An important covenant in a democracy is that those voted to power shall protect the weak and the vulnerable. That is why when the system fails to protect a Nirbhaya or do justice to a Jessica Lal or protect the children of Nithari, even the most compromising among us take to the streets and demand a reckoning. That is why we collectively called for stricter laws and swifter punishment for crime against women and children in the wake of the brutal Delhi gangrape.
This story is, however, not about the inadequacies of the system or its indifference. It is far more sordid. This story is about the misuse of police machinery and powers of the State by a top minister in the Gujarat government to stalk a young woman from Bangalore, subjecting her to constant surveillance for reasons not immediately apparent.
Gujarat IPS officer G.L. Singhal, who is an accused in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case (Ishrat was killed, along with three others, by Gujarat Police in 2004) and out on bail, has handed over hundreds of recorded telephonic conversations to the CBI revealing how three key wings of the Gujarat Policeâ€”the State Intelligence Bureau, also known as CID Intelligence, the Crime Branch and the Anti-Terrorist Squadâ€”misused their powers to stalk an unmarried young woman from Bangalore, who had her parents staying in Gujarat.
The entire surveillance-cum-phone interception operation was mounted in August 2009 on oral orders, without any valid legal authorization, and was meant only to serve the interests of someone whom the then minister of state for home, Amit Shah, addressed as â€˜sahebâ€™.
The illegal spying operation in which Singhal has confessed to his key role was initiated on the instructions of Shah sometime in the month of August 2009 and continued for several weeks thereafter. The 267 audio recordings submitted to the CBI primarily contain telephonic conversations between Shah and Singhal, who was at the time posted as SP with ATS. In at least half a dozen conversations, Shah is alluding to his sahebâ€™s acute personal interest in the snooping of the woman. The conversations suggest Shah was passing minute-by-minute details gathered through this snooping operation to his â€˜sahebâ€™. A close confidant of Narendra Modi, Shah held his office as Minister of State for Home for seven years between 2003 and 2010. Modi besides being the CM has also been Gujaratâ€™s home minister since October 2001. Shah was arrested in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case in 2010 and is out on bail, looking after BJPâ€™s poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
Investigative news portals Gulail and Cobrapost have accessed both the entire set of recordings and the three explosive self-incriminatory statements given by Singhal before the CBI between April and June this year. We also have the 10-page panchnama prepared by the CBI, as the agency took possession of the phone recordings from Singhal. All conversations were recorded by Singhal who at that time was close to Shah. Apparently, it was only after the CBI arrested him in the Ishrat Jahan killing case in February this year that he cracked up and chose to cooperate with the CBI.
To protect the identity of the victim, we have decided to not reveal her name or present location. For the purpose of this story, we call her Madhuri.
Along with Madhuri, a senior IAS officer from Gujarat named Pradeep Sharma was also put on watch, illegally.
â€œIn the latter half of 2009, when I was posted as SP (Operations) in the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) at Ahmedabad, Shri Amit Shah had directed me several times to watch the movements of Shri Pradeep Sharma, who was then posted as Municipal Commissioner, Bhavnagar. He had also asked me to put a watch on a young woman named Madhuri. I had deputed some men of the Crime Branch (as ATS was short of subordinate staff) to follow her, as directed by Shri Amit Shah,â€ reads Singhalâ€™s statement recorded by the CBI on April 17, 2013, a copy of which is with us. Singhal was released on bail in the last week of May 2013.
On June 9, 2013, Singhal handed over the phone recordings to the CBI. â€œIn furtherance of my statement dated 17.04.2013, I state that I have produced today before you the following: A pen drive containing 267 call recordings in the month of Augustâ€“September 2009 (beginning 04.08.2009 and ending 10.09.2009) between me and Shri Amit Shah primarily, barring some between me and Shri A.K. Sharma, me and Shri Vaishnav (DySP CID Intelligence), and me and Shri Rajendra Asari (then SP Bhavnagar). These conversations pertain to watching the young woman Madhuri at Ahmedabad and watching Shri Pradeep Sharma.â€
In the last paragraph on page 8 of panchnama prepared by the CBI on July 9, 2013, the agency says: â€œShri G.L. Singhal informed that these files contain telephonic conversation between him and Shri Amit Shah, the then MoS (Home), Gujarat State in the month of August and September 2009 relating to misuse of the police for extra legal purposes in miscarriage of justice.â€
Singhalâ€™s statements and phone recordings are now part of the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case papers.
