Death of a Judge: What We Know, What We Don't Know

Three years later, with claims and counter-claims over the judge's death piling up, the son's plea for an independent investigation might well be the only way to settle this matter one way or another.

Note: This article was first published on November 27, 2017, and is being republished in light of historic press conference by four senior Supreme Court judges triggered by the bench formed in the Judge Loya death case and other cases.

New Delhi: Citing the statements of two judges of the Bombay high court and enquiries by its own reporters, the Indian Express on Monday said that there was “nothing suspicious” about the death three years ago of Judge B.H. Loya, who was presiding over the CBI court in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.

In two reports last week, the Caravan had quoted immediate members of Loya’s family, who questioned the circumstances surrounding his death and said that the judge had been offered Rs 100 crore to give an order favourable to the prime accused, BJP president Amit Shah. The judge passed away on December 1, 2014 after a heart attack while in Nagpur to attend a colleague’s daughter’s wedding. In interviews to the magazine’s reporter, Niranjan Takle, members of Loya’s family listed what they said were inconsistencies in the facts surrounding his death.

Questioning the Caravan’s account, however, the Indian Express has said that Justice Bhushan Gavai and Justice Sunil Shukre – “who were there at the hospital when Loya died” – told its reporters that there was nothing suspicious about the judge’s death.

The Indian Express has also questioned some of the claims made in the Caravan report, citing official records and doctors who attended to Loya.

Speaking to The Wire, Caravan political editor Hartosh Singh Bal questioned how the judges quoted by Indian Express suddenly entered the picture. “These judges were not quoted in any other report. They were not with Loya at the guest house or the first hospital. They were not the first judges on the scene. How did the Indian Express reporter suddenly come across them? Did the reporter find them or did they contact the reporter? If they contacted the reporter, why did they not hold a press conference instead?”

It would be jumping the gun, however, to assume that all the apparent questions around the judge’s death have now been resolved. Here’s a list of seven discrepancies that have emerged from the media reports, and the questions that still remain.

1. Loya experiences chest pain. How did he get to hospital?

According to the Indian Express, Loya, who was staying at the Ravi Bhavan VIP guest house in Nagpur at the time, complained of chest pain at around 4 am. With Loya were his fellow judges Shridhar Kulkarni and Shriram Madhusudan Modak, Justice Gavai told the newspaper. According to Justice Shukre, Vijaykumar Barde, a local judge, drove Loya to Dande Hospital in his own car. Justice Gavai said there was another car too which accompanied them, which belonged to Rupesh Rathi, at the time the deputy registrar of the Nagpur bench of the high court.

The Caravan report, however, stated that Loya was taken to Dande Hospital in an auto – or so his family was apparently told. The family, particularly Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani, questioned why he had to be taken to hospital that way, particularly when the auto stand closest to the guest house is two kms away. The Caravan story does not say who was Biyani’s source.

In its follow-up investigation, NDTV spoke to staff members at the guest house on condition of anonymity. “At Ravi Bhawan, staff members who were present at the time and wished to remain unnamed told NDTV that there are no designated drivers in Ravi Bhawan, and Loya did not appear to have a car specially assigned to him for the trip either,” the channel reported.

It is not clear if the staff NDTV spoke to were thus confirming Loya went to the hospital by auto or were simply answering in the abstract. Either way, if indeed Loya was driven to hospital that fateful night, that fact seems not to have registered in their mind.

Google Maps shows Dande hospital to be a six minute drive away. Given that Loya is said to have arrived there “around 4:45 or 5:00 am”, the vehicle that apparently took him would have left the guest house around 4:40-4:55, a full 40-55 minutes after Loya first complained of acute chest pain. Why the VIP guest house staff could not arrange a vehicle any sooner is not clear.

2. At Dande hospital, ECG or no ECG?

According to the Caravan report, which is based on what his family was later told, no ECG was performed at Dande Hospital as the machine was not working. Loya was instead given some medicines there and then shifted to another private hospital, Meditrina. In an interview to The Wire, Bal of the Caravan said the reporter went by what the family had been told.

