Shadow Of Terror: Karnal Singh Recounts Chilling Moments Of Batla House Encounter
Karnal Singh, who was head of the special cell of Delhi Police when the 2008 Batla House encounter took place, talks about his book, chilling moments of his career and the pressures of fighting terrorism.
Karnal Singh is a familiar name in India’s law enforcement community. In an illustrious career that spanned nearly four decades, Singh has worn several hats. He is a 1984 batch Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and in 2015, he was appointed director of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a post from which he subsequently retired in 2018.
In over 40 years, Singh was the first IPS officer to have been appointed as the head of ED where he was responsible for investigation into several high-profile cases like the 2G scam, coal scam and cases which involved Aircel-Maxis, Herald House, Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Karti Chidambaram.
Singh was also the head of the special cell of Delhi Police in 2008, when the Batla House encounter took place.
He has recently released details of the encounter in his book, Batla House: An Encounter That Shook the Nation, which was published by Rupa Publication.
In a free-wheeling discussion, he highlights pressures of policemen who investigate terrorism and how terrorism impacts India.
Q. An engineer, a career police officer, head of Enforcement Directorate and now an author. You have been quite versatile. How are you enjoying your new innings?
A. As an author, it is a completely new experience for me and I am enjoying every moment of it. Writing this book has been a journey for me and the love that I have received from my readers has been quite humbling and amazing.
Q. The email that was sent out by Indian Mujahideen (IM) to the media had warned that the serial bomb blasts in Delhi will happen five minutes after the mail was sent out (6.27 pm), however one bomb blast (5.55 pm) took place before that. How did this happen?
A. The terrorist who was later arrested by us, revealed that he had reached Karol Bagh in an auto rickshaw earlier than he had expected and he could not have waited there. So, he left the vehicle and subsequently, the bomb exploded earlier than it was expected to.
Q. The book details the various terror laws in India which include TADA (Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) and their eventful journey. Both the acts have lapsed. How does it reflect on our resolve as a nation to combat the scourge of terrorism?
A. Both these acts were allowed to lapse as there were certain allegations of misuse of these acts by some police officers. I would like to stress that there are two facets of laws; the instrument and the implementation. If there is any misuse of the law, then action should be taken against the individual concerned rather than repealing the laws to fight the menace of terrorism which is now a full-blown international concern. There is a lack of concerted national policy on terrorism. Terrorism cannot be combated in silos; it is a 24x7x365 job. The law enforcement agencies have to be ever watchful to apprehend terrorists before they could strike. We have to rise above our caste and religious divide to fight terrorism. In a true democracy, the political executive has to give the right direction and the law enforcement agencies have to follow it. As technology has evolved, so too has terrorism. We need stricter laws that act as a strong deterrence to anyone who wishes to create terror and destruction in India.
Q. How do we strike a balance between law enforcement agencies being accountable to the civil society, and at the same point apprehending terrorists who are becoming increasingly innovative and tech savvy?
A. There is no doubt that the laws and the law enforcing agencies have to be accountable to the civil society. The laws and implementation need to maintain a balance between requirement of handling the terrorism effectively and the rights of innocent citizens. For example, D K Basu Guidelines were laid down by the Supreme Court in 1997 so that those arrested are not ill-treated by the agencies. These are excellent guidelines making agencies accountable for the well being of those detained. But one must ensure the legal instrument should not become a hindrance in the pursuit of terrorists. These guidelines require that arrests are needed to be announced to the relative or any known person of the arrested person. However, if you immediately announce the arrest of a terrorist, chances are that his accomplices will also get to know about it and they would escape. No doubt that all legal requirement of arrests must be strictly followed, but informing the known person immediately may have serious repercussions as the other members of the terror organisation will change hideouts or may even leave the country. They may strike again killing innocent people. Therefore, we need to have a fresh look at the current legal provisions for effective handling of terrorism.
Q. You mentioned that you spotted the missing capacitor in the timer of the bomb which was meant for Surat. I guess the engineering background helped.
A: As they say, once an engineer, always an engineer. Engineering has always been a passion for me. I did my BTech from DCE in 1979 and my MTech from IIT Kanpur in 1981. Technical knowledge has always helped me in modernising the police force and even during my stint with the ED.
Q. The book also introduces the readers to a realm hitherto unknown; the stress that the families of police officers undergo.
A. Yes. The job of a police officer is such that it requires long hours of duty. When you are handling terrorism, hours turn into days. Such circumstances invariably lead to strain in personal lives. For example, you miss out on school functions of your children or other important works of the family. Families of police officers fighting terrorism also need to be supported.
