Irshad Ali was a police informer. Until the police framed him
How intelligence officials caught their own informer and said he was a terrorist
Irshad Ali’s problem was that he had the wrong film in his head. He thought he was Salman Khan of Ek Tha Tiger when he was not even Sarabjit Singh. And by the end of 2005, after four years of intelligence work, he was on his way to meet his handler, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) official, to pick up his last salary. He had already told him he wanted out.
Ali, 40, a Delhi slumboy who worked in a factory, had been a police informer since his 30s. In the food chain of security networks, a police informer is a small fry chasing other small fry. And small fry cannot claim loyalty in return. Or say they want to retire. When they do, there are consequences.
On December 12, 2005, a car pulled over on a road in front of one of Delhi’s poshest hotels. Ali, who had been waiting for the pick-up, got in. He greeted the IB officer he had been reporting to from early 2000s, and found he had to take the middle seat. Two people were already sitting on either side of the seat. For a second, he felt something amiss but told himself perhaps they wanted the window seat. A second later, a black mask was slipped over his head, and the car sped towards Red Fort.
A long road to Justice: the story of Irshad Ali
“ ‘Your brain’s turned. We’ve fattened you enough!’ I heard the IB officer say,” Ali says, recalling the incident as we meet in a coffee shop a few months after his acquittal. “For two months after that, I was detained in houses in the city used by the IB and the Special Cell as interrogation rooms.” The IB handed him over to the Special Cell, and on February 9, 2006, along with Qamran (another police informer who was Ali’s cousin), they were packaged before the media as Al-Badr terrorists caught in north Delhi.
Ali was in Tihar Jail from 2006 to 2009. He was acquitted in December 2016 of charges under the Explosive Substances Act and under Section 120B, 121 and 122 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 25 of the Arms Act. He and Qamran were out on bail in 2009 after the High Court heeded the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) report that proved the terror allegations levelled against them by the Special Cell were false.
An officer of the investigating team, who had questioned Ali’s handler, says on condition of anonymity, that he had “admitted to Ali being his agent, but not that he had been framed”.
Ali says both cannot be true - if he was a secret agent and it had been admitted as such by the police, he cannot have been a terrorist. “So if I have been punished without a crime, then it should follow that those who put me behind bars, be deemed criminals.”
Good cops investigating bad cops, or any other public servant, have to deal with a condition called The Consensus - so as to least disturb the status quo. “Everyone realised at some point that Ali was innocent and should be discharged but the Special Cell, however, could not be indicted. The Police’s Morale, Consensus, whatever you call it,” says the cop to HT.
The selection of Irshad Ali
Why did Irshad Ali agree to become a secret agent in the first place?
From 2001 to 2006, Ali had been working for the IB and the Special Cell. A cab driver, he needed to supplement the family income. Residents of a slum near Rithala, the one-room shack in which he lives stands on uneven ground; garbage lies all around. His father when alive, worked in an attache factory.
“I have six sisters. My brother who is serving a life sentence, worked for the cops from inside the jail, and I, from outside,” he says. “We felt the pressure to do it. My brother passed on letters of convicts, the police wanted to know more about, to me and I passed it on to the cops.”
“With a brother in jail on a murder charge, you have to be grateful if the police say they want you to work for them,” says Ali. The IB, with whom he went to work first, is interested in your psyche, he says. They take time to figure out who you are. “If the local police catch you for a wrongdoing they will go through your pockets. The IB will go through your diary. But they work together.”
There is danger in intelligence work. But because of the police association, Ali thought there was security. He also brought in a couple of his friends and some members of his family such as Qamran, and engaged them in intelligence work. Qamar did not want to speak to the media.
A free man now, Ali says he has no problem speaking out. Friends on Whatsapp afraid of his safety have been telling him “not to make so much noise”.
“I have nothing to lose,” says Ali. His voice is steady, his eyes are still. Once in a while he breaks his narrative to look around and says gesturing towards a man sitting in another corner of the coffee shop: “I could go and chat with him and he will open up to me…. I learnt how to do it…. I was picked up because I had guts, they knew I was of their level.”
End of honeymoon
Ali’s case is ironic in more ways than one. This was not a case of the police picking up the wrong man. He was the IB’s man. And the Special Cell who, alongwith some IB officers, “fixed Ali knew that”, says one of the cops who probed the frame-up. “He had been refusing his assignments, he didn’t want to cross the border and be trained as a militant so as to infiltrate their ranks. They just weren’t ready to let him go,” he says.
“I have worked for both the IB and the Special Cell,” says Ali. “I was being paid a monthly salary of Rs 7,000.” But he began to be filled with a sense of wrong. Ali, who had half-completed a maulvi’s education in a madrassa, was being asked to indoctrinate people and then squeal about them to the police. “Even if the police said that after laying the trap they would let me get away.… I didn’t want to be the hand that helped them get medals.” In other words, he was developing a conscience. Or maybe he was just plain tired.
“My wife Shabana didn’t want me to cross the border. We had become parents,” says the father of two. His daughter died when he was in jail.
Ali believes he was finally made the “scapegoat for the Cell’s inability to catch the people behind the Delhi blasts of 2005”. Besides, his days of being useful as an intelligence gatherer were also over. The intelligence officials he had worked with had told him often enough: “If a lime dries up, make use of its peels.” But he didn’t believe they were talking about him.
“Thoda dhamki, thoda maafi (a little bit of threatening and a little bit of cajoling),” he says, had been part of his relationship with intelligence officials. Police informers like him were told they had “saved these many lives, stopped this or that disaster with the news we got. I felt I was contributing….” But they held him on a tight leash. It was classic carrot and stick. He had four years in jail to arrive at these conclusions.
Ali was out on bail in 2009 after the CBI filed a report recommending that he be discharged as the Special Cell’s charges against him were inconsistent with existing evidence. “Due to Santosh Kumar, the investigating officer of the CBI, I am a free man today,” says Ali. Kumar was part of an eight-member team investigating the Special Cell’s allegations.
In January 2017, he filed a case in the Delhi High Court urging it to order the CBI to re-open their closure report in which they had recommended that police officers who had framed him be booked for criminal conspiracy. The hearing is due in March.
It’s not personal, but about justice, says Ali. But is it surprising, if it’s a bit of both ?
Ali’s revelations give a glimpse into the smoke and mirrors that shroud intelligence operations, “and the gross impunity with which men from the minority community can be first forced into becoming the agencies’ foot soldiers, and then disposed off when their use is over,” says Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA). The JTSA reports (in 2012 and 2015) had, in fact, brought to the fore the methodical fabrication of evidence against Muslims, mainly Kashmiris, by the Special Cell in the name of fighting terror through the past two decades. “It also points to how the media unquestioningly repeated the police versions as truth, until years later courts acquitted these unfortunate men,” says Sethi.
Ali is no longer in shock but speaks with a quiet outrage. Did he ever speak out thus in court? “In the eyes of the law, I was a criminal…. If you tried to speak, it could be considered contempt of court,” he says without any sense of irony. “You could only speak through your lawyers.” At a fast-track court, a sessions judge once told him: “ ‘Admit to your guilt and I’ll free you now…’. In other words, end of case, end of police scrutiny.”
“So will Ali’s be a cautionary tale for cops not to force people to continue with intelligence gathering if they don’t want to?” I ask another cop following the case.
“You can’t use force that’s for sure,” he agrees. “Otherwise, you will have a case like Ali’s in your hands.”
“So will there be outrage now that people know?”
“No. People will forget.”