India: Probe of Muslim woman’s death sparks row

Relatives collect the body of Ishrat Jehan from Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad on June 18, 2004.
The shooting death of a Muslim woman and three others five years ago has sparked a political row in India after a probe said the gun battle in which she was alleged to have been killed was staged.

Ishrat Jehan, 19, and the others died in what the police in Gujarat — a state ruled by Hindu nationalists — called a shootout on June 15, 2004. But a state metropolitan magistrate’s probe of the deaths, results of which were revealed Monday, found the four were killed while in police custody after being picked up in Mumbai and brought to Gujarat. The state government — led by a powerful but controversial Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi — has rejected the report, citing a federal affidavit in defense of the 2004 “encounter,” as gunfights between police and suspects are commonly called in India. The state government had accused the four of links with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the same Pakistan-based militant group India blames for last year’s terrorist strikes in Mumbai, and the affidavit says that information had come from the federal government, which shared the intelligence with Gujarat authorities. The federal government has lashed back, saying the affidavit cannot be used as a defense for the deaths.

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The four were suspects, but “terrorists cannot be killed in cold blood,” Gopal K. Pillai of the Ministry of Home Affairs told The Press Trust of India, the nation’s largest news agency. Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who was visiting Washington on Friday, slammed Modi’s government for putting up the federal deposition as a defense. “If a state government acts as though intelligence inputs are evidence or conclusive proof, I am sorry for that government,” he remarked. His government has never suggested that intelligence inputs sanction killings, he said. “I think too much is being attributed to that affidavit as if it is meant to defend the government of Gujarat against the excesses that may have been committed by its police. I am sorry for the government of Gujarat and the manner in which it runs its police administration,” he told reporters. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was unseated from national power in 2004, quickly responded. “Can Mr. Chidambaram then tell us how a state government is then supposed to act on intelligence reports of his government The police in Gujarat retaliated when it was fired upon. The state police had acted swiftly on information from the central government,” said Sidharth Nath Singh, a spokesman for the BJP. Singh alleged that “there are accusations of worse fake encounters” in states governed by Chidambaram’s Congress Party. Modi has been accused of turning a blind eye to the killings of hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in 2002 in Gujarat. The Congress Party, meanwhile, is blamed for the lynching and burning alive of some 3,000 Sikhs by mobs in and around New Delhi in 1984 after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Political observers and human rights group say ruling politicians often discourage police in India from acting. Successive governments in India for decades have failed to deliver on promises to hold the police accountable for abuses and to build professional, rights-respecting police forces, the Human Rights Watch said in its report in August. It alleged that police in India summarily execute prisoners, torture and threaten suspects and arrest people without reason. “Political masters hold the strings and no government in India — in any of its states — can ever honestly claim that its hands are not soaked in the blood of innocents,” said journalist K.G. Suresh, a long-time observer of conservative politics in the country.