By Syed Nazakat
Keeping a low profile is part of Asif Ibrahim’s job. It has become the toughest part these days as the security agency he heads, the Intelligence Bureau, is in the eye of a storm. A charge sheet submitted to the Gujarat High Court by the Central Bureau of Investigation has accused the IB of criminal conspiracy, abduction, planting of evidence and murder of Ishrat Jehan, a college student in Mumbai, and three others in a fake encounter on June 15, 2004. The case has raised a political storm and has led to a virtual war between India’s two top security agencies.
The court documents and investigation reports, which THE WEEK had access to, give the details of the conspiracy and murder in which top IB and police officers were involved. Facing the heat is Rajinder Kumar, a special director at the IB. A Manipur-Tripura cadre officer of the 1979 batch, Kumar was Gujarat station chief of the IB at the time of the encounter and is said to be close to Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The CBI claims Kumar and three other IB officers generated a fake intelligence alert that Ishrat and her team were planning to assassinate Modi, and then staged the encounter with the help of the Gujarat Police. According to the charge sheet, Kumar’s station provided the weapons planted on the victims.
Apparently, Javed Ghulam Sheikh, one of the men who were killed with Ishrat, was an undercover agent who went rogue. It is suspected that he was killed because letting him go would endanger other operations and operatives. Sheikh, who was born Pranesh Pillai in Kerala, converted to Islam to marry a Muslim girl in Mumbai. He worked in Dubai for many years and visited Oman two months before the encounter. According to the police, he came into touch with the Pakistani militant outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba in the Middle East and started working for the organisation. His handler, said the police, wanted him to carry terrorist attacks in India. According to the home ministry, he had two Indian passports—one in his Muslim name (S-514800) and another in his old Hindu name (E-6624203). However, new evidence suggests that Sheikh was in touch with Kumar long before he went to Oman.
There is a strong concern within the security establishment that arresting Kumar could have serious fallout on the way the IB functions. It could deter IB officers from genuine intelligence gathering out of fear that they could be hauled up in future. Ibrahim has been staunchly defending his organisation and officers. He is worried that if the undercover operation behind the encounter is further investigated, it would hamper the agency’s other covert operations, expose its operatives and endanger the country’s security.
Though Ibrahim does not want to be seen as sabotaging the CBI investigation, he is reportedly furious that the CBI went public with it without even consulting him. He has briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon about the case and its fallout.
The CBI, however, does not share the concern. “A bogey is being created thanks to the Ishrat Jehan case that the entire IB will stop functioning and national security will be in jeopardy,” said CBI Director Ranjit Sinha. “This is unfortunate since both the agencies, the CBI and the IB, are part of the same security setup. But if conspirators have left footprints and have failed to cover their tracks we will uncover as much evidence on the conspiracy as possible.”
Though top officials at the home ministry are worried about the spat between the CBI and the IB, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has made it clear that he would not interfere in the investigation. “If someone is guilty he should be punished,” he said. His statement is seen as a clear indication that Kumar, who is retiring from service at the end of July, might be arrested.
Human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi said the IB was twitchy about the way the CBI investigation was going on and the alleged involvement of a top officer. “How are FBI reports being cited by everyone from IB chief to sundry investigative journalists when the former home minister had said that the US had not been willing to share information on David Coleman Headley with India?” she asked.
Contradicting the reports that Ishrat’s name and her links with the LeT figured in a report by the National Investigation Agency, former home secretary G.K. Pillai told THE WEEK that LeT operative Headley did not mention her name during the NIA’s interrogation. “Headley’s interrogation was focused on much bigger things,” said Pillai. He, however, defended the IB’s operation and said that when he was the home secretary he had seen intelligence inputs on Ishrat’s suspicious activities and links with the LeT. “There were reports of her being in touch with the terrorists. But perhaps she was misled by them. She might be an innocent cover used by the three terrorists,” he said.
