Was Lucknow Encounter Target Saifullah Dead by 5 pm on 7 March?

As the Uttar Pradesh police have now reversed their initial stand that the so-called Lucknow-Kanpur module of ISIS was behind the 7 March Bhopal-Ujjain train blast, but it has emerged that slain terror suspect, Saifullah, may have been killed within two hours of the siege that began at 2pm on 7 March in the Thakurganj area, much before it ended in the wee hours of the morning on 8 March.

UP Additional Director General of Police Daljeet Chaudhary’s “correction” – when state police chief Javeed Ahmed had gone public with his assertion that ISIS was allegedly involved in the blast at Jabdi near Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh – brings into question the theory floated by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government in the neighbouring state.

Chouhan continued to claim, even as the lengthy encounter ended, that the blast on the train had been set off by ISIS. And hours after questions began to surface in connection with the Thakurganj stand-off, Chaudhary claimed that Saifullah was a “self-radicalised terrorist” or may have had links with the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

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There are strong suspicions that the man holed up in the Thakurganj house had been eliminated several hours before the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) claimed to have slain him. (Photo: PTI)

But more damaging for the UP police, which along with their counterparts in MP, Telangana and Kerala – who were involved in some way or the other in trailing six alleged terrorists said to be associated with Saifullah, alias Ali – is the strong suspicion that the man holed up in the Thakurganj house had been eliminated several hours before the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) claimed to have slain him.

A post-encounter photograph in the possession of The Quint shows that the entire right portion of a man resembling Saifullah has been blown off, indicating that he may have been shot at very close quarters. The photo is not being published, keeping in mind the distress it could potentially cause readers.

“Local residents in the neighbourhood where Saifullah lived in a rented accommodation have insisted that the exchange of fire, if any, stopped around 5 pm of 7 March, though there were reports of intermittent firing that they heard,” Lucknow advocate Mohammad Shoiab, who is part of an NGO, Rihayi Manch, which has been crusading against arbitrary police action against members of the minority community, told The Quint over the phone.

Speaking to The Quint over the phone, Chaudhary clarified initial reports which claimed that there were two “terrorists” holed up inside the Thakurganj house, saying: “Initially we believed that the occupants were changing places and firing at us. Four persons lived in the rented house. Three of them left for Madhya Pradesh earlier that day.”

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When asked whether Saifullah was eliminated around 5 pm on 7 March, Chaudhary said this was “untrue”, before adding: “See the post-mortem report which says that the person died of ante-mortem firearm injuries.”

Raising serious questions on the manner in which the Thakurganj encounter was carried out, Shoiab asked why a terrorist who might have been part of a conspiracy to cause a blast on a train would stay behind in his house once the explosion occurred.

“The initial impulse of a person who is part of a terror conspiracy would be to flee. And yet the police also recovered eight 9 mm pistols and a revolver along with ammunition extracted from the magazines, some cash, besides sundry other items,” Shoaib said, hinting that the guns may have been planted in the hours after Saifullah was eliminated.

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While claiming that Saifullah’s alleged hideout was the place where a “pipe bomb” was fabricated before it was supposedly placed in a compartment of the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train, the police have maintained silence on how and from where the eight pistols were procured by him. The police have so far not thrown any light on who purchased the weapons or from whom.

“The guns and, strangely, a walkie-talkie set, do not help the UP police’s claims,” Shoaib said, adding: “We would be most interested to know what recoveries the Madhya Pradesh and UP police made from the six persons who were arrested from Pipariya and Kanpur even as the encounter was underway.”

While there are now strong suspicions that Saifullah may have been fired upon from close quarters, a Rihayi Manch team was shocked to find that while claims were made by senior police officers of an exchange of fire between the ATS commandos and the trapped man, the walls and doors of the rooms bear no bullet marks.