By Praveen Swami
Reconstructing the events that led up to the controversial June 2004 shootout in Ahmedabad.
Four weeks after Ishrat Jahan Raza was shot dead by Gujarat police commandos, the Lashkar-e-Taiba proclaimed her a martyr. In an article posted on its website soon after the June 2004 encounter, the organisation expressed anger that “the Lashkar activist’s veil was removed by the Indian police.” Three years later, after Ishrat’s family moved the Gujarat High Court, the Lashkar changed tack: the article was a “journalistic mistake.”
Few believed the retraction — until last month, when Ahmedabad Metropolitan Magistrate K.S. Tamang determined that Javed Sheikh, his associate Ishrat and Pakistani nationals Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana were innocents kidnapped and murdered by the police. Early next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a plea that the High Court erred in staying Mr. Tamang’s report. The Gujarat police investigators are separately examining whether the killings were an extrajudicial execution. They will traverse a trail of muddy evidence of how, and if, the four met — and drove, or were driven, to their death.
Born Pranesh kumar Pillai at Thamarakulam village in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, Sheikh met and fell in love with Sajida Sheikh in 1986. He converted to Islam in an unsuccessful effort to overcome her family’s resistance to their relationship. In September 1995, the two married and moved to Mumbai’s Mumbra area, but shifted soon to Pune after a business dispute turned violent. Sheikh’s life continued to be turbulent: the police filed four rioting cases against him in 1997 alone.
In 2003, Sheikh left for Dubai, securing a job on a forged Indian Technical Institute certificate. He returned, according to Sajida Sheikh’s testimony, embittered by videotapes he had seen of anti-Muslim violence during the previous year’s pogrom in Gujarat.
On March 29, 2004, he flew to Oman on Passport E6624023, issued in the name of Praneshkumar M. Gopinath Pillai on September 16, 2003. The police later found that the passport was obtained illegally; Sheikh suppressed the fact that he had held another passport, S514800, issued on June 28, 1994 to Mohammad Javed Ghulam Sheikh. Sheikh flew back to Mumbai from Muscat on April 11, 2004 — carrying, says Sajida, Rs. 2.5 lakh in cash. On May 22, 2004, Sheikh paid cash for a second-hand Tata Indica. A friend, Fayyaz Mehboob Khan, signed the purchase papers since Sheikh didn’t have an income-tax identification number.
Earlier, on May 1, 2004, Mumbai college student Ishrat and her mother, Shamima Kausar, met Sheikh at the Taloja Hotel in Mumbra — the first known contact between Ishrat and Sheikh. A common friend, Mohammad Rafiq, says Sheikh told Ms Kausar that he needed a salesgirl for a new perfume store. There is no evidence that Sheikh ran a perfume business. Nor is there evidence, though, that Ishrat was linked to the Lashkar.
The staff at the Mezban Hotel in Lucknow claim that Sheikh and Ishrat, using the pseudonyms Abdul Rahim and Ishrat Ayesha, shared room 204 on four days in May 2004. Mohammad Wasi, a resident of Ibrahimpur in Faizabad, says the visitors tried to buy weapons from local mafioso Javed Khan. Sheikh, he claimed, said the weapons were needed for the self-defence of Muslims. Dubai-based Ibrahimpur resident Mohammad Mehraj, who allegedly brokered the meeting, has not been located.
On May 30, 2004, Sheikh drove his wife and children to the family home in Alappuzha in car — his last visit. From June 6 to June 9, the family stayed at Sajida Sheikh’s family home in Ahmednagar. Hotel staff at the Tulsi Guest House in Bardoli, on National Highway 6 outside of Surat, said Sheikh and Ishrat checked in after 2 a.m. on June 12, 2004. On June 14, their car developed mechanical trouble. The staff at the Shakti Motor Garage outside Ahmedabad told the police that Sheikh paid Rs. 1,025 for repairs. Hours later, all four occupants of the car were dead.
For reasons that aren’t clear, the one Indian national who could help establish if Sheikh was in fact recruited by the Lashkar in Dubai has never been fully investigated. Mohammad Abdul Razzak, held by the Delhi police in August 2005, told investigators he had sent Sheikh to jihad training camps run by the Lashkar military chief Muzammil Bhat — architect of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.