The tapes indicate that for at least over a month the Gujarat Police apparatus used its sweeping powers to rigorously monitor every private moment, every personal conversation and every daily movement of Madhuri. Singhal has told the CBI that the surveillance was illegal and was carried out only on the oral instructions of Shah. The recordings reveal that Madhuri was tailed even as she visited shopping malls, restaurants, ice-cream parlours, gyms, cinema halls, hotels and airports. She was followed even when she visited her ailing mother in a hospital in Ahmedabad. When she boarded a flight out of Ahmedabad, orders were issued to put cops on the flight so that she was not out of sight even when she was flying. Strict orders were given to closely observe and profile those who met her. Shah was particularly interested in knowing the men she was meeting and whether she was alone or with some man when she checked into a hotel in Ahmedabad. Her phones and that of her family and friends were tapped. Every bit of information was conveyed to Shah in real time, who in turn claimed to be relaying it to his â€˜sahebâ€™. Listening to the conversations leaves no doubt that the people involved in the operation knew who this â€˜sahebâ€™ was.
Such was the importance attached to the surveillance operation that many senior state police officials were instructed to personally supervise the movements and activities of the woman. Besides Singhal, who was at that time posted as a Superintendent of Police with the ATS, the then IG (Intelligence) A.K. Sharma, the then Deputy SP (CID Intelligence) DB Vaishnav and then DCP (Crime) Abhay Chudasama were some of the other senior officers who were roped in for the operation. At present, Sharma is posted as Joint Commissioner of Crime in Ahmedabad city. While Vaishnav has retired, Chudasama is cooling his heels in jail on charges of stage-managing the Sohrabuddin Shaikh encounter.
The phone recordings in possession of the CBI primarily contain conversations between Singhal and Shah. Some conversations are between Singhal and other state police officers such as A.K. Sharma, Vaishnav and the then Bhavnagar SP Rajendra Asari. All conversations were recorded by Singhal between August 4, 2009 and September 6, 2009.
At many places in the tapes, Shah can be heard complaining that Singhalâ€™s men were not doing a thorough job as â€˜sahebâ€™ was obtaining information about her movements from his independent sources and his information network was at times more efficient than that of Shah.
For instance, on August 9, Shah in a panicky call to Singhal said, â€œI talked to Saheb and he got to know from someone that they did go outside twice. I think our men are not watching properly. They are still there. They went for shopping as well and also moved out along with that boy who came to see her. â€
A little later, Shah again rings up Singhal to say, â€œToday they are going out for a meal in a hotel. Sahib received a phone about this. So watch out as she is going with someone. It is the boy who is coming to see her. Pay proper attention. The fact is that Saheb gets all the information, so our loopholes might get found out (if our input is late).â€
The tapes also reveal that Shah had instructed Singhal to mount surveillance on a senior IAS officer, Pradeep Sharma, and tap his phones to find out if he was meeting with Madhuriâ€”something that Singhal has also admitted before the CBI. Unaware of the existence of these tapes, Sharma had independently filed a writ petitionin the Supreme Court in May 2011 alleging that he was being framed in bogus corruption cases by the Gujarat government and the reason for this was Chief Minister Narendra Modi association with a young woman. I It now emerges from Singhalâ€™s statements and tapes that the name of the woman mentioned by Sharma in his petition is the same as the name of the woman who was kept under watch by Shah and Co. At several places in the tapes, both Shah and Singhal have named the woman leaving no doubt about her identity.
The question then arises whether it is just a co-incidence that the name of the woman Sharma alleges to have been associated with Modi matches with that of the woman put under surveillance. Or, there is something more to it than meets the eye?
In one of the phone recordings, Shah is also heard telling Singhal to put a man, who was meeting Madhuri, behind bars for a period longer than served by former DIG of ATS D.G. Vanzara who has been in jail since 2007 on charges of a slew of fake encounter killings. When the conversation between Shah and Singhal took place, Vanzara had already been in jail for more than two years. What is significant is that within three months of this surveillance operation, Sharma was arrested by the state police on various corruption charges in the wee hours of January 1, 2010.
The disclosures in the Singhalâ€“Shah tapes raise several disturbing questions. Who wanted Madhuri to be watched and why? Why were Madhuri and Sharma snooped around at the same time? Is it a co-incidence that within three months of this snooping, Sharma was arrested on corruption charges?
