The fresh investigation into the Ishrat Jahan encounter case has hit yet another roadblock. On Friday, the Maharashtra cadre IPS officer, Satyapal Singh, filed an application in the Gujarat High Court seeking permission to be relieved as Chairman of the Special Investigation Team it constituted to probe the alleged fake encounter. He cited “language problem” and other issues.

A Division Bench of Justices Jayant Patel and Abhilasha Kumari asked Mr. Singh to continue till July 15. It also asked the Centre to forward another panel of IPS officers from States other than Gujarat for appointment of a new SIT Chairman. Mr. Singh is the second Chairman who wants to be relieved from the post within six months of the constitution of the SIT. It was first formed under the chairmanship of the former Joint Police Commissioner of Delhi, Karnail Singh, and with Gujarat cadre IPS officers Satish Verma and Mohan Jha to assist him.

Differences

But even before the probe got under way, differences cropped up among the three over the manner of investigation and their powers of investigation. Soon after, Mr. Karnail Singh was transferred from Delhi to Mizoram and he sought court permission to be relieved as the Mizoram government was not prepared to spare his services for the Ishrat case investigation.

In the absence of a Chairman for the SIT, the court gave Mr. Verma full powers to continue with the investigation, asking Mr. Jha to look after only administrative matters concerning the SIT. Mr. Verma, however, failed to make much headway as a bunch of police officers filed a petition in the High Court and later in the Supreme Court expressing an apprehension that he would harass them “for personal reasons” if he was allowed to continue with unbridled powers to question or arrest any police officer. Then Mr. Satyapal Singh was appointed SIT Chairman, only about a fortnight ago, from a panel of names recommended by the Centre. But soon after, the Maharashtra government reportedly raised objections with the Centre and expressed reluctance to spare Mr. Satyapal Singh for the Ishrat investigation. After much confusion, he took over chairmanship only this week his first act was to summon senior police officers, G. L. Singhal and Tarun Barot, both members of the Ahmedabad Crime Branch, who were involved in the June 2004 encounter, in which 19-year-old Ishrat and three others were killed on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

The two officers appeared before Mr. Satyapal Singh only on Thursday even as the SIT was preparing its progress report to be submitted to the High Court.

But during Friday's hearing on the progress report, Mr. Satyapal Singh, through his advocate Mihir Thakore, submitted an application stating that as there were differences between the two other members, Mr. Verma and Mr. Jha, he was “facing embarrassment.” Moreover, he said, as the statements were recorded in Gujarati, he was finding it difficult to function as SIT Chairman and wanted to be relieved.

Court pulls up Centre

At this, Justice Patel said such excuses were unbelievable. The court also pulled up the Centre for suggesting an officer who was “soft-pedalling” the probe. It took Assistant Solicitor-General P. S. Champaneri to task for recommending Mr. Satyapal Singh's name earlier and for his assertion then that the services of the Maharashtra cadre IPS officer would be spared by his home State and he would have ample time to devote to the Ishrat case investigation.

The court allowed the Centre time to resolve the issue and, if necessary, suggest the name of another officer. The next hearing in the case, as also a decision on Mr. Satyapal Singh's request to be relieved, has been posted for July 15.