L’affaire Ishrat Jahan – Indians should worry about politico-systemic failures

The story so far throws up the terrifying possibility of state subversion
L’affaire Ishrat Jahan – Indians should worry about politico-systemic failures
L’affaire Ishrat Jahan – Indians should worry about politico-systemic failures
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Till the cows come home, we will be talking about the why now and the motive behind former Home Secretary G.K. Pillai’s revelation to Times Now television that the Congress party intervened in the investigation of the Ishrat Jahan case. In a bureaucracy where adding a comma makes heads roll, dropping a critical paragraph is grave. We are talking about a possible plot to assassinate prominent Indian politicians including Narendra Modi. As I write this, comes news that Former Home Minister P. Chidambaram personally oversaw the change in the affidavit.

According to G.K. Pillai, P. Chidambaram in his capacity as Minister of Home (MOH) had personally overseen the controversial changes in the Centre’s affidavit in the Ishrat Jahan case in 2009 to drop any references to her Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) links. “Mr. Chidambaram, who was then the home minister, had asked for the file from the joint secretary, saying the affidavit needed to be reworked. Only after the affidavit was revised, as directed by the minister, did the file come to me,” Pillai told the Times of India. Read here.

Was this the ‘political’ intervention to which G.K. Pillai had referred to in his interview last week? Billed as one of India’s most respected bureaucrats, he said the contradictory affidavits filed by the Ministry of Home affairs (MHA) were done at a political level. The word ‘political’ is key. It is the bane of institutions, signalling the death of accountability in democracies. The revelations he has made today will go far – bureaucrats of his seniority and calibre do not whistle in the dark. They very likely have documents to back up their statements.

G.K. Pillai is not the first man of honour who saw what was going on and for reasons unknown at present, did not act. We must give him the benefit of doubt for now. If it turns out that he was conscience clearing, we will find out. Truth has this uncanny ability to jump out when least expected. I have some experience in this as a journalist. Many people reading this post may not have heard of another respected officer called Gopi Arora. I hadn’t either when his name popped up in a very sensitive document that detailed the massive Delhi-driven cover-up in the Bofors case. I will come to it in a bit.

So what do we know about the Ishrat story. “We enticed the LeT operatives to come to India and target PM Narendra Modi (then Gujarat CM) and we laid a trap and killed them,” Pillai told Times Now’s Prema Sridevi. “IB (intelligence bureau) enticed and trapped them and targeted them. We used a source who they (LeT) thought was their source. It is always better to know your enemy as he is coming in rather than wait for him to plan an operation on his own without our knowledge. Our source had in fact told that ‘look if you can come in and target Modi and other high profile people’ and the Let decided to come in.” He went on to say the “CBI had indulged in leaks. They should have exercised extreme discretion. If I was home secretary, I would have called the director CBI and said look this is unacceptable. I personally would not have recommended a CBI probe into this case.”

This is an assassination plot, not bribes for favours. We are looking at India’s top agencies from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Ministry of Home (MOH) fiddling with information. This happens in other democracies as well, but when caught, heads roll, the system kick-in. We don’t have a fool - proof system and terrorist know this better than us. According to Pillai, Ishrat was a cover and this was an intelligence operation involving the LeT. Pillai also says “Ishrat knew something was wrong…” suggesting that she may have been conned into the plot. The Chidambaram angle today ups the stakes – what did he know, when did he know it and why did he decide he knew nothing? Read here.

Cut to Bofors, which was a gun for bribes scandal in the late 1980s and the allegations washed around the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and contributed to the fall of his government. “This person called Gopi Arora seems a key player in the cover-up,” Sten Lindström the head of investigations in Sweden had told me. I didn’t know who Gopi Arora was, it was not important. What was important for me was to find out what he did? He was New Delhi’s point person in organising the cover-up without realising – or perhaps knowingly  – that some journalists were well ahead of political India in connecting the dots. Even Bofors officials were wary of testifying to India’s Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), fearing leaks. They were assured that in the four decades of Indian parliamentary history, nothing had leaked. As it turned out everything leaked all over the world – in Stockholm, Bern, London, Zurich and Geneva!

Among the over 350 documents I had got from Linsdtröm, one was especially damning of Arora. It detailed a meeting with Bofors officials in India where information about the payoff were shared. Gopi Arora, N.N. Vohra, S.K. Bhatnagar all of India’ top bureaucrats knew what was going on. The ‘political’ problem here was Ottavio Quattrocchi linked to the bribes through A.E. Services. Ottavio Quattrocchi who was no stranger in India’s power corridors as a friend of the Gandhis. An obituary when Gopi Arora passed away said he was a key figure in Rajiv Gandhi’s team when the Bofors controversy “…turned into a tornado in 1987…Arora, a senior journalist remembers was responsible for working out the government strategy to counter the Opposition assault on the howitzer scam,” the obituary in Times of India said. Read here.

The Ishrat Jahan story is grave. It is the story about attempts to penetrate India’s top intelligence agencies on the one hand. On the other, it is the story of terrifying silence on the part of these agencies to cover-up their cowardice, come hell or high water. G.K. Pillai’s interviews have opened up the proverbial can of worms. Ignominy and slander will be heaped on him in the days to come, but I get the sense that he is ready for it. The larger question is – is India ready to accept what tumbles out? We should worry about a system that accommodates lies masked as political expediency.

If G.K. Pillai is lying, P. Chidambaram should sue him post haste.

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