Lesson from Mumbra
The buildings are wobbly and untidy. The lanes are narrow and often dark. The name of this place of faith and fortitude is appropriate: Kismat Colony, the neighbourbood of fate.
As the monsoon of 2011 swept over this dour northeastern corner of Mumbai, there was great happiness in Kismat. The local school, the Abdullah Patel Girls High School, reported that 96.31% of its students had passed their 10th standard exams.
These are not unusual results in Mumbra, the far suburb that shelters Kismat. There are more than 70 schools in this teeming centre of aspiration. The students are sons and daughters of small-time traders and businessmen, handymen and hard-working women, more than 80% Muslim. A marsh until as late as the early 1990s, Mumbra was flooded by Muslims seeking safety after the 1992 Mumbai riots. They were joined by migrants from north India, everyone hastily cobbling together new homes and starting new lives.
Today, more than half a million people live in Mumbra. They study, work and strive to grab some part of the Indian dream. They try, too, to forget that the police and the city beyond once regarded their neighbourhood as a haven for terror. The stain of terrorism is like a permanent mark on a community's collective soul. You may scrub all you like — and it might disappear — but the world remembers the stain.
So it was with Mumbra and the Abdullah Patel Girls High School.
On June 15, 2004, the school and the suburb awoke to the depressing news that Ishrat Jahan Shamim Raza, 19, a pretty, round-faced alumna of the school was one of four people dead in a shootout with the police across the state line in Ahmedabad. The bodies of Ishrat and three men, two of them supposedly Pakistanis, were laid out for the media beside the alleged getaway car, a Blue Indica. AK-47s lay by their side. Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) DG Vanzara, head of the 21-man police squad, said Jahan and her associates were operatives of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and they were planning to assassinate Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister.
In the seven years since, much of that story collapsed.
In 2009, an Ahmedabad Metropolitan magistrate ruled the "encounter" a staged, extra-judicial killing. When the Gujarat government appealed against the verdict, the Gujarat High Court set up a special investigation team (SIT), which on Monday — after four chiefs, detailed ballistic examinations (including one that showed the officer who supposedly shot the "terrorists" never once fired his weapon) and interrogation of the police officers involved — agreed there was never a shootout. As for Vanzara, feted once as a hero, he was arrested in the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in another case. He is presently in jail.
Mumbra was seething and sorrowful when Ishrat's body came home. She was, after all, a local role model. The eldest daughter of a lower-middle-class migrant family from Bihar, Ishrat studied science at Mumbai's Guru Nanak Khalsa College. Her father dead, she ran tuition classes and undertook embroidery jobs in Mumbra to supplement the family income. When the SIT verdict came this week, Ishrat's family and Mumbra rejoiced, saying they knew all along she was never a terrorist.
Was Ishrat, then, an innocent teen shot by brazen officers in search of reward and promotion?
This is where the story isn't quite as clear as the staged killing. Ishrat and the three men with her (one of them a Kerala Hindu who converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart) were radicalised and even if they were not plotting Modi's death appear to have been up to "something", insists a former Mumbai police officer who was closely acquainted with the case. This officer first told me in late 2004 what was an open secret in the Maharashtra police, that the killing of Ishrat and her colleagues was staged. For the Mumbai police, this was never a big deal. The Maharashtra police wrote the book on extra-judicial killings, decimating the city's mafia by assassinating tens of criminals (and conducting hit jobs on people without criminal records) in the 1990s.
Many newspapers also reported that Pakistani-American Lashkar operative David Coleman Headley told officials of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a Chicago prison that Ishrat was a Lashkar suicide bomber. In May this year, the NIA submitted this carefully drafted statement to the Gujarat High Court: "Aversion made regarding David Colman (sic) Headley making statement on Ishrat Jahan is purely in the nature of hearsay, it does not have any evidentiary value."
Whenever I visited Mumbra in the years following Ishrat's death, I heard a common refrain on the street: "If she was a terrorist, she should have been arrested. Why was she shot?"
The random killing of Muslims suspects and equally random arrests can never lead to a triumph over terrorists who work in the name of Islam. It is patently unfair at a time when Hindus are now implicated in a series of bombings once automatically blamed on Muslim suspects, that many are still in jail. Only last week a court released seven Muslims, accused of bombing the Maharashtra town of Malegaon, after NIA said it would not oppose bail because a Hindu preacher had confessed to the blasts. Pre-judgement and prejudice have no place in the continuing, complicated battle against modern terrorism. India cannot afford to let an Ishrat be killed again, not when the vast majority of the country's 200 million Muslims — like those in Mumbra — strive harder than ever to rise out of the underclass, educate their children and just get along.