At a time when the media coverage of Bollywood star Shushant Singh Rajput’s death has become a matter of debate, former director of Enforcement Directorate (ED) Karnal Singh has come out with a book that describes in detail how politicisation and partisan coverage by the media impacts police investigations.
The book, Batla House: An Encounter That Shook The Nation, is about the shootout between members of Delhi Police Special Cell and Indian Mujahideen terrorists in September, 2008. Singh, who was then heading the Special Cell, told the Indian Express that partisan media coverage prejudices public perception making the outcome of investigations immaterial.
Singh has described in detail how doubts created over the encounter—that had claimed the life of Delhi police officer Mohan Chand Sharma—by certain civil society groups and political parties not only demoralised the police but also threatened to derail police investigations into a group that terrorised India for almost half a decade.
“Media trial builds a certain public perception about investigations and those being investigated. Police probes take far longer time than the interest of the media in a case. But once this perception is created, the outcome of the case becomes immaterial. People continue to believe the story the media has told them,” Singh told the Indian Express.
In the book, Singh narrates a particular incident when following the encounter, a suspected IM operative named Zeeshan reached the studio of news channel claiming innocence. Even as the channel interviewed him beaming it live, it called Singh over the phone asking him to come and arrest him from its studio. Singh, however, refused to oblige even as a team was placed near the channel’s office. Hours later, it arrested Zeeshan when he came out of the building.
“Naturally, the channel was expecting some drama to unfold in their office what with the Special Cell zooming into a newsroom and nabbing the culprit. Alas, I played a spoilsport in this media frenzy!” Singh has said in the book.
The book also describes in detail the various steps that Delhi police took behind the scenes to convince the government of the genuineness of the encounter, to protect its men from over-reaching enquiries and to eventually garner support of the media.
Singh has described how Delhi police was shocked when then Jamia Milia VC Mushiral Hasan announced that the university would provide legal aide to those arrested from the encounter site. He has said it created a public perception that those killed in the encounter were innocent.
“On the afternoon of 6 October, Alok (Singh’s deputy) and I proceeded to Jamia Millia University to meet its VC, Professor Hasan. …I explained in detail about the activities of the residents of Flat no.108, L-18, Batla House. The evidences collected from the laptops and (IM operative) Atif’s mobile phone were shown to him. After seeing the evidences, he was taken aback. He appeared to be convinced of their involvement in terrorism. Following that, he made no efforts or comments in support of the students involved in terror-related activities.”
The book is also appreciative of the efforts made by a radio channel run by AJK Mass Communication Research Centre of the university to maintain communal harmony in the aftermath of the encounter. “…the radio station that was playing recorded programmes and was about to shut for Friday namaz, came alive with its volunteers taking stock of ground zero and going live on air. Its anchor Arfa, a PhD scholar in political science, announced: ‘From time to time, these anti-social forces try to create disruption in our society. We need to be united and fight these forces. What happened here today is not related to any religion or creed. We want to tell you that this issue is between the police and anti-social elements. Dear listener, you should stay indoors at this hour. Don’t believe in rumours, there is no danger to you.’”
The book however is critical of an association of teachers from Jamia that held jan sunwai on the encounter and allegedly made completely false allegations. “This goes to show that every institution has both partisan as well as balanced people,” Singh said.
The book has detailed how Singh got help from an unexpected quarter when reeling under barrage of insinuations being made in the media, he got a call from a senior journalist who gave him a 10-page note on how to get the correct perspective in the media. “His pointers were very useful,” says the book.
As questions began being raised about the encounter with statements from political parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the TMC and even some politicians from the Congress such as Digvijay Singh, Delhi police began facing pressure from the government. Singh along with Delhi police chief was summoned to the Home Secretary’s office to discuss judicial enquiry into the encounter, but then Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium came to his rescue, the book says.
According to the book, Subramanium made a vociferous and emotional appeal against a judicial enquiry and said that he had personally examined the evidence. Following this, the book says, the matter was deferred.
There were more hurdles to cross as petitions were filed in courts and with the NHRC even as union minister Kapil Sibbal asked to be shown evidence of the genuineness of the encounter. The meeting was held at then LG Tejinder KHanna’s residence.
“At the end, Shri Sibal admitted that he was convinced of the genuineness of the encounter and of the accused being involved in terrorist activities. He agreed to convey the same to (then PM) Dr (Manmohan) Singh. He took my number and true to his words, he rang me in the evening to confirm that he had conveyed what he found during discussions to the PM.”
Later in 2009, the book claims, at an event when Singh was introduced to the PM by the LG, “The PM looked at me and said, ‘You have done a good job.’”
The LG eventually also declined a magisterial enquiry to the NHRC and the Delhi high court, says the book.
Talking about the IM investigations, the book also narrates an interesting anecdotes about how Aftab Ansari, one of the associates of IM chiefs Asif Reza Khan and Amir Reza Khan, was first arrested by Singh in 1995 in a Bollywodesque chase during a shootout with a gangster. Later in September 2008, while lodged in a Kolkata jail, he had sent feelers to Singh to give him information about Indian Mujahideen when blasts were occurring across the country. However, before Singh could meet him, the Batla House encounter happened.
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