Who Killed Hemant Karkare?

December 18, 2008 by  


By R.H.

Editor’s Note: For the first time, the Indian state was conducting a thorough professional probe into a terror network involving Hindu extremist organizations. The implications of this investigation bring to question the death of the lead investigator of the Anti-Terrorism Squad, Chief Hemant Karkare, on the day of the Mumbai attacks.

In all the confusion and horror generated by the Bombay attacks, the circumstances surrounding the death of Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare and two of his colleagues, encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte deserve greater attention. The operations involved well-organised attacks on high-profile sites in Colaba – the Taj, Oberoi and Trident Hotels and Nariman House – and a parallel set of operations targeting Victoria Terminus station, Cama Hospital and the Metro cinema, near the police headquarters where Karkare worked. The latter is an area where foreigners are much less likely to be found.

Why is a Proper Investigation Crucial?

Prior to his death, Hemant Karkare was unearthing a terror network unlike any that has been seen thus far. The investigation started by tracing the motorcycle used to plant bombs in Malegaon in September 2008 to a Hindu Sadhvi, Pragyasingh Thakur. In a cellphone conversation between Thakur and Ramji, the man who planted the bombs, she asked why more people had not been killed. For the first time, the Indian state was conducting a thorough professional probe into a terror network involving Hindu extremist organisations, this one with huge ramifications, some leading into military and bomb-making training camps and politicised elements in the army, others into organisations and political leaders affiliated to the BJP. One of the most potentially explosive discoveries was that a serving army officer, Lt.Col. Srikant Purohit, had procured 60 kg of RDX from government supplies for use in the terrorist attack on the Samjhauta Express (the India-Pakistan ‘Understanding’ train) in February 2007, in which 68 people were killed, the majority of them Pakistanis. Initially, militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Islamist terror groups had been accused of carrying out the attack, but no evidence against them had been found.

The investigation generated enormous hostility, with allegations (refuted by medical examinations) that the suspects had been tortured and that Karkare was being used as a political tool, and demands that the ATS team should be changed. Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, L.K.Advani accused him of being a ‘desh drohi’ or traitor, a charge that in India carries a death penalty, and the Shiv Sena offered legal aid to those accused of the terrorist attack, complaining that ‘The government does not save Hindus from terrorists, and if Hindus defend themselves, they are maligned’. In an interview shortly before he died, Karkare admitted he was hurt by the campaign against him. On November 26, just before the terrorist attack, the police in Pune received a call from an anonymous caller saying in Marathi that Karkare would be killed in a bomb blast within two or three days.

Just as attitudes to Karkare in society at large were polarised, with some admiring him as a hero – one Maulana went so far as to call him a ‘massiha (messiah) of Muslims’, an amazing tribute from a Muslim to a Hindu – while others hated him as a traitor worthy of death, attitudes within the police force too were polarised. For example, dismissed encounter specialist Sachin Vaze (who with three colleagues was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence and concealment of the dead body in the case of Khwaja Yunus shortly before the terrorist attack) was a member of the Shiv Sena who was actively engaged in the campaign against Karkare and in support of the Malegaon blast accused. Vaze and several other encounter specialists who had been dismissed for corruption, extortion and links with the underworld also had a grudge against Salaskar, whom they suspected of informing on them.

Hard Evidence or Pulp Fiction?

Given this background, and reports that are riddled with inconsistencies, it is not surprising that many residents of Bombay are asking questions about the exact circumstances of the death of Hemant Karkare and his colleagues. The earliest reports, presumably relayed from the police via the media, said that Karkare had been killed at the Taj, and Salaskar and Kamte at Metro. If this was not true, why were we told this? And why was the story later changed? Was it because it conflicted with eye-witness accounts? In the early hours of the 27th, under the heading ‘ATS Chief Hemant Karkare Killed: His Last Pics’, IBNlive showed footage first of Karkare putting on a helmet and bullet-proof vest, then cut to a shootout at Metro, where an unconscious man who looks like Karkare and wearing the same light blue shirt and dark trousers (but without any blood on his shirt or the terrible wounds we saw on his face at his funeral) is being pulled into a car by two youths in saffron shirts. The commentary says that Karkare ‘could well have fallen prey to just indiscriminate, random firing by the cops’, and also reports that there were two vehicles, a Toyota Qualis and Honda City, from which the occupants were firing indiscriminately.