Son of veteran Jamaat-e-Islami activist Mohammad Abdul Sattar, Razzak joined the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing. As a 19-year-old, after the 1993 communal riots in Hyderabad, he participated in self-defence camps organised by the right-wing Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat. Late that year, Razzak is said to have told investigators that he met with Mohammad Azam Ghauri, one of the co-founders of the Lashkar’s Indian operations.
Inspired, Razzak spent seven months of 1998 training with the Harkat ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar in Jammu and Kashmir. In January 2000, he travelled to the United Arab Emirates and made contact with the local Lashkar office. Helped by his Lashkar contacts, Razzak allegedly travelled to Lahore on a fake passport. He first trained at a Lashkar facility at Bahawalpur and was then despatched to a camp near Muzaffarabad.
Early in 2002, after a stint running supplies from Kasmani to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Razzak went back to Dubai. During his interrogation by the Delhi Police, Razzak named 10 Dubai-based Indian volunteers he had sent to Lashkar camps. Javed Sheikh’s name was on the list.
It wasn’t until early in the summer of 2004 that Sheikh’s name showed up on the radar of India’s intelligence services. First Information Report 8 of 2004, filed by the Ahmedabad Police Crime Branch after the shootout, records that the authorities knew of the imminent arrival of Sheikh’s blue Tata Indica, down to its licence-plate number, MH02 JA4786. The police in Jammu and Kashmir set off the chain of events that led to their Ahmedabad counterparts receiving the information.
Between June 25 and June 28, 2004 — just days after the shootout in Ahmedabad — the J&K police arrested 18 Lashkar operatives, including division commander Shahid Masood. In February 2004, the J&K police had shot dead Poonch-based Lashkar terrorist Ehsan Illahi. On his body, they found a letter written by Haji Sadiq Ahmad, a Jammu resident held in connection with the Lashkar-facilitated death of the former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya, assassinated in reprisal for his role in the 2002 killings. The letter identified an Ahmedabad-based lawyer as a sympathiser, and asked for funds to be made available for Ahmad’s defence.
During the Intelligence Bureau-led surveillance operation that followed, the sources said, investigators stumbled on the Lashkar’s efforts to use Sheikh to target Gujarat. The lawyer was used to lure Sheikh to Ahmedabad. On the morning of June 11, Sajida Sheikh said, her husband called to say he had to go to Mumbai on unexpected work, and would return in a day.
As Sheikh did not arrive on June 13, she called — only to receive messages that his cellphone was out of network reach. Sheikh’s SIM card was later found in the boot of his car — evidence, in Mr. Tamang’s view, that he was kidnapped by the police some time after June 12 and killed.
Gujarat police investigators insist that the cellphone was likely disabled after Sheikh met Johar and Rana — though they have been unable to establish just when and where the group finally joined up.
Four men who may be able to help answer the question are fugitives.
Majid Husain Qadri, Pervez Ahmad Khan, both residents of Srinagar; and Drugmulla resident Abdul Aziz Shah were held along with other Lashkar operatives arrested in June 2004. Investigators say the three men provided emergency aid to Rana, who was shot while crossing the Line of Control. But when the Gujarat police sought their custody, the charges against them were dropped and the men released.
The Gujarat police made several attempts to arrest the men — the last attempt was just three months ago. Each time, their J&K counterparts said the suspects could not be traced.
Treated in Delhi
Investigators say the three men had Johar treated in New Delhi, at the City Clinic in Paharganj. Siddharth Sahai, who performed surgery on Rana, identified him when the police showed him photographs. They also say Rana probably carried the satellite phone, assault rifle and explosives found in the car from J&K to Gujarat. Mohammad Iqbal, a Poonch resident alleged by the police to have been working for Masood, later said he escorted Johar to the Jammu railway station. But there is no hard information on exactly when Johar and Rana met with Sheikh and Ishrat.
Filling in this gap — and many others — could help to resolve the questions on just what happened in the weeks, days and hours before Sheikh and Ishrat were killed. Forensics could hold the key to the truth. Mr. Tamang noted that hand-wash tests conducted on Rana did not support claims of the police that he opened fire on them — but the Gujarat authorities say the magistrate ignored an earlier positive test conducted on-site. Mr. Tamang also held that 7.62-millimetre bullets found on the person of the victims were fired from a Kalashnikov AK 56 rifle found in the car — a claim the police dispute, arguing that their officially-issued AK 47 weapons use the same ammunition.
Exhuming the truth about what happened in Ahmedabad will need a transparent and thoroughgoing investigation — a process that India’s judiciary must ensure.