In his new book ‘Undercover’, investigative journalist Ashish Khetan recalls how he broke the infamous Snoopgate story in 2013.
Extracted with permission from Undercover: My Journey Into The Darkness of Hindutva by Ashish Khetan, published by Westland/Context, January 2021.
In September 2013, when I was running an investigative news portal called Gulail, a source handed me a pen drive. It contained hundreds of recorded telephone conversations between Amit Shah—who was minister of state for home in the Gujarat government, working directly with then home minister [and chief minister Narendra] Modi—and G.L. Singhal, a high-profile Gujarat IPS officer.
Shah, Modi’s closest political ally and currently Union home minister, was the junior minister for home in Gujarat for seven years, from 2003 until his arrest in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh extra-judicial killing in 2010. Singhal was a key member of the police hit-squad led by D.G. Vanzara that had gunned down many Muslims in encounters, while passing them off as terrorists.
The tapes in the pen drive offered a close and unsettling encounter with the paranoid Modi model of governance, in which everyone was being watched, all the time. Select police officials were posted in powerful positions in the SIB, the Crime Branch, the commissioner’s office and the anti-terrorism squad (ATS). These special wings of the police had sweeping executive powers to intercept phones, develop intelligence networks, detain and interrogate suspects, and were granted large (often unaudited) budgets and human resources. Over time, these officers became a law unto themselves. They frequently crossed the line, legally and professionally, to serve the interests of their political masters. Because they were indispensable to the leaders at the top, they were promoted, rewarded, and shielded from inquiry and scrutiny. Sometimes, given the impunity with which they operated, these top police officers would run extortion rackets and threaten businessmen, builders, even fellow officers who refused to toe the line (the CBI charge sheets in the Sohrabuddin case detail these facts).
It was all methodically arranged. The buck could never stop with the chief minister, even if it sometimes did with Shah. Modi, whom Shah addressed as ‘Saheb’, seldom dealt with the police officers directly. In fact, he only really interacted with Shah, through whom his writ ran, the tapes showed.
Singhal’s luck ran out when he was arrested by the CBI in February 2013. The arrest came after the mother of Ishrat Jahan—a nineteen-year-old student from Mumbra, a suburb of Thane, part of the greater Mumbai region, who was gunned down by the Gujarat police in an encounter—filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court seeking an independent investigation into her daughter’s killing. Initially, the investigation into Ishrat’s killing was carried out by an SIT of the Gujarat police. Later, the Gujarat High Court asked the CBI to take over. About six months before his arrest, his teenage son had committed suicide. Heartbroken, and anxious to be with his wife and family, Singhal struck a deal with the investigators, a key member of the investigation team told me. He handed over 267 recorded telephone conversations to the CBI that revealed how three key wings of the Gujarat police—the SIB, also known as CID Intelligence, the Crime Branch and the ATS—had, in 2009, stalked one young woman, in her twenties, for more than a month. The CBI drew the panchnama for the recovery of the pen drive on 9 June 2013.
Singhal told the CBI that this odd surveillance operation was mounted on oral orders alone, there was no legal authorisation or paperwork. And the operation was in aid of someone Shah repeatedly referred to as ‘Saheb’ in the calls that were recorded and subsequently turned in. Singhal also told the CBI about German-made encrypted cell phones used by him and others close to Amit Shah. Four such phones had been procured and distributed among key police officers so that they could talk to each other in complete secrecy. Mostly, Singhal told the CBI, they would talk about the legal strategy to cover up fake encounters.
The CBI was investigating Singhal’s involvement in the extra-judicial killings of Ishrat Jahan and three Muslim men, and these tapes about the surveillance of a young woman had nothing to do with the case. Indeed, it had nothing to do with any police case, let alone fake encounters. The reasons for the surveillance were entirely private, Singhal told the CBI. The young woman in question was an architect from a middle-class, Hindu family, a private individual on whom state resources were being lavished.
Singhal had produced the tapes as evidence to show that, whether it was extra-judicial killings or the illegal surveillance of a private person, he was only acting under the instructions of people higher up the food chain. His statement to the CBI read: ‘I restate the fact that previously I had been coerced to participate in and help in certain activities intended to obstruct the process of law. Although illegal, unethical and improper, I had not declined to follow instructions because I was under a cloud in this case and Shri Amit Shah used to wield his authority by making it appear that me and my subordinate officers were being protected from incarceration by his and the Chief Minister’s efforts.’ This statement is part of the CBI charge sheet, but since the trial has not started, it has yet to be tested legally.
