's arrest gave halo of victimhood to Modi

Was Sheikh an innocent consort of Ishrat? In a report published in the Indian Express last week, Praveen Swami wrote: "Immigration records show that on March 29, 2004, Javed Sheikh flew to Oman, on passport E6624023, identifying him as Pranesh Kumar M Gopinath Pillai - a travel document obtained illegally, in addition to an earlier one in his Muslim name. He flew back to Mumbai on April 11."

Sheikh's antecedents are thus clearly suspect.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), self-avowedly a caged parrot during the Manmohan Singh government, and SIT chief Satish Verma claimed the four LeT terrorists were killed "in cold blood." This led to a damaging schism between the IB and CBI which was resolved only after the change of government in May 2014.

The overwhelming desire to fix a charge of a fake encounter in the Ishrat Jahan case and portray Gujarat as a lawless state was apparent as Modi rose to national political prominence. The CBI was pitted against the IB to achieve cynical political ends.

The evidence meanwhile continues to mount. Following written allegations of torture against Satish Verma levelled by RVS Mani, former under-secretary in the home ministry, AK Jain, a former joint secretary in the home ministry, confirmed in a television interview on March 2 that IB's reports on Ishrat being an LeT terrorist were "authentic". Jain was the officer responsible for collating facts on Ishrat.

In another indictment of the CBI and the SIT's Satish Verma, former IB director Sudhir Kumar said this week that "IB officers were victimised" for providing intelligence inputs confirming both Ishrat's LeT links and more significantly the fact that the incident was a legitimate counter-terrorism operation.

Also read: Ishrat Jahan encounter: Congress must pay for framing Modi, Shah

Worryingly, instead of strengthening India's intelligence apparatus, the UPA government, wittingly or unwittingly, weakened it at a time (September 2009) when it should have been supporting the IB's inputs on the Pakistani ISI's proxy terror attack on Mumbai in 2008. The UPA government, however, employed its resources then to undermine and demoralise India's intelligence assets - indirectly helping the ISI's terror strategy against India. This will resonate strongly when a judicial inquiry is ordered into the issue.

Such a judicial inquiry must answer two questions: one, was the second affidavit filed by the UPA government on September 29, 2009, contradicting its first affidavit naming Ishrat as an LeT member, a device to derail Modi, then a rising BJP leader? Two, did this second affidavit give the LeT the official alibi it needed to escape responsibility in 2009 for an unsuccessful political assassination in 2004?

Significantly, it was in 2009 that Pakistan's ISI came under intense global pressure following the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai and needed just such an alibi.

If the answer to both questions is in the affirmative, the judicial inquiry must probe all the events around the alleged LeT plot to assassinate Modi and Advani and whether any Indian politicians played a role in undermining an investigation into such a plot.

The new PIL in the Supreme Court may finally uncover the truth and lead to the prosecution of all those, to use GK Pillai's anodyne words, at the "political level" who subverted the Ishrat investigation and misled the Supreme Court.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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