Q. You mentioned the walk from Khalilullah Mosque to L18 Batla House as “one of the most tense moments of my career”. Please describe it to us.
A. I and Alok reached Khalilullah Mosque by car and then we had to move on foot towards L-18 Batla House. A sizable number of people had gathered at the nearby mosque and on the street, and they were raising slogans against the Delhi Police. We were surrounded by an angry crowd and anything was possible. The situation was extremely volatile; two officers had been shot and had been shifted to hospitals, two terrorists had been killed, one captured alive while two others had managed to escape the shootout. My immediate priority was to assess the encounter site and analyse the entire situation firsthand. I was also concerned about the well being of Mohan Chand Sharma and Balwant.
Q. The book mentions how Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan had welcomed the order by the tribunal of Delhi High Court lifting the ban on SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) and also Mulayam Singh Yadav, who as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh had refused to enforce the ban on SIMI in the state. How does vote bank politics affect the fight against terrorism?
A. The tribunal had given an order about SIMI that was immediately stayed by the Supreme Court. There were evidences against SIMI based on which the organisation was banned. However, some politicians tried to grab an opportunity to woo their vote bank and started speaking in favour of SIMI. We must remember that when senior politicians, who influence and command a large number of followers, say such things, it creates an impression that may be far from reality. This false narrative creates handicaps in fight against terror. Politics should be kept strictly away from terrorism as it directly impacts national security.
Q. Even Amar Singh and Digvijaya Singh made allegations against Delhi Police and demanded action against it.
A. Though there were sufficient evidences against the terrorists, yet it was unfortunate that certain politicians started playing vote bank politics as assembly elections were due in five states starting from November 2008 and parliamentary elections in early 2009. For example, it was alleged that Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma died due to three bullets fired at his back by his teammates and they also alleged that the terrorists did not fire at all. The post-mortem report clearly stated that Mohan had got two bullet injuries from front and not back. The doctors at All India Institute of Medical Sciences conducted the post-mortem of the two terrorists, they also collected their hand wash and sent it to the forensic science laboratory for dermal nitrate test to conclude if they had fired or not. When a person fires from a firearm then gun powder gets deposited on the hands. The dermal nitrate test determines if there was any deposit of gunpowder on the hands. The test results for the terrorists came out to be positive, indicating clearly that both the terrorists had fired on the police team.
Q. Much was made of the fact that Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma was not wearing a bullet-proof jacket when he went to L18 Batla House. What do you have to say about this?
A. See, you are going to a place which is supposed to have terrorists. Wearing a bullet-proof jacket on top of your clothes is a dead giveaway. The team deliberated the various outcomes of the raid. It was possible that during the raid terrorists would not be found at the hideout. In such a scenario, the neighbourhood should not get to know about the police raids, else the terrorists would escape. They would change their hideout and would continue in their operations resulting into more terror attacks, killing many more people. Not wearing a bullet-proof jacket was a deliberate and calculated risk taken by the team. Only people who truly love their country can take such risks.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard that the Jamia Millia vice-chancellor had made an announcement that the university would provide legal assistance to its students arrested by the police after the encounter?
A. Frankly, I was quite shocked and taken aback. How can a VC of a university without knowing or verifying the facts make such an irresponsible statement about helping terrorists? He should have been more responsible and circumspect.
Q. India is a vibrant democracy where legal recourse is available all the way from district courts to the Supreme Court. However, people like Swami Agnivesh, John Dayal etc decided to hold a ‘jan sunwai’ on the encounter. Wasn’t it quite surreal?
A. You are absolutely right, it was quite surreal. Under which provision of the law was this ‘jan sunwai’ held. The people who were speaking had not been to the encounter site, were not privy to any evidence, however, they were coaxing other people to speak out against the encounter. They were trying to create public perception without any iota of evidence available to them. The whole exercise was simply collecting rumours from the public and terming it as ‘jan sunwai’. It was truly bizarre.
Q. Given the evolving nature of terrorism and how terrorists are increasingly getting tech savvy, what changes, reforms are required to ensure that the law enforcement agencies are capable of dealing with this challenge.
A. Terrorists are increasingly using social media and Internet for various purposes including radicalisation, imparting training, passing on messages, deliberating the next steps etc. Technology is making it difficult to trace and intercept their activities as decoding and decryption takes time. The first step should be that the law enforcement agencies should have experts in ethical hacking and developing their own tools in their own labs. Personnel should be trained in cyber technologies, surveillance, undercover operations, interrogation techniques, big data analysis and also the use of artificial intelligence. There should be specific skill development programme for officers who are handling terrorism.
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