There are more contradictions. The home ministry’s affidavit, a copy of which is in THE WEEK’s possession, says “the company of Ishrat and Javed with two Pakistani nationals clearly proves that they were working for the common mission of LeT.” The affidavit, signed by R.V.S. Mani, who was an undersecretary at the home ministry, was submitted before the Gujarat High Court in August 2009 to defend the IB. The CBI investigation has found that the four were not travelling together and were arrested from different places and brought to Gujarat by the police on Kumar’s instructions. Kumar, according to the charge sheet, used two of his operatives to nab the suspected terrorists. Mani has been named by the CBI as witness no. 163 in the case.
Jishan Johar, the third person killed in the encounter, is said to be a Pakistani national and was arrested about two months before the encounter by a joint team of Gujarat Police and the IB. The fourth one, Amjid Ali, also said to be a Pakistani national, was arrested a month before the encounter. They were kept in different safe houses in Gujarat. Ishrat and Sheikh were allegedly picked up by the police on June 12 , 2004, from Anand district in Gujarat, and were detained at the Khodiyar farm in Ahmedabad.
The CBI report says Kumar met D.G. Vanzara, director-general of police, at his official residence on June 13 and the plan to kill all four in a fake encounter was hatched there. In the next two days, the police collected from the IB office in Ahmedabad the weapons to be planted on the dead bodies. The first information report was prepared even before the ‘encounter’. On June 15, Ishrat and the other three were taken to a deserted place in Kotarpur in Ahmedabad and were killed around 4 a.m., says the charge sheet. The charge sheet does not mention whether Kumar was present at the ‘encounter’.
“The IB has no defence in this case. It is in a tight corner and is trying to use the bogus argument that David Headley had said that Ishrat was an LeT operative as a fig leaf to protect its credibility,” said K.S. Subramanian, former Tripura director-general of police, who has also served in the IB. “The IB is a top secret organisation, which functions without a legal framework or charter of duties. The effort by the L.P. Singh Committee in 1979 did not succeed because of Indira Gandhi, who regarded the effort to make the IB accountable as an attack on her. Over the years, the performance of the IB has deteriorated steadily and it has been increasingly politicised.”
The political implications of the Ishrat Jehan case are apparent. The BJP has accused the government of using the CBI to implicate Modi, a potential prime ministerial candidate, in the case. Kumar’s proximity to Modi, however, is well-known and dates back Modi’s days as BJP general secretary in charge of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The CBI had not named Kumar in its first charge sheet, which had only the names of IB officers Rajeev Wankhede, M.K. Sinha and P. Mittal.
An IB officer who had worked with Kumar said he nurtured a deep hatred for Pakistan. Kumar is a known expert at tracking Islamist groups with an anti-India agenda and an effective taskmaster. Apparently, Wankhede, Sinha and Mittal served his directives obediently. “Kumar is responsible for manufacturing intelligence in the Ishrat Jehan case,” said former Gujarat director-general of police R.B. Sreekumar.
India’s intelligence network is a complex web. Though the Prime Minister is at its top, his only point of contact is the national security adviser. Both the IB director and the Research and Analysis Wing secretary report to the NSA. The IB is entrusted with gathering intelligence inside the country and it operates through its central operations units and subsidiary units in states. Intelligence officers do the fieldwork and give inputs to chief intelligence officers, who pass the inputs to assistant directors. They give it to the joint director, the top authority in a state. Joint directors report to the director.
The IB has always been at the mercy of the government. In fact, its status often depends on the reputation the director enjoys at the Prime Minister’s Office. Reportedly, a large part of the IB’s resources is committed to providing the government information and inferences on the political prospects of the ruling party. A large part of its 25,000-strong workforce is dedicated to following leaders, monitoring their activities and picking their plans and conversations. “As intelligence provides knowledge support to the government in policy formulation and policy execution, intelligence agencies the world over and in all times have got sucked into the politics of managing the state by the government,” said Ajit Doval, who was IB director in 2004-2005.
