The Truth about Sohrabuddin Sheikh
Rather expectedly, and unfortunately, the debate on the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh by a team of police officers from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh has got compressed into a quarrel on Narendra Modi. There are those who see this as comeuppance for the Gujarat chief minister, among India's most charismatic as well as most polarising politicians. There are others who see this as vendetta on the part of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the UPA government.
It would be unfair to reduce the episode to a referendum on Narendra Modi. Things are far more complex. Some internal security specialists and policing veterans - not all them Modi fans - are plain distraught. They believe the politicisation of standard crime fighting and the implication of sections of the police in a tussle between India's two biggest political parties will prove hazardous in the long run.
To understand why, one needs to answer four key questions:
1. Who was Sohrabuddin Sheikh?
2. Has his killing become emblematic of a moral crusade against fake encounters?
3. What are the CBI and the Congress accusing BJP politicians in Gujarat and Rajasthan of?
4. Either way, whether you like Modi or love the Congress, why are disturbing questions emerging?
Sohrabuddin's background needs to be placed in context. In the late 1980s, Abdul Latif was the underworld king of Gujarat. Based in Ahmedabad, politically well networked, he made a fortune in the bootlegging industry. Later, he became Dawood Ibrahim's business manager in the state and was one of the criminal dons to make a transition from organised crime to terrorism. Latif was a suspect in the Mumbai bombings case of 1993; the RDX for that operation landed, remember, on the Gujarat coast.
In November 1997, Latif was killed in an encounter by the Ahmedabad police. He was under arrest and had allegedly tried to escape while using the toilet. A Congress-backed Rashtriya Janata Party government was then running Gujarat. The chief minister was Dilip Parikh but the power behind the throne was Shankarsinh Vaghela, who later became minister for textiles in Manmohan Singh's first government (2004-09).
Whatever the Congress may say now, in 1997 Vaghela's supporters saw the elimination of Latif as an achievement and a sample of their leader's courage and resolve. The importance of Latif's departure from the state terror matrix was enough for that redoubtable magazine, Frontline, to recall it in its April 29-May 12, 2000, issue.
"Shortly after massive blasts occurred in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market on May 21, 1996," the article in Frontline said, "RAW made available intercepts that led the Srinagar Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police to Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF) operative Farida Wani. Soon after, her boss, Hilal Baig, was shot dead by the SOG on July 17, 1996. Telephone intercepts also led the Gujarat police to one of the JKIF's top associates, Ahmedabad underworld baron and Dawood Ibrahim associate Abdul Rashid Latif. Latif was arrested from New Delhi by a Gujarat Police Anti-Terrorist Squad on October 10, 1996, and was killed later while attempting to escape from custody in Ahmedabad."
Many of Latif's cohorts were put under watch. One of them was his driver, apparently responsible for, in one daring move, hiding a huge cache of weapons meant for terrorist groups. This was part of the consignment that had arrived before the Mumbai bombings of 1993. Latif was under surveillance and so his driver had stored the arms in a well in his (the driver's) native village near Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh.
The driver eventually faced over 50 cases, including some under the National Security Act. He was arrested, separately, by the Gujarat and the Madhya Pradesh police forces, but avoided conviction. When not facilitating terror networks, he was engaged in extortion rackets in Rajasthan, acting almost certainly on behalf of others. His principals, the police suspected, were linked to terror funding.
The name of Latif's driver was Sohrabuddin Shaikh. Strictly speaking, there is no definitive evidence that he was an Islamist terrorist. His theological conversion to global jihad - in the manner of, say, a Hafeez Saeed or a Masood Azhar - is unproven and perhaps even unlikely. Sohrabuddin's day job was extortion. Many of his accomplices were Hindu and many of his victims were Muslim. Additionally, however, he was active at the periphery of terrorism: playing courier for jihadist networks, delivering weapons and cash.
In November 2005, Sohrabuddin was killed in an operation involving the police forces of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Representatives of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), a federal agency, were also said to have been present. The IB had in its possession wire taps that established Sohrabuddin talking to Dawood Ibrahim and agreeing to take delivery of an arms consignment in Kerala.
It is probable Sohrabuddin was killed in cold blood and that witnesses to his death, including his mistress and an associate, were similarly silenced. This takes us to the larger issue of the "philosophy", if that be the word, behind fake encounters.
Fake encounters were used in West Bengal to quell the Naxalite insurgency of the 1970s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when the lower judiciary in Punjab was overwhelmed by threats and wary of convicting Khalistani extremists, K.P.S. Gill's police force was also said to have resorted to such killings. In the 1990s too, "encounter specialists" in the Mumbai police crippled the city's criminal gangs.
