Update: On Sept. 13, the Indian media reported that Narendra Modia, the subject of this article, would be the BJP's candidate for prime minister in 2014.
NEW DELHI, India — In her last phone call to her parents nine years ago, 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan told her mother in a terrified voice that an employer she called “uncle” had brought some “strange men” with him when he came to pick her up.
Then she abruptly hung up.
Four days later, police in the western Indian state of Gujarat announced that Jahan, her “uncle,” and two other men had been killed in a shootout with officers.
The police claimed that the four dead were part of a terrorist cell bent on assassinating Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi is a controversial gray-bearded man whom millions of Indians now hope will be India's next prime minister, beginning in 2014.
After a tortuous and some say deeply flawed investigation, several authorities — first a local Gujarat magistrate, then a court-appointed special investigation team and finally India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — concluded that the so-called “encounter” had been staged by the police.
Jahan and her three companions had allegedly been in police custody before they were killed, and the supposed shootout was nothing short of an execution.
On July 3 this year, the CBI finally filed official charges against the alleged perpetrators in Ahmedabad.
But there's another twist to the tale: An accused police officer has reportedly told investigators that the Gujarat politician, Modi himself, knew about the murder plot all along.
The Indian media reported this juicy detail with vigor, citing unnamed sources in the CBI.
The news has shocked the nation, despite many unanswered questions.
According to press reports, the unnamed witness claimed that he learned Modi was involved in the plot based on a conversation he overheard between two senior officers, who referred to the chief minister only by the supposed code name “gray beard.”
Moreover, despite the information leaked to journalists in advance, Wednesday’s charge sheet did not allege Modi’s involvement.
So it remains to be seen if there is any truth behind the widely reported claims.
Whether or not he was involved in the Jahan case, Modi is the most controversial and divisive figure in Indian politics — as well as quite possibly the most popular one.
He has been blasted as a “textbook fascist” by Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy. Yet when the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party elevated him to campaign chairman earlier this year — widely seen as a prelude to naming him candidate for prime minister in 2014 — a cheer rose from the BJP faithful.
Meanwhile, the party's senior leader and chief ideologue resigned, and its erstwhile coalition partners began distancing themselves.
Modi’s efficient and relatively corruption-free administration has made Gujarat India's fastest growing state, luring Tata Motors, Peugeot and Ford Motor Company to invest billions of dollars. Yet some moderates and nearly all left-leaning Indians are deeply troubled by his eagerness to make big business the engine of the state's economic development, and by the extreme ethnic nationalism in some of his early speeches.
He has yet to live down accusations that he purposefully slowed the police response to the 2002 Gujarat riots to allow Hindus to vent their anger on the state's Muslims, even though he was cleared of wrongdoing by a court-appointed special investigation team.
In the wake of the tragedy, he referred to relief camps set up for Muslim victims as “child-breeding centers.” The US State Department is also apparently not fully convinced of Modi’s innocence, as the United States has denied him a visa since 2005 over the issue.
Yet the CBI's dubious use of the media to link him to the so-called “Ishrat Jahan encounter case” points to a malaise that goes beyond one man's alleged prejudice. The only clear conclusion from the controversy is that India's police and intelligence agencies need comprehensive reform.
Opposition politicians have long argued that India's ruling governments routinely use the CBI to settle scores and tear down their opponents. And earlier this year, CBI officials were forced to admit they gave Singh's Congress-led government an advance peek at its findings related to improper allocation of coal assets — and altered its report at their request.
That may be set to change. Also on Wednesday, Singh's top cabinet ministers made recommendations to the Supreme Court on how to free the agency from such political interference. The most significant change would give the chief justice and the leader of the opposition, as well as the prime minister, equal say in selecting the CBI's director. But critics — mostly from the BJP — have characterized those measures as a mostly cosmetic effort at damage control.
Indeed, if the CBI's recent behavior is any indicator, it may take broader, more substantive reforms to stem the rot. The CBI's apparent use of the media to link Modi to the Jahan case points to another persistent flaw in the system: Rather than submit to the tedious process of a trial, the country's foremost investigative body can deploy hearsay and coded messages to punish the politician by insinuation.
With elections less than a year away, virtually every newspaper, magazine and TV channel in the country has an unnamed CBI source on record rehashing the unknown witness' alleged claims about “gray beard” and “black beard.” Wednesday's official charge sheet, however, named only the officers whom investigators say participated in the actual killing of Jahan and her companions.
If “gray beard” knew nothing about the plan, that's character assassination. Worse, if he knew about it all along, the CBI's clumsy and unethical political maneuvering casts doubt on its competence. And that could taint any further evidence it may manage to unearth as the case continues.