On 12th Anniversary of Batla House Encounter, ED’s Ex-director Recounts How Media Trial Marred Their Probe

Batla House is perhaps one address that India is not likely to forget easily. Situated in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, it was here, on this day, twelve years ago, that a face-off between the Delhi police and IM terrorists killed encounter specialist and Delhi Police inspector Mohan Chand Sharma. Sharma had spearheaded the raids — which resulted in an encounter — to nab the terrorists. During the encounter, two terrorists, Atif Ameen and Ariz Khan were also killed, while two others namely Mohammad Saif and Zeeshan were arrested. Another terrorist, Mohammad Sajid, who was also in Batla House at the time of the encounter, reportedly managed to escape.

After the encounter, the actions of the police were heavily criticised by the media, political parties, as well as civil societies, since reports claimed that locals were also arrested during the incident. In his new book titled, Batla House, former director of Enforcement Directorate Karnal Singh reveals the ways in which media trials interfered and hindered their investigation of the case. Singh states in his book that after the encounter, when a press conference was organized by the police, strange questions were asked by journalists. He writes:

One of the journalists asked, ‘Raids are conducted generally at 3:00 am — when everyone is sleeping, why was this raid conducted during the daytime?’

The CP was aghast at this question, ‘I don’t know your motivation of asking a question of this nature. There is no fixed time to catch a thief. No one says, “Please come to arrest me between 1: 00 am to 4:00 am.” The police had information, so went there at 11:00 am to arrest him. What is wrong in that?’ He also confirmed that the Delhi Police had also got inputs from the Gujarat Police.

While Mohammad Saif was arrested during the encounter, Zeeshan wasn’t arrested till later. In an excerpt of the book, Singh recounts how a TV Channel wanted to capture live drama by baiting the police force to come to their office and arrest Zeeshan. He writes:

We were in the middle of questioning Saif, when suddenly I received a call from a news channel. It informed me that a young man named Zeeshan was in their office claiming he was afraid that he would be arrested by the Delhi Police for the blasts. Zeeshan claimed innocence and wanted the media house to protect him. The channel informed us that they would be conducting his interview and if he was wanted by the Special Cell, I may send a team to their office to arrest him.

Why is the media house asking us to arrest or detain this person from their studio? Is this a ploy to get more mileage from the ordeal? I responded that the media should carry on with the interview and inform me once the interview was done. 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!

‘Who is this Zeeshan?’ I asked Saif. He did know Zeeshan and confirmed his role in the Ahmedabad blast. I mobilized a team headed by Rahul to be stationed near the news channel’s office where Zeeshan was taking refuge, albeit a temporary one. After some time, another call came in from the same channel that they would hand over Zeeshan to the police and that I could send my team to their studio in Paharganj. No way was I sending my men to the news channel.

‘You may please decide what you want to do with Zeeshan. Our Special Cell officers will not enter your premises,’ I responded as a matter of fact. So, left with no other option, the channel let Zeeshan go. Our officers detained him as he was leaving the studio. Meanwhile, the same channel was repeatedly calling and asking if the Special Cell had arrested Zeeshan. I replied saying that the decision regarding his arrest would be taken only after we had confirmation that he was indeed involved in the blast cases. Soon after, the IB confirmed Zeeshan’s involvement in the Ahmedabad blasts.

After one of Singh’s media briefings which he thought ended on a note that was conciliatory, he was told by his senior that the Home Ministry did not want the police to indulge in any more media briefings about the progress of the investigation. Karnal writes that the reason for stopping press conferences that were given to him was that some sections in the political circle were upset about details tumbling out against terrorists belonging to the minority community. Karnal Singh tried to reason. He writes:

I argued in vain that terrorism did not have any religion and as police officers, it is our duty to follow leads and apprehend terrorists, irrespective of their faith. I knew that the repercussion of leaving a void for the media in such a critical case would be dangerous, as it could be filled with half-baked information, or even worse, false and concocted stories. This surely was a recipe for information disaster. Only time would tell the impact this would have on holding up information with the media.

Things turned out to be as Singh had anticipated, as news articles began refuting Delhi Police’s version of the incident at Batla House soon after the media briefings stopped. Singh writes:

On the afternoon of 24 September, Alok rushed to my office with a newspaper in his hands. He seemed very upset. ‘Sir, please see this story.’ He handed over the newspaper to me. The newspaper claimed to have located two eyewitnesses who had anonymously shared a version of the encounter that rebut the account given by the Delhi Police. These eyewitnesses apparently observed the sequence of events from the bathroom of a flat near L-18, Batla House. They claimed to have inside view of Flat no. 108, located on the fourth floor, and the staircase of the building. They told the media that a member of the Special Cell first went up to the flat, but landed into an argument with one of the inmates. Hearing this, the other members of the police team rushed upstairs and dragged the two men down, and in the scuffle, Mohan got the bullet injury.

Thereafter, the police team killed both the residents and dragged them up to the fourth floor along the stairs while Mohan was taken to the hospital. According to eyewitnesses, Atif and Sajid were unarmed. Their bodies were then wrapped in a cloth and taken away. Thereafter, the police team brought three persons, including Mohamad Saif, from somewhere around or within L-18. The story further claimed that the media has got the post-mortem reports of Sajid, Atif and Mohan and that as per the report, Mohan had got three bullets from the back which were fired from a close range not more than a few centimetres away. The article went on to say that the doctors performing the post-mortem attributed the injury marks on Atif and Sajid to a violent physical assault.

‘This is false and baseless,’ I told Alok after reading the news. I was following newspapers and getting intelligence inputs from the Batla House area. People in the area had started raising questions on how the Delhi Police could solve the blast cases within a week, while the cases in other states such as Jaipur and Hyderabad remained unsolved. As time passed, the versions got wilder and some people questioned why Jamia Nagar was the target when the actual culprits were hiding in the areas such as South Extension and Prithvi Raj Road.

What did it mean? Who was being referred to? I couldn’t understand. If people knew of terrorists holed up in other areas, shouldn’t they come forward with the information?

The following excerpts have been published with permission from Rupa Publications.

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