Sitting in the drawing room of his flat in an upmarket area near the Mumbai airport, Dahyaji Gobarji Vanzara, retired deputy inspector general of the Gujarat Police, appears confident. And, he has reasons to be. After all, the revelations made by Pakistani-American terrorist David Headley have confirmed what he has been saying all along.
One of the key accused in two fake encounter cases—the killing of Ishrat Jahan and three others in 2004, and of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in 2005—Vanzara was granted bail in the Ishrat Jahan case in February last year on the condition that he would not return to Gujarat, but stay in Mumbai. He got bail in the other case in 2014. So, how has life been for Vanzara in the new city? “Who does not like Mumbai, but it is costly as compared to Gandhinagar,” he says.
Ishrat Jahan and three men were shot dead on the outskirts of Ahmedabad by a police team led by Vanzara on June 15, 2004. The Ahmedabad crime branch later said they were Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives who were out to kill the chief minister, Narendra Modi. However, a probe into the encounter later revealed that it was staged, following which Vanzara and the other officers were arrested in 2007.
Twelve years after the killing, Vanzara stands vindicated. On February 11, Headley testified before a Mumbai court, via video link from the US where he is serving a 35-year prison sentence, that Ishrat was a suicide bomber of the LeT.
Speaking exclusively to THE WEEK at his rented 3-BHK residence, Vanzara says that Headley hasn't revealed anything new other than what the Gujarat Police had already said after the encounter. The information was part of the inputs sent by the Intelligence Bureau, he says. In fact, immediately after the encounter, the LeT had acknowledged in its mouthpiece Ghazwa Times, which is published from Lahore, that Ishrat was a fidayeen. But in 2007, the LeT took a U-turn and apologised to Ishrat’s mother for calling her a member.
Headley's statement, however, provides legal sanctity to the IB's version, says Vanzara. “The statement was made before an open court and under oath. As per the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act, it is acceptable,” he says.
Former director general of police R.B. Sreekumar, however, is not too optimistic. No purposeful investigations can be carried out on the basis of the statement, he says, as Headley hasn't revealed anything about the present whereabouts, resources, associates and future plans of the LeT.
What it does is give a boost to Vanzara, though he is not willing to admit it. “We do not need a certificate from Headley. My conscience is clear,” he says. “She [Ishrat] was a terrorist and a suicide bomber.”
However, he hopes Headley's testimony would change the public perception about the case. “India is a democracy where public opinion matters. People have the right to know the kind of politics that was played around this and the other encounters, and that the encounter was not fake as it was claimed to be by some agencies. Our stand has been vindicated,” says Vanzara, sporting a light blue sleeveless jacket a la Modi, whom he once referred to as 'my god'.
The agencies have their own set agenda and ulterior motives, says Vanzara. “The investigations carried out were not neutral. The agencies were manipulated by an invisible hand and, hence, whatever they said was not conclusive,” he says.
Post the encounter, one of the theories that did the rounds was that Ishrat and the others were in the custody of the Gujarat Police before they were killed. Vanzara, however, dismisses it as a baseless allegation. “We were victims of a political conspiracy,” he says. “The Gujarat Police was singled out. Encounters have taken place all over the country. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, more encounters have taken place than in Gujarat. Though our encounters were genuine, false cases were filed against us. The investigations into it were fake.”
At the time of the encounters, Vanzara was believed to be close to Amit Shah, then Gujarat home minister, who allegedly gave the orders. Vanzara resigned in September 2013 after he found out that while Modi had hired top lawyers to defend Shah, one of the key accused in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, he was not doing enough for the officers who did their duty. In his 10-page-long resignation letter, Vanzara accused the government of deliberately keeping him and his officers in jail to gain political mileage. “We just did our duty. We fought hard against terrorism, but this is the response that we got,” he wrote.
He also accused Shah of misguiding Modi. “I used to adore Modi like a god. But I am sorry to state that my god could not rise to the occasion under the evil influence of Amit Shah, who has become his eyes and ears and has been misguiding him,” he wrote. More than two years later, Vanzara stands by what he wrote in the letter.
During his stint in the Gujarat Police, Vanzara evoked fear among even the most dreaded criminals. He was also known for his peculiar dressing sense. He would often be seen wearing a cowboy hat, mojadis (traditional footwear) and a shoulder holster. So, has life in prison made this one-time ‘encounter specialist’ mellow?
During his days in jail, Vanzara practised meditation and went on walks to calm his mind, something that he does even now. He also wrote poems, which were compiled into three books—Vijaypanth (path of victory), Sinh garjana (lion’s roar) and Ran tankar (clarion call)—and published. He did an MSc in Moral Education and Spirituality and immersed himself in an in-depth study of religions, including Islam and Christianity. He drew strength from the teachings in the Bhagwat Gita. In fact, his wife, Gauriben, and children—two sons and a daughter—looked up to him for strength during the troubled phase. “Every week when I visited him in the prison, I found that he was strong as ever and that made us stronger,” says Gauriben, who moved to Mumbai from Gandhinagar after Vanzara got bail.
Currently, Vanzara spends his day reading and taking short walks on his apartment terrace. He plans to move the court to get a copy of Headley’s confession to see if he could use anything from it to strengthen his defence.