More recently, the popular mood in favour of encounters was driven by the shame of Kandahar, when three terrorists had to be released to win freedom for the hijacked passengers of flight IC-814, on the final day of 1999. After that, police and paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere began to operate on a silent "take no prisoners" approach, especially when it came to high profile targets.
Admittedly, all the above examples have had their disquieting offshoots. A Congress government of the early 1970s defeated Naxalism in West Bengal but created such a fear psychosis that the party was voted out of office in 1977 and has never returned to power. In Punjab, the police became a law unto itself, one that successive peacetime governments have had to grapple with. In Mumbai and Delhi, police officers seen as "daredevils" and "encounter specialists" began taking sides in gang warfare, aiming their guns at some criminals more than others, and supervising dubious land deals.
Perhaps it is no different in Gujarat or Rajasthan or Andhra Pradesh. Perhaps individual police officers who began with good intentions have allowed their initial success and public adulation to go to their heads and turned rogue.
Even so, it difficult to believe that fake encounters can be entirely avoided. Their numbers should not be exaggerated but neither should chances of their abolition - not until the Indian criminal justice system becomes efficient, delivers quick judgements and the standard for conviction, particularly in cases of terrorism, attempted terrorism or conspiracy to execute a terror strike, is made realistic and contemporaneous with anti-terror legislation in other democracies.
A few weeks ago the Wikileaks revelations drew attention to a United States Special Forces unit called Task Force 373. Its mandate is to hunt down and kill "high value" terrorists and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, without presenting them for trial. That the Americans do it doesn't make fake encounters legal; it just points to the broader sanction that such methods have.
Contrary to some of the media commentary, the Sohrabuddin chapter has not become a barometer for the acceptability or otherwise of fake encounters. The Congress and the UPA government are not promising to lead a campaign against fake encounters, to reform the Indian justice system and make such occurrences unnecessary in the first place. That is not the nub of the CBI's case either.
Rather it is being made out that Sohrabuddin was killed not because he was a criminal but because he was the front man for an extortion enterprise that was masterminded by BJP ministers in Gujarat and Rajasthan (ruled by the BJP till December 2008). It is being contended he extracted money from businessmen and shared his loot with a succession of police officers and, perhaps, the home ministers of both Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is being suggested that in Gujarat the chain of command went beyond the former home minister, Amit Shah, to his boss.
Legal specialists who have studied the CBI's charge sheet and senior police officers who have spoken to members of the investigation team are perturbed. There is "zero evidence", to quote a usually unimpeachable source, to link any politician, or even most of the police officers who have been arrested in Gujarat, to any extortion matrix. Neither is the role of the Andhra Pradesh government - the state is ruled now, as it was in 2005, by the Congress - being adequately explained. The IB's dossier on Sohrabbudin has disappeared. Suddenly, he is a small-time crook who was used and dumped by sinister people in the BJP, no more.
What is the upshot of all this? First, even if Amit Shah, the Modi government in Gujarat and the previous BJP government in Rajasthan (not to speak of the Andhra Pradesh government that lent support to the anti-Sohrabuddin mission) are found to have acted in good faith and are honourably exonerated by the Supreme Court at a later date, even if the CBI charge sheet is ultimately debunked, the damage to Narendra Modi has been done.
Modi has an enviable record as chief minister. In his years in office, Gujarat has become a robust manufacturing economy; it has shown agricultural growth when farms in the rest of India have been despondent; it has put together social sector schemes (such as the Chiranjeevi Yojana, which has checked maternal mortality) that have won international awards.
Nevertheless the 2002 violence still haunts Modi. It makes him a hot potato for potential BJP allies elsewhere in the country. This is a political setback for him. Legally, however, there is no case against him. To quote an American diplomat, "At best, his administration can be accused of acts of omission, not commission.
What has the Sohrabuddin affair done? Even before Modi has completely overcome the burden of 2002, it has trapped him in another marsh - accused of using and killing a minor criminal, who happened to be Muslim, and presiding over a robber-baron state government. This is the Congress' best-case scenario. It is the public perception it would want created.
Modi's battles are for him to fight. There is a second consequence that needs to be seen through a disinterested prism. The Congress, the CBI and Modi's many critics in the media have completely ignored Sohrabuddin's serious criminal history. It is nobody's argument that an individual's religious identity alone is enough to paint him guilty. Equally, it should be nobody's argument that an individual's religious identity alone should be enough to whitewash his record and paint him as an innocent victim.
These are sensitive times and India, like other societies, needs to make every effort to sequester the pursuit of criminal justice from denominational prejudice, rhetoric and instigation. In giving Sohrabuddin the halo of "martyrdom", the Congress, a party in power in New Delhi and in several states, a party the governments of which will need to take on criminals and terrorists of various religious colours at some stage or the other, is playing a high-risk game. Today's goal could as easily be tomorrow's self-goal.
Written by :
Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.