In ‘Batla House’, It is Cinematic Liberties vs Facts: Umar Khalid

Between May and September 2008, several blasts had ripped through Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Even as these deadly blasts kept shaking different cities, the police remained clueless about their perpetrators.

After 19 September 2008, when the Special Cell of the Delhi Police carried out an encounter in Flat 108, L/18 of Batla House, the police claimed to have solved the mystery of all the blasts at one go. These attacks, the police now claimed, were the handiwork of the terror module of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), which was busted in this encounter and the subsequent arrests. The encounter, however, has remained shrouded in controversy with several unanswered questions and continued demands for a judicial probe.

The newly released film, Batla House seeks to delve into the events of that fateful day, and the trials and tribulations of ACP Sanjeev Kumar Yadav (played by John Abraham), who is on a mission to weed out the IM terror module responsible for these multiple bombings.

‘Inspired By True Events’, But Not Completely True

While claiming to be ‘inspired by true events’, the movie is simultaneously riddled with several disclaimers. One at the beginning states that the film ‘is inspired by the Delhi Police’ but it should not be presumed that it ‘accurately reflects those incidents that may have occurred.’

Contradiction, anyone?

That is precisely the point made by many – that the police version may not necessarily be true, and it is the role of the judiciary to establish facts.

Let us figure out the anatomy of the film, and how many ‘cinematic’ liberties were taken with facts.

The police had claimed, as is also reconstructed in the film, that after carrying out the Ahmedabad blasts on 26 July, Atif Ameen, the main IM ‘mastermind’ (portrayed in the film as Adil Ameen), and his team planned the next strike in Delhi. For this, he shifted to Delhi and rented an accommodation at Batla House.

Interestingly, before renting this flat, both Atif and Sajid (Sadiq in the film) got their tenant verifications done with the local police. The film very cursorily mentions this, but makes no effort to address the many doubts it raises. Why would dreaded terrorists, who had already carried out two blasts in two cities and were planning another in the capital, provide their correct details including their previous accommodations? Atif Ameen had also obtained his driving license by providing his correct details. Further, he, along with Sajid, even bought their SIM cards in their own names.

The film shows the arrest of another IM accused from a TV studio where he had gone to give an interview after the encounter. This is not entirely correct. After learning of the news of the encounter, it is true that Saquib Nisar, who had helped Atif get the flat on rent, went over to a TV studio contesting the police claims and expressing his shock and disbelief at the encounter.

But he was not arrested from the TV studio in the melodramatic fashion represented by the film. He was arrested from his home the next day and later presented as another member of the module, who provided the logistics for the blasts.

So, if the police is to be believed, two members of the IM module, who had the operational expertise to carry out multiple bombings, walked down just before their last strike to the police station to provide all their correct details and another walked up himself to a TV studio, making no effort to go into hiding even after the encounter.

Also Read: Critics’ Review: John Abraham’s Batla House Is Loaded With Biases

White-Washing The Delhi Police

The film, in a very cavalier manner, omits other facts around Nisar, which might put the police in a tight spot. As opposed to the police claim that Nisar had provided logistical support for the Ahmedabad and Delhi bombings, his family claimed, showing his admit card, that Nisar was giving his MBA exams in Delhi on 26 July — the day of the Ahmedabad blasts. How then could he be present at two different places simultaneously?

The most damning piece of evidence invoked by the activists to contest the police claims were Atif and Sajid’s photos, taken just before their burial. The photos showed Atif’s back had been almost completely scratched off. Sajid had been pumped with several bullets on his skull. In a frontal cross fire, how did Atif sustain these injuries? Moreover, how would the police explain the bullet marks on Sajid's skull? Was Sajid captured and then shot point blank by the police?

The film makers go out of their way to allay these doubts on behalf of the police. In one part of the movie, ACP Yadav takes these questions upfront from the counsel for one of the accused. Citing his superior knowledge of guns and bullets, ACP Yadav explains that the intensity of the bullets made Atif fall on the ground, leading to the injuries on his back. And Sajid was shot on his head as he was trying to run away and taking cover by crouching his head down, because of which the bullets hit his skull (Who runs like that in the middle of a shoot-out?).

Also Read: Poorly Written Script Kills John Abraham’s ‘Batla House’

As ACP Yadav leaves the defense counsel red faced, the rest of his police party jumps up in cheers and applause. The reel life cheers of the police aside, in real life, the police had a very tough time answering the questions raised by photos of Atif and Sajid’s bodies. For the longest time, the Special Cell resisted efforts by RTI activists to procure the post mortem reports of all those killed in the encounter.

The post-mortem reports of Atif and Sajid were finally made public by the NHRC in March 2010, which revealed several other injuries on both their bodies. Eight out of 10 bullet entry wounds on the body of Atif were from the back side. And apart from the bullets pumped into his skull, Sajid had at least two other injuries which were caused by "blunt force impact by object or surface."

