This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

"Encountering" Ishrat Jahan

From September 2009:

Listen: this is going to be a long post. It is also an India-centric, terrorism-related, post. If you have an attention-deficit disorder, or if long articles bore you, or if you think Indian news isn’t news, move on. Don’t come complaining afterwards about how long it was, yada yada.

Fine. Now that we’ve got that over with, if you’re still with me, let’s begin.

Let’s play an imagination game.

Let’s suppose you’re a terrorist. Not just any old terrorist, no; you’re a highly skilled, highly trained operative of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the same organisation that the Indian government alleges was behind the Mumbai attack of last November. You’re determined, indoctrinated, and you have a specific mission: to kill a hated Hindunazi political figure, one of the men most responsible for instigating a pogrom in which a couple of thousands of your co-religionists were killed, many more driven from their homes and businesses, and your community as a whole perhaps permanently marginalised and alienated in the state in which they have always lived.

You aren’t an outsider; you’ve lived in the country all your life, the language is yours, you’re familiar with everything around you, and there’s no way you can give yourself away accidentally. You’re, as Mao said, a fish swimming in the sea of the people.

You aren’t a natural suspect; in fact, you’re probably one of the last people anyone would suspect. You’re just nineteen, female, quite well-educated, and pretty to boot. Anyone who saw you would more likely analyse your looks than your evil intentions.

You aren’t alone. You have an organisation behind you; a support system that has provided you three fellow-terrorists in your mission, as determined, trained and indoctrinated as you are.

In other words, you are a potent weapon indeed.

So what do you do? You and your three companions get into a car and drive down the interstate highway towards the city in which the hated Hindunazi is alleged to be found, surrounded by rings of guards and high fortified walls, of course; and since all you are carrying between you, apart from a 9mm pistol, is one AK 56 rifle, how you are to destroy your target, bypassing all that security, is a matter of some interesting conjecture.

Unfortunately, it will remain a matter of conjecture, because on the way you are intercepted by the state’s police force – the same police force which obeyed orders to stand by and watch while the pogrom was in progress – and after a hail of bullets are fired on both sides, you and your three companions are all dead, and the hated Hindunazi lives to fight another day.

Cut to an image some of us Indians may remember seeing at the time (June 2004): 

A line of four blood-soaked bodies on the side of the highway lie on their backs in front of a blue car. Closest to the camera is the corpse of a pretty young woman in an orange salwar, her eyes and mouth open. A large number of men are walking around the bodies, many of them laughing and pointing in evident glee. A terror module had been eliminated, and all patriotic Indians should breathe free and happily, hence, one assumes, the happiness on those men’s (they are all men) faces.

That young woman – shot dead near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on 15 June 2004, along with three “terrorists” – was Ishrat Jehan Raza, a nineteen-year-old college student from Mumbra, a suburb of Bombay. She and her companions were all immediately identifiable and we know they were terrorists.

Why were they all immediately identifiable? They were identifiable because they were all carrying identification, so clearly their own identification that there was no possibility of error. One, whom the Gujarat police declared was a Pakistani named Amjad Ali aka Salim, had a photo of himself in one pocket – and, very conveniently, nothing else. Another, Zeeshan Zohar, carried his identity card, and only his identity card, not even money or a cinema ticket stub or anything else. And the group’s “leader”, a Hindu convert to Islam (a traitor! May he rot in hell!) named Javed Shaikh, had his driving licence on him; nothing else, of course. You’d think these guys were going out of their way to ensure the police would be able to identify them without even having to go through their belongings. And as for Ishrat Jehan? Oh, she was the easiest of the lot: the poor silly bitch had her college identity card taped round her neck.

How very, very convenient.

And how do we know they were terrorists, do I hear you ask? Why, the police of Gujarat said so; and the Gujarat police are known for their patriotism and truthfulness. To oppose them is to oppose Gujarat – uh, excuse me, India – itself. And it was confirmed by the Congress government at the Centre, which issued an affidavit saying they were terrorists, without producing any evidence, naturally.

Maybe – just maybe – there was something rotten in the state of Gujarat?

In the hothouse atmosphere of Hindunazi India, though, where the only good Muslim is without doubt a dead one, the occasion was one of celebration and, of course, was milked for the maximum effect by the alleged target, Hindunazi leader and chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, a man who, incidentally, is persona non grata in the US because of his involvement in the 2002 anti-Mulsim pogrom. This is Narendra Modi:

In vain did the family of Ishrat Jehan insist that she was only a college student who helped support her family by working part time as a seamstress and tutor and sold mobile phone connections on the side. In vain did they insist that she used to go out of town on business and on these occasions, travelling alone certainly not being advisable for pretty young women in much of India, she would be accompanied by her boyfriend, Javed Shaikh, who was known to her family even if not exactly welcomed by them (premarital relationships being not exactly socially acceptable in much of Asia even to this day). In vain did Ishrat Jehan’s mother and six siblings claim that she had been abducted by the Gujarat police from Bombay on 12 June and shot dead in a staged gunfight three days later. There were protests, but only from traitorous liberals like yours truly, whose contribution was limited to a series of letters to the editor. After all, what more could I do? Join the Lashkar e Toiba?

