By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
New Delhi/Ahmedabad–Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may have had his way during the state carnage (2002) afflicting thousands of Muslims, but now one case has pushed him and his government into a tight corner. This case is the murder of Sohrabuddin Shiekh, followed by that of the two witnesses, his wife Kausar Bi and his aide Tulsiram Prajapati. The three were pulled off a bus they were in, going to Sangli from Hyderabad, on November 24, 2005 and taken to an unknown destination. After Sohrabuddin was murdered on November 26, his wife was killed on November 28 and Tulsiram gunned down on December 28, 2006.
Gujarat police claimed that Sohrabuddin, a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant, came to Gujarat to kill Modi, and was killed in an encounter. Refusing to accept this version, Sohrabuddinâ€™s brother Rubabuddin Sheikh and his mother Jaibunisha filed two separate petitions in the Supreme Court (January 2006) saying that it was not an encounter but murder, and Kausar Bi had been missing since then. The Supreme Court directed further inquiry into the case, which led to startling revelations this year. The Gujarat government admitted on March 23 that its officials were guilty of murder. This was followed by the arrests of three senior officers on April 24, including D.G. Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandyan of Gujarat Police and Dinesh Kumar of Rajasthan.
With Kausar Bi, reported to be missing since her husbandâ€™s death, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government April 27 whether it would be able to produce her. The Gujarat government confessed April 30 before the apex court that she was killed and her body burnt within a few days of the â€œencounter.â€ Later in the week, May 3, the Court admitted a petition seeking a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) probe into the â€œencounterâ€ killing of Sohrabuddin. The bench, including Justices Tarun Chatterjee and P.K. Balasubramanyam, said a prima-facie case existed and fixed May 15 for the next hearing.
Since the arrests of the police officers, proceedings in both houses of parliament have been repeatedly disrupted, with legislators raising the issue. Supported by the left parties and the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal), Madhusudan Mistri (Congress) raised the issue in Lok Sabha (May 3). With 21 fake encounters having taken place in Gujarat, â€œat instance of the state home minister and chief minister,â€ only a CBI inquiry could be helpful, Mistri said.
It is well known that Jammu and Kashmir and Naxal-infested areas have for long been afflicted by such fake encounters. The factors prompting police and/or security officers to indulge in this move could be lure for monetary-gains, out of turn promotion, political pressure and/or other gains. Equally relevant is discriminatory bias against Muslims, leading to their being labeled as terrorists. While such cases have considerably tarnished image of these forces, the significant role played by upright officers in conducting investigations to expose the same cannot be ignored. Senior officers of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Geetha Johri and Rajnish Rai, played an instrumental role in nailing the three police officers and arresting them. The information in Johriâ€™s report about a fake encounterâ€™s having taken place in the presence of the three officers, led to her being removed from the case. It was handed to another officer, before being given to Rai. But when Rai got three officers arrested, he was told to seek permission of his superiors before making further arrests in the case. Expressing his displeasure on his powers being clipped, Rai sought to be removed from the case. When the Supreme Court sought clarification from the Gujarat government on Johri having been taken off the investigation of the case (May 3), a day later she was reinstated.
Though as per rules, any arrested officer has to be suspended after 48 hours in police custody, the suspension order for Vanzara and Pandyan came on May 5, 12 days after they were arrested.
In the opinion of R.B. Sreekumar, who retired this February and was formerly in charge of intelligence wing in Gujarat police, the fake-encounter murders were â€œan attempt to create a sympathy wave in favor of chief minister whenever his leadership was questioned.â€ He had also been asked by state leaders to similarly target Muslims, but as he said: â€œI opposed.â€
Demanding that the Gujarat Chief Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah should be prosecuted for murder, Union Textiles Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela said: â€œMarble traders from Rajasthan wanted Sohrabuddin to be eliminated over some financial transactions and had enlisted Modiâ€™s help.â€ Accusing the Modi government of having pocketed millions of rupees by staging such murders, Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president Bharatsinh Solanki said: â€œEven attacks at Akshardham were staged, not to mention the burning of the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express at Godhra in 2002. Each alleged terrorist is always killed, severing any further links proving any proof. Why were there no terrorists when Keshubhai Patel was the CM?â€
Calling for a probe at highest level, Sitaram Yechury (Communist Party of India-Marxist) said: â€œIt should be probed at highest level and guilty officers should be punished. Not only the officers who are guilty but the complacency of government should also be probed.â€ Certainly, the Gujarat government is in for a taxing time. Not just over Sohrabuddin-case, but more families of fake-encounter victims and those suffering from the Gujarat riots, are planning to move to apex court in coming days. Besides, with Gujarat assembly elections due in December, rival politicians are least likely to spare Modi!