November 9, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

In search of discredit

When Arun Jaitley spoke, I finally knew there was ample reason to be sceptical of what happened in the basement of Delhi's Ansal Plaza last Sunday.

Not that there were not already enough reasons. Two men are killed as they turn up at the city's busiest shopping mall. They are carrying diaries that detail their movements and contacts. They are carrying a mobile phone whose usage is traced and, to nobody's surprise, calls were made from it to Pakistan. The SIM card in the phone was bought using identification papers issued in, to nobody's surprise again, Jammu & Kashmir. Therefore, they are terrorists. The country's home minister announces, within hours of the incident, that the two men were from Pakistan.

If convenient diaries and phone, and a home minister's speedy conclusions, are not enough to raise questions, there's the unfolding drama about the "eyewitness" to the incident, a Dr Hari Krishna. He told the press that the two men could "barely walk and were unarmed", that "no gunfight took place and that it was the police which did all the firing" (The Times of India, Nov 6); that the two "were mercilessly beaten up before being shot" (Onkar Singh,, Nov 5); that the entire event was "stage-managed" (The Times of India, Nov 8). Dr Krishna's account prompted a petition to the NHRC, which asked for an investigation of the killings and for police protection to be given to him.

A day later, having set the cat firmly among the canaries, Krishna refused to talk about it any more, making this refusal to STAR News by "phone from an undisclosed place". He also said that "although security has been provided to me, I see no threat or harassment from the Delhi police" (still The Times of India, Nov 7). Meanwhile, the police claimed that his medical degrees could be "fake, but we are inquiring", and that he had three cases registered against him this year for "cheating and lying" (The Indian Express, Nov 8). Most intriguing of all: despite having given this man protection, as he himself acknowledges, as the police commissioner himself confirmed in writing to the NHRC, the police claim he is "absconding" (still The Indian Express, Nov 8).

Exactly whom are they "protecting" if Krishna is "absconding"?

How is it possible for anyone to digest all this murkiness without a single question about what happened that night? But if you still prefer to remain question-free, there's Arun Jaitley, spokesman for the BJP. He described the petition to the NHRC as an effort "to discredit the security agencies".

This is a thoroughly empty drum that political and other bosses have become adept at beating. When his Punjab Police hockey players assaulted their Indian Airlines opponents with their sticks during the 1996 Aga Khan hockey tournament, breaking some heads, K P S Gill refused to take action against them because, he said, it would lower the morale of both the team and the Punjab Police itself. Tehelka's expose of corruption among defence personnel, George Fernandes told the Venkataswami Commission, would dispirit soldiers, the army, and the whole country. And now it's Jaitley's turn to try to suppress questions the same way.

By now I know what to think when I hear this drum: there are indeed reasons to be sceptical. That applies here, even if there had been no eyewitness and his antics. For, in truth, it is not the murkiness surrounding the Ansal Plaza killing that makes questions inevitable. It is instead the record our "security agencies", and their political masters such as Jaitley, have built for themselves that begs questions; that heaps discredit on them.

Take just one example: the aftermath of the infamous massacre of 36 Sikhs in Chattisinghpora in March 2000.

The killers of the Sikhs "wore combat fatigues, waved a bottle of liquor around, told their victims that they had come to celebrate the Holi festival, and left shouting pro-India slogans" (Praveen Swami, Frontline, Nov 25, 2000). Five days later, the army and the police's Special Operations Group killed five men in the village of Panchalthan and announced that these were the "militants" who had carried out the slaughter of the Sikhs. The bodies were dressed in army clothes.

Almost immediately, local residents began to suspect that the five were no militants, but among a group of 17 people who had been rounded up after Chattisinghpora, 12 of whom were released. Another few days later, these villagers took out a large procession to make this point and to demand the release of the five bodies. Security agencies fired on this procession in the village of Brakpora, killing eight more people, including the son of one of the five killed in Panchalthan. (An inquiry --- the Pandian Commission --- later recommended that the security men responsible for these eight deaths be charged with murder).