In which cross fire, do people receive injuries only in the head and the back?

The Mystery Behind Police Officer MC Sharma’s Death

The movie presents the conviction of Shahzad (represented as Dilshad in the movie) by a sessions court as a major vindication for the police. But this conviction, which has since been challenged in the High Court, has only raised more questions. We are not going into a deep analysis of this particular judgment, which has already been done elsewhere.

However, it was claimed by the police that Shahzad was the person who shot police officer MC Sharma (played by Ravi Kishen), and then, along with another ‘terrorist’ escaped from the flat in the middle of the shoot-out. How was it possible for them to escape from the flat when it was already surrounded by the police? The film accepts the police version that the police could not pay attention to his escape since they were engaged in the shoot-out.

As per the police claims, there were a total of 21 policemen who went to raid the flat. Seven policemen were on the fourth floor of the encounter, with two guarding the exit. At least fourteen others guarded the only exit on the ground floor as well as the adjoining lane. Are we to believe that Shahzad and his other terror accomplice after killing one of their officers escaped from the flat (along with his weapon) bluffing all the 21 policemen? Is it not a big statement on the Special Cell’s inefficiency?

But this version of Shahzad’s miraculous escape came up only after the previous versions had fallen flat. The police had initially maintained that the two had jumped off the balcony into the adjoining flat to escape. But the counsel for Shahzad had pointed out that it is impossible for anyone to jump off that particular building. The police then came up with the version shown in the film.

The film, however, as expected, makes no mention of the twists and turns in the police versions at different stages of the trial.

Also Read: Where Were You When The Batla House Encounter Happened in 2008?

Shahzad was convicted for causing the death of the police officer MC Sharma. But neither his weapon nor the bullets that hit MC Sharma was ever produced before the court.

The death of Inspector Sharma has been invoked to push the authenticity of the encounter. In which fake encounter after all is a policeman killed? But over the last one decade, there has been little discussion about Inspector Sharma. The film also gives very scanty space to Inspector Sharma. But then, discussing Inspector Sharma might just open up a pandora’s box for the Special Cell, which the film was too keen to avoid.

According to several news reports, three bullets that hit Inspector Sharma were removed during an operation in Holy Family hospital. However, a press statement issued by the hospital on the very same evening of the encounter stated that the X-Rays of his chest and the abdomen had “not revealed any foreign bodies.”

Later, a senior doctor at AIIMS who conducted his post-mortem stated that he had indeed received bullet injuries, but it was difficult to establish their entry and exit points as “conclusive evidence had been wiped out by the interventions of the doctors at the Holy Family Hospital.”

Subliminal Political Messaging

The most dangerous parts of the film are however not in the details, but in the subtle political subtexts it seeks to push. In one scene ACP Yadav and other officers are summoned by the home minister who is tense about the encounter’s political ramifications. He advises the Special Cell, much to the shock of ACP Yadav, to ‘balance’ their arrests, and not to go only after one community. Here, the film maker is directly propagating the continuing charge put forward by the BJP against the Congress – that during UPA years, ‘innocent’ individuals affiliated to Hindutva outfits were ‘witch-hunted’ in false terror cases to balance the narrative of Islamic terrorism.

But these later arrests of individuals affiliated to Hindutva outfits were the result of meticulous investigations done under the supervision of slain inspector Hemant Karkare. Are the film makers trying to insinuate that while ACP Yadav was the ‘good cop’ who went after the dreaded Islamist radicals at much risk to his life and limb, the late Hemant Karkare was the ‘bad cop’ who was ‘balancing’ the narrative at the behest of the then UPA government?

Even as the film tries to establish the veracity of this particular encounter, the film makers are not averse to justifying fake encounters. In one scene, ACP Yadav, while in a conversation with his counsel, accepts that there are indeed fake encounters and it is also not untrue that the police at times plants weapons at encounter sites. The police, he goes on to add, need, at times, to break the law to maintain law and order in the society.

But when it comes to maintaining law and order, the track record of the Special Cell does not inspire much confidence. It has a conviction rate of less than 30 percent in terror related cases. In other words, the courts have accepted in more than 7 out of 10 such instances that innocents were framed as terrorists. Framing innocents harms, rather than helps, the fight against terror by ensuring that the real perpetrators remain at large.

At one point in the movie, when the encounter starts to come under question, a police officer tells ACP Yadav that perceptions matter more than facts. In real life, the value of perception over facts in ‘terror cases’ has never been lost on the police. In more than one instance in the recent past, the police, even before officially charging the accused, has leaked sensational details to an increasingly shrill media. The film Batla House seems to be an extension in the very same exercise of perception battles, even as the trial of the accused is still underway.

(Umar Khalid, who completed his PhD from JNU, is associated with United Against Hate, that works against hate crimes and mob violence. He also writes on politics and culture. This is a personal blog. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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