The Indian Express, however, claims that an ECG was performed at Dande Hospital and the newspaper reproduced a copy of the report. The newspaper quoted the director of the hospital, Pinak Dande, as saying that the ECG revealed that Loya needed specialised cardiac treatment, which was not available at the hospital.

The ECG. Credit: Indian Express

Curiously,  the ECG published by the Indian Express is time-stamped “05:11, November 30”, i.e. a day before Loya was taken to hospital. The newspaper does not explain the reason for the wrong date – given the role ECGs play in helping doctors review a patient’s case history, it is unusual for the date to be off . The judge’s name is also spelt incorrectly on the ECG report.

After the discrepancy attracted widespread criticism on social media, the Indian Express sought an explanation from the hospital about why the date of the ECG was wrong. This is what the hospital’s administrator said:

“The date November 30 appearing on the ECG may have been due to a technical glitch arising out of a machine calibration issue. We recalibrate our machines every three months or so to prevent such glitches. But sometimes the glitch may occur in the intervening period. We stand by the fact that the ECG was taken at our hospital on December 1.”

3. Declared dead at Meditrina hospital

Both the Caravan and the Indian Express reports agree that when Loya was subsequently taken to Meditrina – a larger private hospital in Nagpur – he was declared dead on arrival. Meditrina records quoted by the Express say that the judge suffered “retrosternal chest pain and had collapsed” en route, and attempts to resuscitate him at the hospital failed.

It was at Meditrina, according to the Indian Express, that the other high court judges, including Shukre and Gavai, arrived. Shukre told the newspaper Loya was in the ICU when they arrived and “All attempts were made to save his life but to no avail. Doctors did their best and the judges’ community did their best to help”.

4. Time of death

According to the Indian Express report, the Meditrina hospital authorities declared Loya dead a little after 6 am. The Caravan notes that the official time of Loya’s death is recorded as 6:15 am. However, family members told Caravan that they began receiving telephone calls at around 5 am from Barde – the judge who according to Indian Express had been with Loya since he left Ravi Bhavan – informing them that Loya had died and that they should rush from Latur to Nagpur:

Sarita Mandhane, another of Loya’s sisters, who runs a tuition centre in Aurangabad and was visiting Latur at the time, told [Caravan] that she received a call from Barde at around 5 am, informing her that Loya had died. “He said that Brij has passed away in Nagpur and asked us to rush to Nagpur,” she said.

Before they could leave for Nagpur, though, another person Ishwar Baheti – described by Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani as an “RSS worker” – somehow located them. Baheti told them that he had been talking to people in Nagpur and there was no reason for them to go as the body was already being brought to Gategaon, Loya’s sister Sarita Mandhane told Caravan. The Indian Express report made no reference to Baheti, or the calls the family received in the morning. Though Baheti appears as a mysterious person in the Caravan account, NDTV’s report says he was a family friend and was known to Loya and some of his relatives.

So far, however, neither Barde nor Baheti has spoken to the media to clear up some of the questions and doubts raised by Loya’s family. Though Caravan quoted Sarita Mandhane as saying she was informed by Barde of her brother’s death at 5 am, the magazine does not appear to have asked Barde about the timing of his call.

5. Post mortem and after

Apart from Sarita Mandhane, who says she received word of Loya’s death at 5 am, other family members quoted in the Caravan report say they were informed about Loya’s death after the post mortem had already been conducted. The post-mortem report – which said that the death was caused by cardiac arrest – was signed apparently by a paternal cousin of Loya’s, but his father told the magazine that he had no such relative in Nagpur at the time.

Both NDTV and the Indian Express have tracked down the person who signed the post mortem report – one Prashant Rathi, who is a doctor. Rathi collected the body. Rathi said that an uncle (‘mausa‘) of his, Rukmesh Pannalal Jakotia, called him in the morning and told him that his (the uncle’s) cousin (Loya) was in hospital and that Rathi should go and help him. Apparently when Rathi arrived at the hospital and told Jakotia that Loya had died, his uncle asked him to take care of the formalities, and so he agreed to sign off on the post mortem when doctors asked.