Why the cops from the ATS, CID Intelligence and the Crime Branch, whose job is to protect the life of ordinary citizens, were used instead to snoop around a woman, who was not wanted in any crime and did not pose any threat to law and order. Not once did any officer involved object to the blatant illegality involved in the surveillance-cum-phone interception operation or expressed displeasure for violating an individualâ€™s privacy. It needs to be remembered that Singhal has clearly stated before the CBI that the entire snooping operation was illegal. The explanation that it was being done for Shahâ€™s â€˜sahebâ€™ was a good enough for the top police officials such as Singhal to toe the line. The question is who Shahâ€™s â€˜sahebâ€™ was and what were his motives?
The tapes also reveal how phone tapping guidelines as laid down by the Supreme Court in several landmark cases were blatantly violated. It also brings the telecom companies under a cloud, as they willingly obliged the Gujarat Police to tap the phones, without any valid legal orders or written permission.
In his statements, besides accusing politicians like Shah, Singhal has incriminated himself. He has confessed to have played a part in planting arms on the person of Ishrat Jahan and three others. He also disclosed that D.G. Vanzara had told him that the killings of Ishrat Jahan and her associates were cleared by â€œsafedâ€ and â€œkaliâ€ dadhis, the alleged code names that Vanzara had, respectively, for Modi and Shahâ€”a charge which has to be proved in a court of law.
Singhal has also provided a 70-minute audio recording of a meeting held in the office of Gujarat Advocate General Kamal Trivedi and attended by two of Modiâ€™s ministersâ€” Pratapsinh Jadeja (MoS, Law) and Praful Patel (MoS, Home)â€”and an ex-cabinet minister, Bhupender Chudasama. In the meeting, Singhal and his co-accused in the Ishrat Jahan killing were assured of the best possible legal protection by the State. According to Singhal, expensive encrypted cell phones were purchased and distributed to select government officials like G.C. Murmu (Secretary to Chief Minister), P.P. Pandey (suspended ADG of Gujarat Police and now prime accused in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case), A.K. Sharma (JCP, Ahmedabad city) and Singhal himself, who could then discuss over these secured phone lines the tactics of subverting the investigations into encounter killings.
Singhal has further revealed in detail how he was used to threaten two key prosecution witnesses against Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. The witnesses were threatened in the presence of Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, a senior member of the ruling party and a former minister. Thus reads his statement given to the CBI on April 17, 20013,â€œShri Bhupendrasinh Chudasama had stated that he had directions from the Chief Minister Shri Narendra Modi for these two witnesses to turn hostile, in lieu of which he had stated that the Chief Minister had promised all protection and immunityâ€.
Since people like Shah and Chudasama constantly reassured him that their actions had Modiâ€™s blessings, Singhal indulged in various illegal activities. Says Singhal in his statement to the CBI, â€œI restate the fact that previously I had been coerced to participate in and help in certain activities intended to obstruct the process of law. Although illegal, unethical and improper, I had not declined to follow instructions because I was under a cloud in this case and Shri Amit Shah used to wield his authority by making it appear that I and my subordinate officers were being protected from incarceration by his and the Chief Ministerâ€™s efforts. At this point of time, Gulail and Cobrapost have no means to independently verify these charges.
Whether Singhalâ€™s statements and evidence stand the scrutiny of the courts or not, they nonetheless reveal a chilling modus operandi of the Modi regime. Officers like Singhal who were willing to do all the dirty work would take instructions from Shah who would freely use Modiâ€™s name and mandate them to indulge in all kinds of criminal activities. The question arises was all this happening without Modiâ€™s knowledge? Is Madhuri the only private citizen to have fallen victim to the stateâ€™s secret surveillance? How many more peopleâ€”political opponents, human rights activists, journalists, witnesses, police officersâ€”have been snooped around? One also wonders how did the snooping operation on Madhuri end? Why did Singhal record his conversations with Shah for just over a month and not beyond that? How the information procured about her was put to use?
This is a closet that only opens from the inside. Singhal has cranked it open, but just a bit. Perhaps, the full scale of illegal snooping that may have gone on for years in Gujarat will never be fully known.
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Gulail.com
Raja Chowdhury is a Senior Correspondent with Cobrapost.com
How the media responded to the Gulail Investigation :-Â
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