Oct 10, 2008

India - Behind the Batla House Shootout

Praveen Swami

Charges that the Jamia Nagar encounter was fake belong in the Wonderland.

“Sometimes,” said the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Ever since last month’s encounter in New Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, critics have been claiming that the two men killed by the police were innocent students, not Indian Mujahideen terrorists. A number of well-meaning commentators and politicians have expressed concern over the encounter. Few seem to have paused to wonder if there was, in fact, anything mysterious about the shootout. If it was indeed fake, the story would read something like this: Hoping to redeem their anti-terrorism credentials and whip up anti-Muslim paranoia, the Delhi police shot dead two innocent Muslims. For some reason, though, they left a third innocent Muslim, Mohammad Saif, alive to tell the tale. Either because of incompetence or to get rid of an inconvenient honest officer, depending on who is telling the story — the Delhi police also killed one of their own. They also shot another officer, but let him live.

A riveting fiction? The truth about Batla House is, in comparison, mundane.

When inspector Mohan Chand Sharma walked through the door of the flat where he was to die, all he knew was that he was looking for a man with two missing front teeth. Soon after the Gujarat bombings, a Bharuch resident contacted the police to report that the vehicles used as car bombs in Ahmedabad had been parked by his tenant. Gujarat Crime Branch Deputy Commissioner Abhay Chudasma had little to go on, bar one small clue: the mobile phone used by the tenant to communicate with the landlord. It turned out that the phone went silent after the Ahmedabad bombings.

Based on the interrogation of suspects, Gujarat police investigators determined that the cell phone was one of the five used by the perpetrators between July 7 and 26 — the day of the serial bombings. They learned that the perpetrators had observed rigorous communication security procedures, calling these numbers only from public telephones. Between July 16 and July 22, the investigators learned, another of the five Gujarat phones had been used in the Jamia Nagar area. This phone had received just five calls, all from public phones at Jamia Nagar. Then, on July 24, the phone became active again in Ahmedabad.

The investigators also found evidence of a second link between the Ahmedabad bombings and the Jamia Nagar area. On July 19, the Bharuch cell phone received a call from Mumbai, made from an eastern Uttar Pradesh number — the sole break in the communication-security procedure. Immediately after this, a call was made from the eastern U.P. phone to a number at Jamia Nagar, registered to local resident Mohammad Atif Amin. The authorities mounted a discreet watch on his phone but decided not to question him in the hope that he would again be contacted by the perpetrators.

Mumbai police crime branch chief Rakesh Maria made the next breakthrough last month, when his investigators held Afzal Usmani, a long-standing lieutenant of ganglord-turned-jihadist Riyaz Bhatkal. From Usmani, the investigators learned that top commander ‘Bashir’ and his assault squad left Ahmedabad on July 26 for a safe house at Jamia Nagar. Armed with this information, the investigators came to believe that Atif Amin either provided Bashir shelter or the two were one and the same person. Inspector Sharma was asked to settle the issue.

‘Vodaphone salesman’

Sub-inspector Dharmindar Kumar was given the unhappy task of trudging up the stairs in the sweltering heat, searching for Bashir. Dressed in a tie and shirt, just like other members of Sharma’s team, Kumar pretended to be a salesman for Vodaphone. At the door of Amin’s flat, he heard noises — and called his boss.

According to head constable Balwant Rana, who was by Sharma’s side, the two men knocked on the front door, identifying themselves as police officers. There was no response. Then, the officers walked down an ‘L’ shaped corridor which led to a second door. This door was unlocked. Sharma and Rana, as they entered, were fired upon from the front of and to the right of the door. When the rest of the special team, armed only with small arms, went in to support Sharma and Rana, two terrorists ran out through the now-unguarded front door. Saif wisely locked himself up in a toilet.

It takes little to see that Sharma’s team made several tactical errors. However, as anyone who has actually faced hostile fire will testify, combat tends not to be orderly. In the United States or Europe, a Batla House-style operation would have been carried out by a highly trained assault unit equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Given their resources and training, Sharma and his men did as well as could be expected.

Judging by Sharma’s injuries, as recorded by doctors at the Holy Family Hospital in New Friend’s Colony and later re-examined at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences’ Trauma Centre, he was fired at from two directions. One bullet hit him in the left shoulder and exited through the left upper arm; the other hit the right side of the abdomen, exiting through the hip. The investigators believe that the abdomen wound was inflicted with Amin’s weapon and the shoulder hit, by Mohammad Sajid.

Much has been made of a newspaper photograph which shows that Sharma’s shirt was not covered in blood, with some charging that it demonstrates he was shot in the back. Forensic experts, however, note that bleeding from firearms injuries takes place through exit wounds — not, as in bad pop films, at the point of entry. In the photograph, signs of a bullet having ripped through Sharma’s shirt are evident on his visible shoulder; so, too, is evidence of the profuse bleeding from the back.

In some sense, the allegations levelled over the encounter tell us more about the critics than the event itself. In part, the allegations have been driven by poor reporting and confusion — the product, more often than not, by journalists who have not followed the Indian Mujahideen story. More important, though, the controversy was driven by the Muslim religious right-wing whose myth-making, as politician Arif Mohammad Khan recently pointed out, has passed largely unchallenged.

In a recent article, the University of Delaware’s Director of Islamic Studies, Muqtedar Khan, lashed out at the “intellectually dishonest” representatives of Muslims who “live in denial.” “They first deny that there is such a thing as jihadi terrorism,” Dr. Khan noted, “resorting to conspiracy theories blaming every act of jihadi violence either on Israel, the U.S. or India. Then they argue that unjust wars by these three nations [in Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir] are the primary cause for jihadi violence; a phenomenon whose very existence they have already denied.”

It is easy to rip apart the pseudo-facts that drove the claim that the Jamia Nagar encounter was fake — or that the Indian Mujahideen is a fiction. Much political work, though, is needed to drain the swamps of denial and deceit in which the lies have bred.

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