In exchange for these tapes and information, Singhal wanted the CBI to not file charges against him within the statutory limit of ninety days after arrest. That would entitle him to be released on bail. Since Singhal was cooperating with the agency, the CBI deliberately delayed filing a charge sheet within the stipulated time period, and in May 2013, he was released on bail.
It took me three months to tie up the various loose ends of this story. I made several trips to Ahmedabad to interview the key characters who figured on the tapes. I identified the woman who was stalked. She was originally from Gujarat but had spent many years working in Bangalore. I learnt that she was now married to an Ahmedabad-based businessman. To safeguard her privacy, I gave her the code name ‘Madhuri’.
The illegal spying operation was initiated on Shah’s instructions, sometime in July 2009, and continued for several weeks, Singhal told the CBI. For a month in 2009, between 4 August and 6 September, Singhal secretly recorded all of his cell phone conversations with Shah. Perhaps he had an instinct that he might one day need the protection these tapes could provide. He recorded three self-incriminatory statements before the CBI in June 2013. And the CBI prepared a ten-page panchnama while taking possession of the 267 phone recordings. ‘In the latter half of 2009, when I was posted as SP [superintendent of police] (operations) in the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) at Ahmedabad,’ Singhal told the CBI, ‘Shri Amit Shah had directed me several times to watch the movements of Pradeep Sharma, who was then posted as municipal commissioner, Bhavnagar. He had also asked me to surveil a young woman named ****. I had deputed some men of the Crime Branch (as ATS was short of subordinate staff) to follow her, as directed by Shri Amit Shah.’
The tapes indicated that, for over a month, the Gujarat police and its most sophisticated surveillance tools were used in a mysterious operation to closely monitor Madhuri’s every movement. She was not a suspect of any kind and yet was tailed so thoroughly that surely laws were being broken. Her conversations were listened in on; she was watched as she went to the mall, to restaurants or to eat ice cream; she was watched at the gym, on trips to the movies; she was watched when she took a flight and stayed at a hotel. When she took a flight out of Ahmedabad, unbeknownst to her, there were orders for a pair of cops to be on the same flight. When she visited her mother in hospital, the Gujarat police was there too, spying on her movements and the people she met, as if she were a dissident in East Germany during the Cold War. It was creepy, and the creepiest perhaps was Shah’s apparent interest in the men Madhuri met, and whether she was alone or with a man when she checked into a hotel. Madhuri’s phone was illegally tapped, of course, but so were those of her family and friends. All the information that Singhal’s men could glean was conveyed to Shah in real time, who in turn would relay it to ‘Saheb’.
Such was the importance attached to the surveillance of Madhuri that several senior state police officials were ordered to personally supervise her movements and activities. On the tapes handed over to the CBI, Shah can be heard complaining to Singhal that his men were not doing a thorough enough job as Saheb was obtaining information about Madhuri’s activities from independent sources, and that his information network was sometimes faster even than Shah’s.
Gulail tied up with the investigative journalist Aniruddha Bahal to publish this story. We titled it ‘The Stalkers’. The media ended up calling it ‘Snoopgate’. We tied up with a weekly news magazine to publish the story. The magazine decided to splash it as a cover story. But by November 2013, opinion polls had started to strongly indicate that Modi would be the next prime minister. The magazine, under pressure from its proprietors, dropped the report at the last minute. Bahal and I then decided to hold a press conference to break the story. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to our timing, because 15 November, the day we chose for our big reveal, happened to be the day that Sachin Tendulkar was playing his last Test match for India. Sachin stepped out to bat at Wankhede Stadium on 14 November, and when he stepped up to the crease the next day, to resume the innings, he was on thirty-eight. Almost the whole country was watching, praying he would get one more hundred before calling it a day. Television news channels were giving a ball-by-ball account of proceedings, even though the match was being screened live.
I belong to a generation of cricket fans that grew up idolising Sachin. When I was younger, every time his wicket fell cheaply in an international match, I would be too distressed to even eat. On that day, though, I confess to secretly hoping Sachin would get out early. Had he gone on to score a century, it would have been his hundred and first international century, and our scoop would have been out for a duck. In the event, Tendulkar fell short at seventy-four. At 3 p.m., at the Press Club in New Delhi, we told the assembled media what we had found on the tapes. The story made it to the front page of every newspaper and was discussed (loudly, of course) on the evening’s news debate shows.
The article appeared in the Wire India on 14 January 2021