What is not clear from the Indian Express report is how Rathi’s uncle learned of Loya’s condition when his immediate family (other than one sister) had not been informed, nor how the government hospital which conducted the post-mortem satisfied itself that Rathi was indeed a close relative and that the body could be released to him without even talking to any of Loya’s close family members.

6. Blood on the judge’s clothes

The Caravan had quoted Loya’s sister Biyani as saying that the family found blood stains on the judge’s shirt, on the neck and at the back. Other family members also said they saw there was an injury on his head:

A diary entry by Biyani from the time reads, “There was blood on his collar. His belt was twisted in the opposite direction, and the pant clip is broken. Even my uncle feels that this is suspicious.” Harkishan [Loya’s father] told [Caravan], “There were bloodstains on the clothes.” Mandhane said that she, too, saw “blood on the neck.” She said that “there was blood and an injury on his head … on the back side,” and that “his shirt had blood spots.” Harkishan said, “His shirt had blood on it from his left shoulder to his waist.”

The Indian Express quoted a government forensic expert, who said that “Blood is bound to spill out during post-mortem as we open all major cavities in the body. Sometimes, if small gaps remain in the sutures, blood might seep out.”

Rathi – the ‘relative’ who signed the post-mortem – told the Indian Express that Loya’s body was wrapped in a sheet when he took custody and presumably that is the state in which it was loaded on to the ambulance for transport back to his father’s village. Though Caravan‘s story does not describe what the body was covered in when it was received by his family members at Gategaon and creates the impression that it was fully clothed, Vinod Jose, editor of the magazine, told The Wire that Loya’s body came wrapped in a sheet and that his clothes were in a packet. Any blood that might have spilt out “during post-mortem” would not have been on his clothes which had already been removed and packed.  In other words, the apprehension is that the blood stains in Loya’s shirt might be ante-mortem.

7. Transporting the body

According to Biyani, quoted in the Caravan report, Loya’s body was transported unaccompanied, except for the ambulance driver. Neither Barde nor the two judges whom he was travelling with in Nagpur accompanied him, she alleged.

However, according to the Indian Express and Justice Gavai, two judges did accompany Loya’s body. “The two judges were Yogesh Rahangdale and Swayam Chopda, both civil judges, junior division. An air-conditioned ambulance was arranged with provision of ice slabs in case the AC failed along the way,” the newspaper quoted Gavai as saying. The report also said that the two judges met Loya’s father in Gategaon. NDTV also reported something similar:

Shivaji Bhokde the joint commissioner of Nagpur police told NDTV that two judiciary officials, and a police constable were inside the ambulance with the driver on the 10-and-a-half hour drive to Latur.

According to Justice Gavai, the two judiciary officials and the constable – whose name he also remembered three years later – were not inside the ambulance but travelling in a separate car. “The car developed a snag a little beyond Nanded,” Justice Gavai told the Indian Express. “When the ambulance reached Latur, fellow judges were present to receive it. The two accompanying judges reached late along with the constable Prashant Tulsiram Thakre.

8. Other issues that remain

Bribery claims: The allegation by Loya’s relatives that the judge had been offered a bribe by the former chief justice of the Bombay high court remain unaddressed so far, and the chief justice in question has chosen not to speak on the matter.

Telephone data: Loya’s relatives also told Caravan that his phone was only returned to them 2-3 days after his death and that the data appeared to have been deleted.

Silence of wife and son: Caravan said Loya’s wife and son “feared for their lives” and hence declined to speak to their reporter. But the magazine did carry details of the letter written by the son to the chief justice of the Bombay high court asking for his father’s death to be probed.

Three years later, with claims and counter-claims over the controversial case piling up, the son’s February 2015 plea for an independent investigation might well be the only way to settle this matter one way or another.