Later we were given two accounts of the killings where the venue is shifted to a deserted lane without cameras or eye-witnesses. The first account is by the lone terrorist captured alive, claiming to be A.A.Kasab from Faridkot in Pakistan and a member of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to him, just two gunmen, he and Ismail (also from Pakistan), first attacked VT station, where they sprayed bullets indiscriminately. (Around 58 people were killed there, over one-third of them Muslims, and many more might have been killed if the announcer, Mr Zende, had not risked his life to direct passengers to safety.) They then went to Cama, a government hospital for women and children used mainly by the poor. Initially, according to the police, Kasab claimed he and Ismail had killed Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte. Later, in his confession, he claimed that while coming out of the hospital, he and Ismail saw a police vehicle passing and hid behind a bush; then another vehicle passed them and stopped some distance away. A police officer got out and started firing at them, hitting Kasab on the hand so that he dropped his AK47, but Ismail opened fire on the officers in the car until they stopped firing. There were three bodies in the vehicle, which Ismail removed, and then drove off in it with Kasab.

The other account is by police constable Arun Jadhav. According to him, Karkare, Salaskar, Kamte, a driver and four police constables including himself were driving down the alley from VT to the back entrance of Cama (barely a ten-minute drive) in their Toyota Qualis to check on injured police officer Sadanand Date when two gunmen emerged from behind trees by the left side of the road and sprayed the vehicle with bullets, killing all its passengers except Jadhav. They then dragged out the three officers, hijacked the vehicle, drove to Metro junction and then Mantralaya in South Bombay, abandoned it when a tyre burst, and grabbed another car. According to police accounts, they then drove to Girgaum, where Kasab was injured and arrested and his companion killed.

These accounts raise more questions than they answer. Kasab claimed that a band of ten terrorists landed and split up into twos, going to various destinations, he and his companion going to VT. He said they wanted to blow up the Taj, as in the attack on the Marriott in Islamabad; yet we are told that only 8kg of RDX were found at the Taj, and even that was not used; contrast this with 600kg of RDX and TNT used to blow up the Marriott: could they really have expected to blow up the Taj? How did the invaders from the sea get one bomb to go off in Dockyard Road and another in Vile Parle, 25 kilometres away? He said that the terrorists planned to use their hostages as a means of escape, yet there was no attempt at any such negotiations; at other times, he also said they had been instructed to fight to the death. He says he is a labourer from Faridkot near Multan and only studied up to Class IV, but it is reported that he speaks fluent English. Several people have pointed out that the pictures of him in VT show him wearing a saffron wrist-band, a Hindu custom, and police later revealed that he could not recite a single verse from the Koran, which any child growing up in a Muslim family would have been able to do. Indeed, a thoughtful article on the soc.culture.jewish group argued that none of the terrorists were Muslims, given their appearance and behaviour (especially their reported consumption of alcohol and drugs), pointing out that they did not need to disguise themselves, since Muslims who look like Muslims are plentiful in Bombay, and would not attract undue attention.

During his interrogation, Kasab said that he and eight of the operatives had done a reconnaissance trip to Bombay a few months back, pretending to be students and renting a room at Colaba market, which is close to Nariman House. It is extremely hard for Pakistani nationals to get Indian visas, and they are kept under close surveillance by the police; it is also most unlikely that the Indian immigration authorities would be fooled by forged passports of another country. In that case, the Indian immigration authorities would have visa applications of nine of the terrorists including Kasab, and could match the photographs in them to those of the terrorists: has this been done? Later, Kasab changed his mind and said that the team who carried out reconnaisance was different from the team who had carried out the attacks.

