David Coleman Headley’s deposition that Ishrat Jahan – killed in an encounter in 2004 – was involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba has created a political storm.
In the perception battle, the BJP has best positioned itself to take advantage of the statement, and portray itself as the party best equipped to defend national security, against the ‘Islamic’ threat.
Minutes after reports emerged about the proceedings, the BJP claimed it was vindicated.
The subtext of its case was clear - that Ishrat was a terrorist; that there was a plot to assassinate then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi; and that it was the agility of the Intelligence Bureau and the state administration that warded off the plan and succeeded in eliminating those involved; and that Amit Shah had been unnecessarily hounded in the case out of political vendetta. And now, Headley – an insider - had provided the final confirmation of what it had been saying all along.
The party and its sympathisers on social media have already targeted Congress, left-liberal activists, and the ‘secular’ media for having batted for a ‘terrorist’ all along.
There has been an effort to take on this narrative. One strand of activists – who have been critical of Modi and BJP – attacked Headley’s testimony as unreliable.
Others have sought to trace the exact nature of the deposition – where Headley does not call Ishrat a ‘suicide bomber’. Instead, he is reported to have said he does not know if there are women suicide bombers in the LeT; that he cannot name any such suicide bomber. When asked if there was a ‘botched up operation in India’, he reportedly says that there was – ‘Muzammil...told there was a female member of LeT killed in a police shootout at the naka’. When he was given specific names to identify including that of Ishrat Jahan, Headley identified Ishrat.
The third approach has been to separate the question of whether Ishrat was a ‘terrorist’ and involved with LeT with the fact that she was killed in an ‘encounter’. Even if she was a militant, this school argues, the core issue was that she did not get a chance at a fair trial.
But in the larger public sphere, the dominant narrative will be that of Ishrat as a ‘terrorist’. This will have consequences.
Politically, the BJP will play both the victim and the hero
The victim because it was a party ‘wronged’ for so many years; the hero because the Gujarat administration had rightly targeted Ishrat. The case had already ceased to have any political impact on Amit Shah’s fortunes – but it would come as another shot in his arm. The party will also use this in future election campaigns, especially in polarized landscapes.
Will states now embark on more encounters?
Administratively, the issue to look out for is whether the Headley deposition emboldens the national security state to adopt short-cuts and embark on more ‘encounters’ when it is convinced that the person in question is a ‘terrorist’ – or whether there will be caution and the police apparatus will follow the rule of law in the future.
Modi and Shah will be smiling today
The Ishrat Jehan case has had deep political implications. For a long time, it kept both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Shah’s actions under close scrutiny. It also galvanized a civil society campaign and threw up questions about the nature of ‘anti terrorist operations’ in India. Many of those questions remain. But today, Modi, Shah, and many in India’s intelligence and security apparatus would be smiling.
The views expressed by the writer are personal