As I intend to demonstrate, some people undoubtedly did.

As time went on, the Ishrat Jehan story faded from the popular consciousness. In any case it was just one of a whole series of incidents where alleged Muslim terrorists were killed while plotting against the life of Narendra Modi. Most of these terrorists were killed, strangely enough, when the political tide seemed to be turning against Modi; one might think they went out of their way to sacrifice themselves to let him use the incident to reinforce his grip on power. After all, how can anyone who’s a target of Muslim jihadists be anything but a patriotic Hindu Indian? How can any politician legitimately oppose such a person?

Even when, as I reported a couple of years ago, one of the killings turned out to be a fake – a certain Sohrabuddin Shaikh was picked up and murdered, along with his wife Kausar Bi, by Gujarat police under the command of an officer called DP Vanzara, the same man who had led the team that had “eliminated” Ishrat Jehan’s “terror module” – nobody seemed to care that Jehan and her companions might have been similarly murdered. If at all there was a Hindunazi reaction, it was that Vanzara was a hero who had done the right thing by killing Muslims, and that punishing him would be unfair.

Recently, however, things got moving again.

Five years after the event, while, as the term goes, the world slept, a magistrate holding an inquiry into the circumstances of the Ishrat Jehan episode declared the whole “encounter” was fake; Ishrat Jehan, her boyfriend and the two others had indeed been arrested from Bombay three days before the alleged gunfight in which they were killed and passed off as terrorists. Among the things the magistrate mentioned was the incredible fact that the terrorists all carried their identity and nothing else, not even money. He also noted that according to the police version, the police team fired at the terrorists from a distance of about 20-25 metres, using revolvers and World War Two-era Sten guns, while the terrorists fired back with their AK 56. Yet the Forensic Science Laboratory noted that only AK 56 empties were found at the site, not a single Sten or revolver bullet; and the lab failed to find any trace of powder residues on the hands of any of the four dead, which they’d have got from firing live ammunition.

Oh, and one more thing: as I said, the police said they engaged Jehan’s group from 20 metres or more. The FSL found that all four of these lethal terrorists, who had never fired a gun and had nothing on them except their identity cards, had been shot at point blank range.

Verdict: something was, indeed, rotten; more than rotten. Something stank.

Now I’ll digress to make a point – faked gunfights to eliminate gangsters and terrorists are nothing new in India. In fact, there is a term for this phenomenon; it’s called an “encounter”. When you hear so-and-so was killed in an “encounter”, you know the guy was illegally bumped off by the police. So established is the phenomenon that there are even “encounter specialists”: cops who specialise in murdering suspects instead of going through the process of investigating and charging them. It’s so much easier that way.

There’s one infallible marker for “encounters” as opposed to real gun battles: in each and every “encounter”, the police will describe how there were hundreds of shots fired, how the terrorists were highly trained killers, and so on; but in each case, the terrorists will all wind up dead at the end, while the police won’t suffer so much as a scratch. In real gunfights, our gallant cops and soldiers will without fail suffer multiple injured and almost always several dead. Remember Bombay last November?

There is another marker of a fake “encounter”; it’s when, instead of disputing the facts by producing evidence, the government resorts to technicalities to stop any serious investigation. In the Ishrat Jehan case, for example, the Gujarat government claimed that the magistrate’s report was null and void because it was completed too fast (five years after the event, let me remind you, ladies and gentlemen) and because it said the police had broken a law that dealt with deaths in police custody (that is, inside a jail or police lock-up). In this case, because the killings had happened out of doors, the Gujarat police (and the government that controlled it, and Narendra Modi, who controlled the government) were all home and free. And so on. Quibbling and pettifogging don’t make excellent legal cases.

It stinks, as I said.

At the moment I write this, the Ishrat Jehan case has gone to the Supreme Court for a decision whether the magistrate’s report should be upheld or not. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, the entire episode should make us look at some ways of fighting terrorism and whether they are effective either in the short or the long term.

There is an argument used over and over again by the Hindunazis in India: since the courts are slow as glaciers, they say, and arrested terrorists might simply escape or get bail or be released for want of evidence, why shouldn’t the police kill them? Isn’t it more effective than arresting them and seeing them go unpunished?

Good question.

Let us, for the sake of argument, say that Ishrat Jehan was a terrorist and a member of the LeT. Let us, in fact, grant that she somehow managed to receive a complete LeT training, in the middle of her suburban college studies and her embroidery and her tuition classes. Let’s say that she was indeed part of a team dedicated to the killing of Narendra Modi. Let’s, just to see where this gets us, say that she and her team actually planned to drive into Ahmedabad and somehow or other murder Modi. Let’s grant the Hindunazis all that.