Much of the good name that the IB enjoys comes from its successful covert operations. It crushed the Pakistan-backed insurgency in Punjab and keeps insurgency in Kashmir under check. It has been successful in busting terror modules, coordinating anti-terror operations and countering threats to political leaders. However, it has also been accused of subjecting scores of terror suspects to questionable interrogation methods.
But never have its operations been thrown to public glare as in the Ishrat Jehan case. The incident would have been buried if Shamima Kauser, Ishrat’s mother, had not gone to court. “When we went to collect her body, the cops were reluctant to hand over it. That was the first time I suspected they were trying to hide something,” she told THE WEEK. Two cops from the crime branch of the Gujarat Police, I.K. Chauhan and Mohan Nanji Menat, refused to fire at Ishrat and others during the ‘encounter’. These two are now prosecution witnesses in the case.
“Every year, hundreds of people are killed in fake encounters in India. It is phenomenal how a cold-blooded murder of an innocent girl has lifted the veil from so many things,” said Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, who represents Shamima in court. “If evidence is taking the investigators to the doorstep of a senior IB officer, we should hope that the investigation will be allowed to reach its logical conclusion.”
with Anupam Dasgupta
Interview of G.K. Pillai, former home secretary
It was a classic IB operation
By Syed Nazakat
G.K. Pillai was the Union home secretary when the Union Home Ministry filed an affidavit in the Gujarat High Court in 2009 stating that the Intelligence Bureau had tipped off the Gujarat government about a terror plot after tracking Ishrat Jehan’s movements.
Pillai stood by the IB’s tip-off in an exclusive interview with THE WEEK. Excerpts:
How do you see the ongoing tussle between the CBI and the IB in the Ishrat Jehan case?
It is gut-wrenching because of the grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities. The way the whole case was handled is unfortunate. We have to remember that the case is not an ordinary criminal case. It was a classic textbook IB operation in which terrorists were pulled out from their hideouts. They were caught before they could kill people.
But, was it not a fake encounter?
That is for the CBI to investigate. But the fact remains that the guys were terrorists. Two of them were Pakistani, trained in LeT camps and sent here to create bloodbath.
Do you accuse the CBI of sabotaging the work of the IB?
Not at all. I am with the CBI chief when he says that he is directed by the court to do his job. But the court has not directed the CBI to leak information to the media. It has not directed the agency to defame another premier national agency. The CBI should sack the officers who have leaked stories about the investigation.
Was Ishrat Jehan a terrorist?
There were reports of her being in touch with the terrorists. She might be an innocent cover used by the three terrorists.
Her family says that she was kidnapped, interrogated and then killed in the fake encounter?
That is again for the CBI to investigate.
Did [David] Headley mention her name during his interrogation by the NIA?
No, it was not mentioned in the NIA report submitted to me. Headley’s interrogation was focused on much bigger things.
What was the proof of Ishrat’s association with the LeT?
When I was the home secretary, I had seen the input received by the intelligence agencies about her links with the LeT. The IB then clearly warned that an LeT terror module was planning to eliminate Narendra Modi.
She travelled with Javed Sheikh to Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and at both places shared a room with him. My question is, what was she doing with a deadly terrorist? Ishrat’s name was mentioned as a martyr on LeT’s web site but it was later removed. You have to keep these things in mind while passing judgment. It was a complex operation.
Do you support the encounter?
Not at all. If it is true that they were killed in a fake encounter, the police have committed a blunder. It would have been much better to interrogate them and produce them before the court. The law should have taken its own course.
What is your biggest concern about the ongoing case?
The CBI has been leaking all kinds of stories about the IB. My biggest fear is that if the IB starts doing the same it would be a terrible spectacle. After all, people who serve in the CBI are not that clean. Some might have accumulated wealth. I wish both the agencies handle the case more sensitively.
Is it time to make intelligence agencies more accountable?
We had that debate a couple of years back. I am of the opinion that there should be a Parliament oversight but we should never interfere in the work of our intelligence agencies. The details about their operations, manpower and budget should be protected for the sake of national security. And let me assure you that our intelligence agencies are most professional and are bound by legal sanctions.
THE WEEK, July 21, 2013