Terror and politics

“Where you stand is determined by where you sit,” remarked Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recently, in a reference to the changing positions of political parties when in and out of power.

So, for example, when in opposition you derail economic reform, when in government you endorse it: witness the debate over goods and service tax (GST). You have zero tolerance to corruption in election rhetoric, but compromise with it when in power: witness the influence of ‘syndicates’ in Mamata’s Bengal. You are a supporter of free speech in the opposition, but look to muzzle it in power: witness the hypocrisy over net freedom and Section 66 A of the IT Act. You are ideologically rigid when framing manifestos, but become flexible when seeking power : witness alliances like the BJP-PDP in Jammu and Kashmir, or now the Congress-Left in Bengal.

But what if the U-turn involves terror? Surely, national security is one issue on which political compromise is unacceptable, or have our netas become so morally bankrupt that they will allow even the fight against terror to be subservient to partisan agendas? Just take a look at the way in which the narrative over the Ishrat Jahan ‘encounter’ case and the cases of ‘saffron’ terror is now playing out: a complete analysis would suggest that both the main parties, BJP and the Congress, are manipulating the security apparatus (and the media) to ‘fix’ their opponents.

Take the Ishrat Jahan case first. The ‘encounter’ took place in 2004, less than a month after the Congress-led UPA came to power. Yet 12 years later, three key questions are still unanswered. First, was Ishrat Jahan really a Lashkar terrorist or an innocent ‘victim’ of a possible terror plot to eliminate then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi? An initial IB report suggested she was a terrorist based on newspaper reports, alleged intelligence intercepts and Lashkar websites. But a subsequent report of a court-monitored SIT headed by a senior Gujarat IPS officer and a charge sheet prepared by the CBI downplayed any terror links. Now, based on 26/11 accused David Headley’s ‘confession’ we are told that Headley had ‘heard’ of a Lashkar terror module that had a woman whose name was Ishrat. But is ‘hearsay’ enough to build a strong case?

Even more troubling is the second question: Why were home ministry affidavits changed in the case? The first one clearly based itself on the original IB report and said that Ishrat was part of the terror plot. The second one quietly drops the references to her alleged terror links. The home minister at the time was P Chidambaram, an experienced lawyer-politician who is expected to exercise due diligence before making any changes that ignore senior officers in the ministry. So why were these changes made in such great secrecy and in blatant disregard of the IB’s opinion? Was it because the Ishrat case involved the Gujarat government and Mr Modi? Is there any other encounter case in any other part of the country where the home minister had taken such personal interest?

Which brings me to the third critical question: Was Ishrat killed in a fake encounter or not? A detailed metropolitan court judgement of judge SP Tamang in 2010 ruled emphatically that it was a staged encounter and a CBI charge sheet a year later squarely blamed the Ahmedabad police crime branch and even IB officers of a conspiracy. A senior Gujarat police officer recorded his statement under Section 164, confirming that it was a fake encounter. But now, in the last few months, retired bureaucrats and police officers are making contrary remarks. Was the original investigation by the CBI then designed to nail the Gujarat government, or are selective ‘leaks’ being made now simply because the case is reaching a crucial stage and the power arrangements at the Centre have dramatically changed? Sadly, in a polarised polity characterised by a shrill media debate, questions are framed based on convenience, not the pursuit of truth.

Which brings us to the ‘Hindu terror’ investigations. For a decade when the UPA was in power, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) claimed to have cracked several blast cases linked to right-wing groups. Now, in the last two years, we have a number of witnesses in these cases turning hostile, public prosecutors resigning claiming pressure to “go soft” , and investigators readily giving the clean chit to the accused. Take the 2008 Malegaon blasts case: for eight years, the prime accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Col S Purohit have been in jail under tough anti-terror laws; now, witnesses are surfacing to claim that confessions targeting the duo were extracted under duress. Is there an implication that officers of impeccable integrity like the late Hemant Karkare, who led the investigations were trying to “fix’’ the accused?

Take also the high-profile Samjhauta train blasts, in which, after chargesheeting eight individuals linked to right-wing groups, the NIA now is seriously exploring a Lashkar angle to the conspiracy. Can a case turn so rapidly in the space of a few months, with almost every witness turning hostile? And what then happens to the confessions of key accused Swami Aseemanand under Section 164 admitting to a wider “Hindutva” terror network, or was this too obtained under coercion?

Which leaves one to wonder: either the police under the UPA was deliberately targeting “Hindutva” terror groups linked to the sangh parivar, or that the same officers under the NDA are keen to whitewash these cases. Is the NIA, like the CBI, a “caged parrot” whose investigations are determined by the interests of their political masters? And who will then ever have faith in a criminal justice system if even terror cases are hostage to politics? Lots of questions, very few answers!

Post-script: This week, eight Malegaon residents, all Muslims, were discharged in a 2006 blasts case after the NIA claimed it had no evidence against them. The men had spent a decade in and out of jail. They may be finally free, but who will give them back their 10 lost years?

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