IT'S 11 AT night on September 22. Sombre activity is in progress at the Nizamuddin burial ground, but a stunned, occasionally resentful uncertainty pervades the air. A group of some 150 armed policemen stand round, keeping grim watch over a gathering of over 250 people. Some of those attending the funeral are irate. They are questioning the veracity of the rationale that brings them to the burial of Atif, alias Bashir, and Mohammed Sajid, blamed for the September 13 New Delhi blasts and shot dead three days earlier in a police encounter in New Delhi's Jamia Nagar. Now the two are being buried in the presence of the Shahi Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, local politicians and numerous Muslims visiting the city to mark Ramzan. Speaking at the funeral, Bukhari reiterated what many civil society organisations have been saying since September 19, the day of the encounter: "The police cannot label anyone a terrorist. It's for the courts to decide whether a person is guilty."
There are two versions of the events of that day. Badr Taslim, 48, a long-time resident of L-17, Batla House, the building adjacent to the one where the 'terrorists were holed up', first heard the sounds of gunfire at about 11am and after that a scream. Soon, armed men rushed to the spot and told him to get inside his house. Taslim ran to the flat opposite his and saw two men coming down from the fourth floor of L-18, supporting Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma by his arms. Sharma would die later that night of wounds sustained during the operation. But Taslim is unsure how serious Sharma's injuries were. "A small stain of blood was visible under his right arm," he says. "There was no wound in the front of his body. There was no blood on the staircase either."
Some residents recall the sequence. Several gunshots, the police said 30, audible till about 11:40am. Then, the silence. Finally, the bodies of two 'terrorists' — 23-year-old Atif and 17-yearold Sajid — carted away. Taslim didn't see the police arresting Saif, who is suspected to have planted the Regal Cinema bomb that was defused. Masih Alam, a lawyer who lives in the flat opposite L-18, agrees with Taslim's version.
In the police story, Atif was the Indian Mujahideen mastermind who designed and coordinated the five blasts that went off in three crowded New Delhi shopping centres. Sajid was supposedly Atif's close aide. The police claim the Special Cell team had received information that two of those suspected in the blasts were at Jamia Nagar. At about 10:30am, a subinspector posing as a Vodafone salesman knocked on the door of the fourth-floor flat in L-18 Batla House. The residents of the house said they didn't want the Vodafone offer. As was arranged, the sub-inspector sent a signal to Sharma by giving him a missed call. Minutes after getting the cue, Sharma was up the stairs with six other officers. As he entered the flat, men rushed out of another room and opened fire at him. Sharma fell to the ground, and the bullet aimed at him hit a constable. The shootout continued. Sharma was pulled out and taken to the Holy Family Hospital, closeby. The police later said Sharma was bleeding heavily. By then, the police had taken over the area and cordoned it. Later, the police claimed that the shootout had accounted for three terrorists: two dead, one arrested. The police said two others escaped. An AK-47 assault rifle along with two .30 pistols and a computer were recovered from the alleged hideout, a seizure the police would have to prove once the trial starts.
Over the weekend, the police claimed that two more terrorists were on the run along with the two from Batla House. So, that made it four on the run. The police claimed that an additional four — Zeeshan, Zia-ur-Rehman, Saquib Nissar and Mohammad Shakeel — were arrested by September 21. Zeeshan was the first of these four to be arrested on September 19. But before that, Zeeshan had appeared on a news channel, after he saw his name flash on television as a suspect. On television, Zeeshan said he wasn't involved. Hours later, the police picked him up and claimed he had confessed.
IN THE aftermath, the loopholes in the police theory are becoming evident. Why weren't the policemen in bulletproof jackets? Eyewitness Taslim wonders how the two terrorists who managed to escape got away, considering that L-18 not only has just one entrance and exit, but also has a gap between its terrace and the roof of the next house. "The only option was to jump. Had they done so, they would have died," Taslim says. The alleged terrorists had also applied for tenant verification on August 21, with their personal details, including permanent addresses, driving license details, and the address of their previous residence. "Why would those involved in the Ahmedabad blasts in July and those preparing to bomb Delhi in September give their verification to the police?" asks Asif Mohammad, a former councillor of the area.
Civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is leading an independent fact-finding mission into the incident, feels that the police did not set out for Batla House thinking they were after terrorists. They would have planned the operation better, Bhushan said. And therefore, he says, the police story describing the dead men's role in the blasts is false. "This is clear from several facts. Their tenant verification is authentic. Zeeshan was taking an MBA exam. Atif is a registered Jamia Millia Islamia student. All these point to the fact that there is something amiss in the police theory," says Bhushan.
But the big question is: How did Sharma die? Bhushan says there are three possibilities: those inside the house were armed and fired at Sharma, or he fell victim to a form of 'friendly fire', having been accidentally shot by a police gun. The last and most sinister, utterly cynical possibility is that he was shot by his colleagues, perhaps a bitter fallout of his chequered career.
'cracking' of the terror module, a section of the media and civil rights activists like Shabnam Hashmi, John Dayal and Yogendra Yadav doubt the police theory. For now, there is a demand for a fair, impartial and independent probe into the puzzling incident.
Has A Cover-Up Begun?
AIIMS doctors say crucial evidence may have been lost during Inspector MC Sharma's operation HIS COLLEAGUES call him the bravest. But his death during the Jamia Nagar encounter has raised uncomfortable questions. In a startling disclosure, a senior doctor who conducted the postmortem on Inspector MC Sharma at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences spoke to TEHELKA of the damage to his vital organs. "It was difficult to establish the entry and exit points of the bullet because conclusive evidence had been wiped out by the interventions of the doctors at Holy Family [where Sharma was rushed to]."Once considered the right-hand man of late ACP Rajbir Singh, another encounter specialist, Sharma was instrumental in the killing of 35 alleged terrorists and the arrest of 80 supposed others. It is believed that Sharma also killed 120 gangsters in a career just short of two decades. A close Special Cell colleague said there was a time when Sharma and Singh were measured on the same notoriety scale. "But post-2003, once the two encounter specialists fell out, Sharma sorted his ways." Jamia Nagar residents want to know how a veteran officer could make the mistake of not wearing a bulletproof vest to an encounter site. Senior officers have varying answers. "He probably wanted to garner all the credit," said one, who requested anonymity. According to another, "He was under tremendous pressure as his son was suffering from dengue." Least satisfactory was the response from Deputy Com missioner of Police (Special Cell) Alok Kumar, who said, "He must have wanted to maintain secrecy in a cramped area like Batla House." Why then could he not have worn the vest under his shirt?
(Rohini Mohan contributed to this story)