The bonhomie on display between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and president Barack Obama at the White House in 2014 was among the factors that helped create a roadmap for a deeper strategic partnership between India and the US. A few months after the visit, a phone call from Modi to Obama paved the way for a secret collaboration which would turn out to be crucial in India’s 26/11 investigations.
After the call, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and then special envoy to West Asia and Af-Pak region in the National Security Council Secretariat Syed Asif Ibrahim went into a huddle and asked Atulchandra Kulkarni, then joint commissioner of police in Mumbai, and Ujjwal Nikam, special public prosecutor in the 26/11 case, to fly to the US. They were asked to meet senior officers of the FBI and the state department to secure the cooperation of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Coleman Headley, who was in American custody. The American sleuths had some tough questions for them. Why did they want Headley’s deposition as he was not present in Pakistan or India at the time of the attacks? If Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist, did not meet Headley, why was his cooperation required?
India’s diplomatic heft combined with the investigative skills of the duo helped them get Headley to testify before a Mumbai court through video conference. His explosive testimony brought to light the conspiracy hatched by the LeT, with active assistance from some officers of the Pakistan army. “It was because of Headley’s statement that we were able to clinch the role of the Pakistani actors,” Nikam told THE WEEK.
Headley also spoke about his key accomplice and friend Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-origin Canadian businessman presently serving a jail term in the US for being associated with the banned LeT and his role in plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper for publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. In May, a US court consented to India’s request to extradite Rana, whose jail term ends in 2027.
When Modi meets Biden, Rana’s extradition is expected to figure high on the agenda. Incidentally, on the saddle once again is Kulkarni, now additional director general in the National Investigation Agency. The key is a quick extradition because if Rana completes his sentence and returns to Canada, India may have to pursue the matter afresh. There are at least two stages of appeal available to Rana and he is likely to exhaust all his options. On June 2, he filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the extradition order. It could delay the process by at least a year.
What is working in India’s favour is the diplomatic cooperation offered by the US government, with US legal eagles fighting the case on India’a behalf, which is rare in extradition matters. “We are constantly in touch with our counterparts in the US. The legal collaboration is very effective,’’ said a senior government official. But there are bigger challenges ahead. Rana was not named in the chargesheet filed by the Mumbai Police, but was only an accused in the bigger 26/11 conspiracy. Ramesh Mahale, who was the investigating officer of the case, said there was no evidence against Rana when he investigated the matter. “I did not find any evidence against him till my retirement in June 2013. I don’t know whether my successor was able to collect any evidence,” he said.
The ball is in the NIA’s court to firm up enough evidence. If the extradition comes through, Rana might spill the beans on key terror conspirators hiding in Pakistan, like LeT patron Hafiz Saeed, the “project manager” of the 26/11 attacks Sajid Mir and LeT commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi among others. The NIA hopes that the extradition process would receive a boost from Modi’s diplomatic outreach efforts in Washington.