The events in VT and Cama and the back lane also put a question mark over his story. According to witnesses, two gunmen started firing at the mainline terminus in VT at 21:55 on Wednesday night, but at precisely the same time, according to CCTV footage, two gunmen began an assault on the suburban terminus. If the first account is true, there were four gunmen at the station: where did the other two come from, and where did they go? We are shown video footage, claiming to be CCTV but without the timeline of normal CCTV footage, of Kasab and Ismail wandering around the parking lot near the mainline terminus. This surely cannot be before the shootout, since the station is completely deserted; and after the shootout, Kasab and Ismail are supposed to have escaped via the footbridge from Platform 1 of the suburban station on the other side of VT: this, again, suggests there were four gunmen. Even if Kasab and Ismail had been shown photographs of Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte before they embarked on their trip, how could they possibly have identified the police officers in a dark alley in the dead of night according to Kasab’s first story? According to later his confession, a police officer got out of the vehicle and started firing first, injuring him; how, then, did Ismail manage to kill the rest by himself?

Witnesses in Cama hospital say the terrorists spoke fluent Marathi, and this report has been confirmed. The gunmen killed two guards in uniform, spared a third, who was in civilian dress and begged for his life saying he was the husband of a patient, demanded water from an employee in the staff quarters and then killed him. They then appear to have made a beeline for the 6th floor (which was empty) and the terrace, taking with them the liftman, Tikhe. 15-30 minutes later, six to eight policemen arrived, and another employee took them up to the 6th floor. The policemen threw a piece of steel up to the terrace, whereupon Tikhe came running down and told them there were two terrorists on the terrace. A fierce gun-battle ensued for 30 to 45 minutes, in which ACP Sadanand Date was injured. Panic-stricken patients and staff in the maternity ward on the 5th floor barricaded the door; nurses instructed the women to breast-feed their babies to keep them quiet, and one woman, who was in the middle of labour, was told to hold back the birth; but they were not invaded. Eventually the gunmen appear to have escaped, it is not clear how. If they were Kasab and Ismail, then these two must have been fluent Marathi speakers. And why would they have taken up positions on the terrace? Was it because they would have a direct view of the lane in which Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte were later supposedly killed?

The other account is equally dubious. In his first account, Jadhav said Karkare was in the second row of the Qualis, while in the second he was supposed to be in the front row with Kamte. In the second account, Salaskar was initially sitting behind the driver, but then asked the driver to slow down and got behind the wheel himself: is it plausible that an experienced encounter specialist would deliberately make himself into a sitting duck like this when they were in hot pursuit of terrorists? In the first account they were supposed to be going to check up on their injured colleague Sadanand Date, but in the second were supposed to be looking for a red car in which they had been told the gunmen were traveling. If the report about the red car was a decoy to lure them into an ambush, it is important to know who told them that the terrorists were in a red car. If the gunmen were firing from the left side, as Jadhav claimed, how was Karkare hit three times in the chest while Jadhav himself got two bullets in his right arm? In fact, the only vegetation in that part of the lane is on the right side and has wire netting around it; it would be necessary to climb over the netting to hide behind it, and climb over again to come out: impossible under the circumstances. Witnesses say only two bodies were found at the spot next morning: what happened to the third officer? Who were the three constables killed?

How did two terrorists manage to kill six police personnel, including Karkare and Kamte who he said were armed with AK47s and Salaskar, an encounter specialist, when one terrorist was later captured and the other killed by policemen armed only with two rifles and lathis? Assistant Police Inspector Ombale was killed in that encounter, but his colleagues survived.

There was also an intriguing report in DNA on 28 November saying that Anand Raorane, a resident of a building opposite Nariman House, heard sounds of celebration from the terrorists there when the news of Karkare getting killed was flashed on TV: isn’t that strange? The same report quoted a resident of Nariman House and a local shopkeeper who said that the terrorists had purchased large quantities of food and liquor before the attack, suggesting that more than two of them were planning to occupy the place for a long time. Another DNA report, on 2 December, said that sub-inspector Durgude, who had been posted in front of St Xavier’s College, between Cama Hospital and the exit point of the back lane onto Mahapalika Road, saw two young men whom he took to be students and called out to warn them that there was firing at Cama. When they ignored him, he approached them, upon which one of them turned an AK47 on him and killed him. If Kasab and Ismail were there, who was firing inside Cama? Eye-witnesses in St Xavier’s saw a man shot and lying on the pavement in front of the college around 12.30 a.m., while about three gunmen stood over him: who was that? Various reports said that two to eight terrorists were captured alive. Now there is only one in police custody: what happened to the other(s)?

