IF THEY ARE HANGED TO DEATH…
If Jamiluddin Nasir and Aftab Ansari are hanged, the diabolical question will remain hanging inside the conscience of Indian democracy and the justice system: Who were those who were behind the American Centre attack in Kolkata, on a foggy, winter morning, in 2002?
Sharib Ali Mumbai
“Inshallah kaam ho gaya (God is willing, work is done)” is what Gilbert Gomes and Shahid Iqbal heard the pillion rider of the bike say just before he got into a waiting blue Maruti car. The pillion rider, according to the deposition of Shahid Iqbal, Police Witness 62, was carrying a cricket bat cover with something inside it. And the blue car, with two people inside, was waiting for more than 10 minutes before they were joined by the two on a black motorcycle. After the pillion rider got into the car, both the car and the bike sped away.
It was 6.30 am on a perfectly ordinary morning on January 22, 2002, in Beniapukur—a suburb of a city which had just become Kolkata—and the two friends, Iqbal and Gomes, were having an early morning cup of tea when they witnessed the scene. Two hours later, Iqbal heard the news of the ride-by shooting in front of the American Centre which resulted in several deaths. He then went to the homicide squad of the Kolkata police in Lal Bazaar—located 10 kilometres away from the police station in Beniapukur—and informed a policeman known to him, apprehending, as the Kolkata High Court judgment points out, “that the morning incident witnessed by him might have some co-relation” with the attack. According to the deposition, he also gave the police officer the number of both the bike and the blue Maruti car—WB 01 P-2144 and BRK 4907, respectively. A few years later in court, Iqbal also identified Jamiluddin Nasir, the man alleged by the police as the organizer of the attack, as the person who was driving the car that day when he was drinking tea by the side of the road.
Shahid Iqbal is one of the three star eyewitnesses in the Kolkata American Centre Attack case, which concerns a shooting that took place at 6.30 am on a foggy winter morning, when two people on a bike opened fire at the guards outside the American Centre (also known as the United States Information Service—USIS) just when they were about to change shifts. Five policemen were killed and another 12 injured in the shootout, which lasted exactly 40 seconds.
The judiciary remains the last resort for justice. When Aftab Ansari and Jamiluddin Nasir stand in the Supreme Court, it will not be them, as the legendary human rights lawyer (late) KG Kannabiran pointed out, but the judiciary itself and our beliefs that will be on trial
The American Centre attack took place when more than half a million soldiers of the Indian army, in the largest military exercise in the recent past, were stationed at the Pakistan border. Amid the tense atmosphere following the December 13 Parliament attacks, with India and Pakistan on the brink of a ‘nuclear’ war, the shooting was announced by the Union Home Minister of the ruling NDA government, Lal Krishna Advani, as the handiwork of “a group connected with the ISI”.
Advani was speaking at an India Today Conclave about how the final call in the “eyeball to eyeball situation between India and Pakistan” would depend on Pakistan’s response to a request from India for the infiltration status of known terrorists. Since then, the investigation and court proceedings over the last 11 years have assumed a fixed pattern: the police, the courts, and all outside it—the media, and the shadowy political world—thus far have only linked the dots to the violent contours of a political narrative of terror born in 2001. And this joining of the dots has encompassed all forms of violence—fake encounter killings, custodial violence and false and extremely contestable, if not planted, evidence. Meanwhile, condemned as terrorists to be hanged to death, Aftab Ansari and Jamiluddin Nasir enter their final appeal in the
In the months succeeding the attack, nine were arrested, including Aftab Ansari — the alleged mastermind, who was extradited from Dubai. In 2005, the trial court acquitted two and awarded the death penalty to seven of the accused, under Sec 27(3) of the Arms Act, and Sec 121-A, 122, and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for conspiracy, waging war against the State and murder with a prohibited weapon, among other offences. After the judgment was pronounced, the defence lawyer remarked that it was “an unprecedented judgment, where a judge has pronounced the death sentence on the basis of the provisions of the Arms Act without even looking at the weapon that was used”. The judgment was indeed unprecedented. After the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, it was the only circumstance in independent India in which so many accused were sentenced to death by a court in a single case.
‘There were several officers with guns. They asked me to escape. They were all smiling — “We will kill you in an encounter like Asif.” I agreed to do whatever they said…’
The prosecution’s account of the attack is a curious one, and the judgment borders on the improbable. This was highlighted by the apparent veering of the verdict between two judicial extremities—death penalty and acquittal. There are a total of 15 accused in the case. The bulk of the crime, including the shooting itself, rests on the six who have been shown as absconding. The nine accused who have been charged and tried have been accused by the police on extremely tenuous threads—either knowing or aiding those who carried out the attack.