When power gags the Press: A reflection on the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case

Gagging was a term prominent during the times when British ruled India. Then came Congress leader Indira Gandhi’s time who also gagged the press. Last year in November, this term came to the surface yet again with the CBI Court disallowing the press to report a case.

This is the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. On November 29, 2017; following an application by advocate Wahab Khan, a ban was put on media (print, electronic and social) to report this case, though they could attend the proceeding.

Courts generally allow such in-camera i.e. private proceedings only if there is a rape case or a case concerning national security. But in this case according to  the order by Special Judge S.J. Sharma, “The publication may create security problem for the accused persons, prosecution witnesses, the defence team and the prosecutor as well.”

Principles generally followed by court have been compromised, in this case.

Following the gagging, nine journalists filed a petition against the order. Journalists from reputed media organisations like The Wire, Dailyo, Scroll, The Free Press Journal, etc. stood before the SC in solidarity.

But the damage has already been done.

In August last year when Inspector General of Gujarat DG Vanzara and IPS officer Dinesh MN were absolved from the charges. While from December, 19 of the eyewitnesses have either retracted their statements or denied stating anything, according to a report by The Indian Express.

The case has been witnessing a fall since the BJP came to power. First there were changes in the judges, then Sohrabuddin’s brother Rubabbudin Sheikh withdraw the petition challenging discharge of Amit Shah, and then the recent developments from 2017.

The case is complicated because of many reasons. One, because it concerns encounter killing of an alleged terrorist and extortionist mafia Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi and Sheikh’s close aide Tulsiram Prajapati. Two, Sohrabuddin according to the Gujarat and Rajasthan Police wanted to kill the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. Three, one of the accused in the case is the then, Minister of Home for Gujarat and now, ruling party chairman Amit Shah.

The lopsided and strange episodes in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case has raised a question about not just media freedom but also about the meaning of justice in our country.

Sources: The Indian Express, Scroll, The Wire

 

The life and lies of DG Vanzara

DG Vanzara being led to court for his trial. PTI
DG Vanzara being led to court for his trial. PTI

This story is before the Ishrat Jahan encounter hit front page news, and even before the CBI progress report on the four fake encounter cases that took place in Gujarat during the mid-2000.

It is the story of Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) D G Vanzara, the super-cop who made his name as an “encounter-specialist”. While Vanzara bides his time within the confines of a prison cell, his fall from grace has coincided with the rise of the man who is now being touted as the next Prime Minister, the man who he was reportedly very close to, Narendra Modi.

Having joined the state police in 1980 and becoming IPS cadre in 1991, Vanzara, the son of a landless labourer from Ilol village, rose through the ranks under the guidance of Modi. During the riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Vanzara was the Superintendent of Police (SP) stationed at Mehsana which is about five hours from Surat, the epicenter of the riots. Vanzara, later on, said that he had no cases of violence in his district. Soon after, he was appointed the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) in Ahmedabad and he earned himself the tag of an encounter-specialist after reportedly killing over 10 ‘terrorists’ post-Godhra.

Almost all of these encounters happened due to an apparent plot to kill Narendra Modi, the head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Pravin Togadia or L K Advani. It was in this period that the encounters of Ishrat Jahan (2004) and Sohrabuddin Sheikh (2004) also took place. Both were labled as Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives. There were also the encounters of Tulsiram Prajapati (2006), Samirkhan Pathan (2002), Sadiq Jemal Mehtar (2003). In June the same year, two people were killed who were believed to be a threat to Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Ashok Bhatt and Bharat Barot. Prajapati had even gone to the extent of appealing to an Udaipur court before his death as he was witness to the Sohrabuddin encounter. Vanzara was transferred to the Banaskantha, just days before Prajapati was killed there in December. The Central Investigation Department (CID) also searched for remains of Kausar Bi, the wife of Sohrabuddin Sheikh who was reported missing, at Vanzara’s residence after his arrest. She was also a prime witness.

It came as a surprise to many within the Gujarat hierarchy when Vanzara was arrested in April ’07 by the Gujarat CID as he had become very powerful. He was also hand-in-glove with Modi and former Home Minister Amit Shah, who is said to have orchestrated the encounters. He is considered to be one of the first dominoes to fall and is now in a Mumbai jail where the CBI has recently interrogated him. Vanzara has applied to study Human Rights during his time in jail.