All that still doesn’t detract from the fact that the four were killed in cold blood after being arrested and that they were killed without the benefit of judicial process. Hindunazis wouldn’t even bother to deny that. Instead, they’d be more likely to claim that anyone protesting the extra-judicial killing of people like Jehan isn’t sparing a thought for their victims; that, in fact, even questioning the modus operandi of the counter-terrorism effort is to support terrorism. Hindunazis would claim that murdering suspected terrorists shows that India is a “hard state” that stands no nonsense in countering terrorism.

Fine. So just tell me, suppose you’re a Muslim who’s more or less been told to his face that the law doesn’t pertain to him, that he has no rights and he can be bumped off at will? What does it do to you? What do you do? Ignore it? Try and blend in with the majority Hindu community? Turn violent?

If the last is your choice, there’s the LeT, all ready to accept new recruits...

Therefore, in the long run, all that the extra-judicial killing of terror suspects – especially if they are innocent – will do is increase recruitment to the terrorist groups. That isn’t exactly a victory.

And what about the short term? If you remember what I said, bumping off a series of alleged “terrorists”, even by the Gujarat police’s own account, didn’t exactly make for a safe Gujarat. Another series of terrorists jumped up to be mown down in their turn. Therefore, extrajudicial killings don’t work, even by the Gujarat police’s own figures. If they are telling the truth and everyone killed by them was a terrorist, extrajudicial killings simply do not work.

And what of the “hard state”, so beloved of the Hindunazis? After years of extrajudicial killings, the hard state still could not prevent the November 2008 attacks in Bombay, etc etc...

Therefore, apart from being immoral and illegal, extrajudicial murders have a third and most important drawback: they do not work.

So, why are they so beloved of the police in India? One important reason is callousness. Life is cheap in this hyper-populated part of the world, even cheaper when said life belongs to an “unperson”: a member of the lowest castes, or a poor person, or a despised “foreigner” – a Muslim or Christian or tribesman, for example. Also, the police have been here, ever since colonial times, not a force to maintain law and order but to protect the powers that be from the common person. Law and order come later. In the feudal national mindset I discussed some time ago, the police’s primary loyalty is to the politician who can dole out promotions and lucrative postings with the possibility of earning large bribes. Killing a few subhumans is a price worth paying to please the politician.

A second reason is laziness. Investigation and the building of a proper legal case require lots of time and effort and a certain amount of luck, and most important they require information. Once you’re treating a part of your population as subhumans, you aren’t likely to get much usable information from them. So it becomes easier to just exterminate these scum who you can kill and get away with killing. If they are actual terrorists, well and good; if not, anyone, even complete innocents pulled off the street and casually murdered, will do. It happens, well, every day.

Since the combination of callousness and laziness isn’t likely to vanish from the Indian policeman’s mindset anytime soon, “encounters” are going to continue.

Now there’s one great danger in the “encounter” mindset – in fact, of any mindset that allows preventive custody, denial of due legal process, indeed of any mindset that allows illegal wiretaps, eavesdropping on e-mail, etc – that goes far beyond the immediate moment. It’s all very well to kill a few useless Muslims and earn official plaudits. The official cheers will continue when you move on to killing a few alleged leftists. After all, Muslims, Christians and leftists are enemies of the nation, so locking them up without trial, torturing them, killing them, and so on shouldn’t bother anyone who’s a loyal, patriotic Indian. But then, where do you stop?

What happens when the party in power decides that anyone opposed to its policies is an enemy of the nation, because whatever the party in question does is for the good of the nation, and deserves to be detained without trial or killed? What happens when the power structure of the party decides that any internal dissenter is as much an enemy of the nation? How much dissent is dissent intolerable?

It's easy to justify killing a terrorist whom you catch alive because of the Dirty Harry mentality of summary justice. But from there it's easy to begin killing people just because they might possibly be terrorists, and there on it's only a small step to killing complete innocents even when you know they aren't terrorists; in fact, because they are, as one Vietnam War protest song went,

yellow, and sneaky and sly/ and only about three and a half feet high

And when that's done, then what? Are terrorist sympathisers as good targets as terrorists? Who's a terrorist sympathiser, someone who aids and abets them or only believes that they aren't necessarily wrong in their ultimate goal? Do you blow them all away? And how about ordinary people who think you shouldn't just drag innocents off the streets and shoot them? Are they fair game too?

“Encounters” are fascism. There’s no two ways about it.

I leave you with Pastor Martin Niemöller’s lines:

"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me."

They could be an epitaph for the people who stood by and cheered the destruction of Ishrat Jehan and her friends.

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