A careful scrutiny of all the reports available so far suggests, to this writer anyway, that the killing of Karkare and his colleagues was a premeditated act, executed by a group that had stationed gunmen at various points along the general route between VT and the Metro cinema with a view to maximising their chances of a successful murderous assault.

The Objective: Shutting Down Terrorist Networks

These are just a few of the numerous questions being asked by vigilant Bombayites who find themselves thoroughly dissatisfied with the information that has been doled out. These are citizens who understand the importance of identifying terrorist networks and shutting them down, but doubt that this will be done by the authorities. Why are they so cynical about the possibility of a genuine professional investigation? The answer is that we have too much bitter experience of investigations in which innocent people (usually Muslim youth) are rounded up, tortured and even killed, while the real culprits are allowed to go free. Karkare broke with this dismal record, but now he is dead. When a person who has been vilified, slandered and threatened with death is killed in suspicious circumstances, it is imperative that a proper investigation should be carried out soon, before too much evidence can be manufactured and/or destroyed. If Kasab aka Iman disappears or is assassinated like Lee Harvey Oswald, or is executed, that would be further evidence of a conspiracy.

The government and people of Pakistan have as much interest as the government and people of India in eliminating the terror networks that have killed President Asif Ali Zardari’s wife Benazir Bhutto and thousands of others in both Pakistan and India. The terrorists, on the other hand, be they Islamist or Hindutva, have a common interest in destroying secularism, democracy and peace within and between the two countries. That is their precise agenda. Pakistani politicians have offered a joint investigation into the terrorist attacks, a far more sensible suggestion than the belligerent statements by some Indians accusing Pakistan of harbouring terrorists who are killing Indians. It should be obvious that a military conflict between India and Pakistan would be disastrous for both countries economically, while a nuclear war, which might ensue if extremist forces captured power in both countries, would have unthinkable consequences. If the Indo-Pakistan peace process is halted, as L.K.Advani advocates, the terrorists would have won.

Indeed, without a joint investigation, the terrorist networks behind this outrage can never be uncovered: how else could the names and addresses in Pakistan revealed by Kasab be followed up to the satisfaction of all parties? A team of Pakistani investigators should be invited to come to Bombay and interview Kasab. If he is indeed a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant, he will be able to provide invaluable information, and a team of investigators from India should be invited to Pakistan to pursue the investigation there. If, as some reports have indicated, he is not what he claims to be, that too would become clear. The Indian government owes it to the memory of Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte, who died fighting terrorism of all hues, to establish exactly where, when and how they were killed, identify their killers, and make sure that their work is continued. They also owe it to us, the public, who are the prime targets of all terrorist attacks, to carr
y out a credible investigation which identifies and puts behind bars all the mass murderers involved in this and other attacks.

The Spirit of Bombay Survives

Despite all the hype, this was not the worst terrorist attack in Bombay; that title goes to the reign of terror which started it all, the anti-Muslim pogrom following the demolition of the Babri masjid in December 1992, in which over 900 people were killed. After each attack, the residents of Bombay have worked hard to restore the inclusiveness and warmth which characterises their city, and this was no exception. On 10 December, exactly two weeks after the attack began, women’s groups perambulated the whole of VT station with a single slogan: jang nahin, aman chahiye (no to war, we want peace). A few people contradicted them, but the majority accepted or even asked for leaflets. On 12 December, over 60,000 people from all walks of life formed a human chain throughout the length and breadth of Bombay, proclaiming unity and peace in opposition to terrorism, war, communalism and violence. In a TV interview, a group of very articulate schoolgirls, carrying placards with slogans like ‘Love Conquers All,’ expressed their determination to stay united and unafraid in the face of all efforts to divide the people of India. The spirit of Bombay lives on, thanks to these people.

R.H. is a writer, researcher and social activist based in Bombay.

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