Debating India

Questions of life and death

Praveen Swami

Monday 28 June 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

AHMEDABAD, JUNE 27. Almost a fortnight after the elimination of four alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives in Ahmedabad, the big question isn’t about their guilt or innocence. It is whether the encounter was a genuine response to an imminent attack - or a cold-blooded execution.

On the face of it, several parts of the Gujarat Police narrative on the June 15 encounter don’t make sense. According to the Ahmedabad Crime Branch, the four suspects were interdicted at Himmatnagar, on the bypass that skirts Gujarat’s principal city. The route is used by most traffic approaching Ahmedabad from Maharashtra. Assistant Commissioner of Police Narendra Amin, who led one of the ambush groups, later told journalists that the shootout lasted some 30 minutes.

Critics note that this account leaves several key questions unanswered. The light blue Indica car used by the four alleged terrorists would have taken at least four and a half hours to reach Ahmedabad from the Gujarat border, near Vapi. This leaves open the question of why the police waited to ambush the vehicle until it almost entered the city. Nor did the police find in the car the Rs. 5 coupon its occupants would have purchased to use the toll bridge near Sarkhej, just short of the city.

None of this, however, is conclusive. The Ahmedabad Crime Branch could have waited to execute the ambush in their own jurisdiction, reluctant to share credit with another police district. The toll coupon could have been thrown out of the window after purchase, something many drivers do. While ACP Amin’s claims of a half-hour encounter seem overblown, since the first bullets directed at the Indica would have claimed the lives of those inside, those who have faced fire know the duration of the engagement often appears longer than it actually is.

Whatever the truth, though, the fact is the Gujarat Police carry part of the blame for their current crisis of credibility. Thirteen suspects held in an earlier alleged assassination attempt on Chief Minister Narendra Modi were discharged after the killing of key suspect Samirkhan Pathan, on whose confession the prosecution had been based. The Ahmedabad Crime Branch also faced embarrassment after the Jammu and Kashmir Police blew open its claims that several city residents had collaborated in the storming of the Akshardham Temple.

It is also true that since at least 1999, when the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 to Kandahar forced India to release top terrorists Mohammad Masood Azhar, Sayyed Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar, police forces across India have been reluctant to take Pakistani nationals prisoner. In the absence of a political decision on not negotiating with hostage-takers, holding high value terrorists poses problems. Then, despite years of debate on police modernisation and reform, forces on the ground do not have access to the kinds of technology needed to secure convictions.

On top of it all, India has no witness protection programme. As such, anyone deposing on a terrorist crime does so at considerable risk to his or her life. All of this has manifested itself in a dismal conviction rate in terrorism-related offences: less than 50 people have been convicted for the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. "Policemen on the ground are finding that law and order are sometimes in opposition," argues a senior official, "but no one seems to be talking about the structural reforms that are so desperately needed."

What is known about the Ahmedabad case does not enable an unequivocal finding of fact. Advanced forensics could settle the questions: tests exist, for example, which could establish whether any of the four accused fired a weapon during the shootout.

What the controversy has underlined is the need for a transformation of the criminal justice system: a process that needs both cash and political will, commodities conspicuous by their absence.

See online : The Hindu

P.S.

in The Hindu, Monday ,June 28, 2004.

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