The next day, the five bodies were exhumed, identified by relatives, and returned to their families.

With me so far through this tragic mess? It gets messier.

One odd aspect is that there is considerable doubt about even the process via which the bodies were identified. The son of one of the dead men identified his father by a gap in his teeth, caused by a tooth extraction some years before; however, he was unaware that the dead man had other such gaps in his teeth too. Another dead man was identified by the clothes stuffed into a bag lying next to him; he was wearing another shirt. Is it credible that soldiers, who presumably forced the man to change his clothes, then left the ones he took off lying conveniently in a bag next to the corpse?

With these and other oddities, Praveen Swami concluded in Frontline that "it is clear that the kin-identification of corpses was ... decidedly peculiar".

But it gets more peculiar still. Because even given dodgy identifications, the authorities' own subsequent behaviour left no doubt that the five were wrongly killed.

In August 2000, the police arrested two men who they claimed were the "main accused" in the Chattisinghpora massacre. According to Inspector General of Police P S Gill, one of the two, Mohammad Suhail Malik, belonged to the "murderous pack" that killed the Sikhs (PTI, August 31, 2000). Neither Gill nor any other policeman made any mention of the five dead men on whom they had pinned the same crime back in March. The two were produced at a press conference, but reporters were not allowed to question them because Gill said "it would hamper their investigations" (The Times of India, Sept 1, 2000).

Meanwhile, as a result of that fired-upon demonstration in Brakpora, the state government agreed to send DNA samples of the dead five and of their relatives for testing. In March 2002, The Times of India reported that the labs that were asked to carry out the tests replied that the samples were faked. Three of them, supposed to be from women relatives, were actually from men. "The samples had certain serious discrepancies," said Central Forensic Science Laboratory director V K Kashyap (, March 12, 2002). Not only that, the labs had told the government this over a year earlier --- "We finished our investigations way back in December 2000," Kashyap explained --- but the government had simply sat mum.

Clearly, somebody from the security agencies, or from among their political masters, was desperate to disprove relatives' claims about those five men. Desperate, but predictably ham-handed.

In July this year, J&K CM Farooq Abdullah announced on the floor of the state assembly that the five men were innocent and that the DNA samples were fudged. He ordered --- what else? --- an inquiry into the whole sordid affair.

Forgive me, but right now my head reels too much to find out what has happened to that inquiry. Nor what has happened to the two men arrested in August 2000. Maybe another time. And the real tragedy is that, because of all this perversity, nobody knows for sure just who slaughtered those Sikhs to begin with.

Panchalthan and Ansal Plaza: put them side by side. Men are killed. Despite claims that they fought gun battles with security agencies, not one man from the agencies suffers even a scratch. Army uniforms here, diaries and a phone there, are convenient proofs of who the men are supposed to be: terrorists. Relatives and villagers raise doubts in one case; an eyewitness does so in the other. Both sets of doubts are themselves shrouded in doubt. And the more exalted the officials who seek to defend all this, the more intent they are to prevent questions because they "hamper investigations" or "discredit the security agencies".

Yet exalted as the Gills and Jaitleys are, ordinary common sense is not something they have in abundance. Because if they had, they would have known what the rest of us do: questions are like the Hydra monster. You cut off one, you raise dozens more.

Panchalthan or Ansal Plaza: if you're thinking about them, something the writer I F Stone once said is a good thought to start with. This is what he said: "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

2 suspected Lashkar militants killed in Delhi
Terrorists slain in Delhi were Pakistanis: Advani
Diaries reveal Mumbai link of Delhi terrorists
Witness alleges Delhi shootout was a frame-up
NHRC issues notice to Delhi police
Police sends report to NHRC
Men killed in mall got funds from ISI operative
BJP defends Delhi police on mall shootout
I fear police will kill me: Shootout witness

Dilip D'Souza

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