On September 13, 2008, five bomb blasts tore through Delhi’s Karol Bagh, Connaught Place and Greater Kailash neighbourhoods. The explosions, which killed 20 and injured 90, felt disturbingly familiar. Similar blasts had been orchestrated in Jaipur that May and in Ahmedabad that July. In the Capital, a special cell of the Delhi Police swung into action.
In less than a week, they’d zeroed in on a flat in Batla House, in Delhi, where they believed five key members of the Indian Mujahideen were hiding. This was the terror group that had claimed responsibility after the blasts.
It was to have been a straightforward mission, a raid to capture the men alive. Instead, what followed was a grisly shootout that killed one officer and two terrorists, injured another officer and allowed one IM member to escape.
How did it get so messy? On what evidence was the police action launched? Though the encounter all but wiped out the IM, the operation was considered far from a success.
Karnal Singh, who headed the special team, would go on to serve as Joint Commissioner of Police and director of the Enforcement Directorate. After he retired, he wrote a book titled Batla House: An Encounter That Shook the Nation (released in September 2020), drawing on inputs from the Intelligence Bureau and the cell’s own investigations to describe the chain of events, and the eventual exoneration of the police by the National Human Rights Commission.
What do you remember most clearly of the immediate moments after the encounter had ended?
I remember it being a difficult moment. Two of my team had to be taken to the hospital. Mohan [Chand Sharma] was critical and I had to console his family and also the team. We’d worked together for almost 10 years and were all emotionally attached. You’d think we felt successful, breaking the most powerful terror group. But it came at a cost to us too. And our work was not done; we had to work through our grief to track the rest of the Mujahideen.
Was it difficult to separate fact from rumour, in the months that followed, to clear your team’s name?
Conviction drives what a person does. In my case, I believed that the truth would triumph. We had worked only with that we knew for sure. There were allegations that Mohan was shot in the back, by one of our own. But the autopsy showed a front wound, from a bullet that came from a distance. The autopsies of the killed terrorists showed gunpower residue on their hands, indicating that they had fired weapons. Some locals claimed we’d dragged the bodies out, shot them and put them back in the house – but there were no drag marks to prove this. We collected all the evidence, from SMSes to the bomb clips. I also kept talking to my team to keep them motivated.
Writing about it must have been difficult…
It was one of my most difficult cases, not because of the work it entailed but because of the witch-hunt and media trial that followed. I wanted to state the facts as I observed them, but I also wanted to showcase the difficulties faced by any anti-terror unit in India, and highlight the work officers do and the toll it takes on them, which never makes it to the news reports.
Is Delhi a safer city in 2020 than it was in 2008?
We must look at how the whole country responded, because the IM was not confined to Delhi. The Batla House encounter and subsequent arrests wiped the group out entirely. More cameras have been installed in public places, interception techniques have improved, our intelligence organisations share more information faster. The National Investigation Agency was created in 2008. Domestic terror threats have reduced, which means the agencies are doing their jobs. I sleep better at night.