New Delhi: In a decision that is likely to rekindle the controversy over the Modi government’s alleged misuse of investigative agencies, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai on Thursday discharged Gujarat police officer Rajkumar Pandian in the Sohrabuddin-Kauser Bi murder case.
Pandian, who was arrested in 2007, was accused by the CBI of leading a team of policemen to Hyderabad to abduct Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausar Bi, both of whom were subsequently killed in custody in November 2005. According to PTI, he was released on the ground that ‘no prior sanction was taken to prosecute him’ in the case.
Though the full details of the discharge order are not yet available, the judgment is significant as Pandian becomes the twelfth person to be released by the CBI court in the high-profile case. The case is considered highly sensitive because the chargesheet placed Amit Shah – currently president of the Bharatiya Janata Party but then Gujarat’s minister of state for home – at the centre of the conspiracy to murder the young homemaker Kauser Bi, her gangster husband Sohrabuddin and his associate, Tulsiram Prajapati.
Only a week back, on August 19, another accused IPS officer, Narendra K. Amin, was discharged for lack of evidence. The other indicted officers who were discharged in the case earlier are former Gujarat police chief P.C. Pande, additional director general of police Geeta Johri – both because the government had not given ‘sanction to prosecute’ – O.P. Mathur and Abhay Chudasama, as well as an Andhra Pradesh IPS officer N. Balasubramanyam. One of the chief accused in the case, D.G. Vanzara, was also released on bail in April this year.
Vanzara took to Twitter Thursday night to hail the news of Pandian being let off the hook:
Discharge of Pandian in Sohrabuddin Case reveals that Anti-National Forces framed Gujarat Police in violation of all Laws & Procedures.
— DG Vanzara (@VanzaraDg) August 25, 2016
Amit Shah was the first to be discharged from the case, in December 2014. The special court ruled that there was insufficient evidence against him and the CBI – which had investigated the case and filed charges under the supervision of the Supreme Court – chose not to appeal that decision.
Among the others who have since been discharged are Rajasthan home minister Gulabchand Kataria, the Rajasthan-based businessman Vimal Patni, and senior officers in the Ahmedabad district co-operative bank Yashpal Chudasama and Ajay Patel.
Ever since the CBI charged top level police officers and BJP politicians of plotting the murder of the gangster Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauser Bi, and his associate Tulsiram Prajapati in fake encounters, the opposition had been up in arms against the saffron party. In response, the BJP has claimed that Sohrabuddin had links with the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and insisted the encounter in which he was killed was legitimate.
Fearing political sabotage by the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government at the time, the CBI had successfully demanded that the case be transferred to Mumbai for a fair trial. Later, the Supreme Court clubbed the Prajapati encounter killing case with that of Sohrabuddin’s.
Prajapati, an aide of the gangster and an eyewitness to the encounter, was killed allegedly by the police at Chapri village in Banaskantha district in Gujarat in December 2006.
In the past two years, the Modi government has been criticised by both the opposition and civil society alike for trying to influence cases in which BJP leaders or Hindutva activists have been implicated by the state investigative agencies like the CBI and National Investigative Agency (NIA).
In October last year, public prosecutor Rohini Salian accused the NIA of asking her to ‘go slow’ in the Malegaon blast case, where several Hindtuva activists are facing charges of terrorism. In a subsequent U-turn, the NIA, while claiming that the witness accounts gathered by it previously were ‘dubious’, produced a supplementary charge-sheet that dropped Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act (MCOCA) charges against the main accused Pragya Singh Thakur in the same case, effectively rejecting the previous NIA report. The trial court, while rejecting Thakur’s bail petition, later pulled up the NIA for ignoring important evidence in the case.
Similarly, the CBI has come in for criticism for choosing not to appeal to the higher courts against the discharge of Amit Shah and others in the Sohrabuddin case. Taking note of the CBI’s reluctance, the Delhi-based lawyer Sarim Naved wrote in July 2015:
“The Central Bureau of Investigation has still not approached the High Court against discharge orders in favour of BJP president Amit Shah, Gulabchand Kataria and several Gujarat police officers in the Kauser-bi, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati murder case. Reports indicate that the CBI does not intend to challenge these orders. It is unheard of that the CBI lets such an order in a murder case go unchallenged. The CBI has filed, in the Sohrabuddin case, statements made before a magistrate by witnesses that implicate Shah and others. The trial court chose to disbelieve sworn statements at the stage of charge. The CBI, or for that matter, any police force in India, routinely challenges orders like this on no other ground than the argument that the veracity of a statement can only be tested at trial.”
In the face of the CBI’s refusal to appeal, Sohrabuddin’s brother approached the Bombay high court with a petition seeking to overturn Amit Shah’s discharge order. But in October 2015, he went back to court asking for permission to withdraw his petition. Permission was granted a month later. A subsequent effort by bureaucrat-turned-social activist Harsh Mander to appeal Shah’s discharge on the grounds that the CBI was refusing to act because of political pressure was rejected by both the high court and Supreme Court.
The discharge of so many accused in a multiple murder case being prosecuted by the CBI before the trial has even commenced is considered by lawyers to be quite unprecedented. The denouement of the Sohrabuddin case has cast a cloud over the credibility of the CBI – which the BJP ridiculed during the UPA government’s tenure as a “caged parrot” for its failure to seriously investigate and prosecute politically influential people.