The Delhi Police Special Cell has been indicted in the past for organising fake “encounters”. But clearly Batla House was a genuine one — a top inspector was killed, besides two alleged IM terrorists, Atif Amin and Sajid Hassan. Yet despite a public outcry there was no magisterial inquiry, while the National Human Rights Commission produced a dodgy report. As a result controversy still swirls around the Batla House encounter. So how does one explain some of the lacunae pinpointed by human rights activists in the police version of events?
Even though the IM had bombed several cities from 2005 onward, in no state had police been able to crack the urban terrorist group. The lucky break came after the July 2008 Gujarat bombings. A car that had failed to explode in Surat had been stolen from Navi Mumbai. The Mumbai Police Crime Branch nabbed the car thief, who revealed the identity of the stolen car’s buyer. But there was a problem — the guy was holed up in a village in Gujarat. Lacking local contacts, the Crime Branch sleuths realised the target could escape if there was a blind raid on the village. So they asked for assistance from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which has a national network.
After the Mumbai Police picked up the stolen car buyer, the first genuine IM member to be nabbed, they got leads on others. Atif was one of them. A Crime Branch team was sent to Delhi to arrest him. Once again the cops lacked local resources, and felt it would be foolhardy to raid an unfamiliar, congested locality. But they had another lucky break. During a phone intercept, they overheard Atif arrange to see a film with a woman friend. This seemed like a golden opportunity. The Mumbai cops decided to grab Atif and his companion at the cinema theatre, and grill him for details about the Batla House flat: its layout, the number of people staying there, who among them were IM members and who were just students, where the weapons were stored, the escape routes, and so on. Since Atif was out with a woman, the cops believed his flat-mates wouldn’t get alerted if he didn’t return home in time. The plan was to raid Flat 108, Building L-18, Batla House in the wee hours of the night when everyone would be fast asleep.
But while this was going on, tremendous pressure was being mounted on the Delhi cops to move quickly. Someone from IB tipped off the Delhi Police about Atif and the Mumbai Police operation. It was hurriedly decided that the Special Cell should pre-empt the Mumbai Crime Branch. But the Delhi Police had few details — just Atif’s name, telephone number, and the flat address — and no ground-level intelligence.
So on the day the Mumbai cops were poised to grab the alleged IM bomber at the cinema in the evening, a Special Cell team showed up in the Batla House area around 11 am. It tried to do everything all at once — confirm the phone owner, identify the flat occupants, and arrest the IM suspects at an hour when everybody was awake and fully alert. The odds that something would go badly wrong were high. And it did.
This is an object lesson on how not to conduct a counter-terror operation. Contrast it with the way the Mumbai Police quietly and effectively picked up IM suspects from several locations around the country. When they finally announced the arrests four days after the Batla House encounter, they publicly thanked the Muslims of the Cheetah Camp slum for their help and cooperation in the arrest of Sadiq Sheikh, another alleged IM bomber. Local Muslims had alerted the Crime Branch on Sheikh’s movements. No Muslim or human rights group protested after the Mumbai arrests.
But the Delhi Police’s slambang action had two serious fallouts. It alerted other IM members. As a result, many are still at large. And it raised questions that made Muslims suspicious and angry. In Batla House, if you ask anyone about the encounter, they are all convinced it was fake, that Atif and Sajid were innocent, even though the IM group did not belong to the locality. What is worse, Muslims across the country see it as another instance of police highhandedness and brutality against their community.
Yet no one in government appears to take notice.
After Mumbai 26/11, aren’t we supposed to be developing a more sophisticated counter-terrorism doctrine? Is it enough for officials to just go on insisting that Batla House was a genuine encounter? What is being done to clear the doubts, even if misplaced, of ordinary Indian Muslims?
Though he has denied it, Digvijay Singh reportedly said in Azamgarh that he would ask the PM to order an inquiry by the newly created National Intelligence Agency. This isn’t a good idea. The Delhi Police will strongly oppose it, justifiably worried that it could turn into a witch-hunt.
There’s a better precedent. After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, there were accusations of indiscriminate arrests and even extortion against the city police. Maharashtra handed over the case to the CBI, which conducted its own investigations and dropped charges against nearly two dozen accused. The rest were tried in court. So: transfer the entire IM case to a central agency, to be dealt with as those skilled CBI officers did then. If Shahzad had nothing to do with the IM and was en route to Australia to join a flying course, then he will be let off. If not, he will be tried. Ditto for all the other accused.
But the larger lesson is that there’s a world of difference between counter-terrorism and anti-underworld operations. Many policemen seem to confuse the two. Indiscriminate arrests and needless shoot-outs may turn nondescript officers into instant media celebrities. But they subvert the faith and support of local communities, an absolute necessity in the battle against urban terrorism.
Maybe police “conscientisation” programmes can include a study of a real police hero, the Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare, who fell to terrorist bullets on 26/11. A few months before he died, some of his over-zealous officers provoked anger by misbehaving during raids in Muslim colonies in northern Mumbai. Karkare visited the areas during Ramzan, broke iftar bread with Muslims, apologised for the mistakes, promised it wouldn’t happen again, and asked for cooperation. “It was amazing to witness the transformation,” says human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who accompanied him. “At one moment, the Muslims were resentful and angry. At another, they were excitedly promising Karkare they would do their utmost to help him nab terror suspects.”
Shrewdness, and not just bravado, will win the battle against terror.