New Delhi: The Supreme Court will take up the plea for a fresh investigation into former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya’s murder on Monday. Pandya, who held portfolios like home and revenue in the state and had also been in the BJP’s national executive, was shot dead in the early morning of March 26, 2003 outside Ahmedabad’s Law Garden.
The high-profile murder was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation two days after his death. Since then, however, the Pandya matter has become one of India’s most mysterious cases in recent times.
In light of new accounts of the murder that surfaced in the public domain recently – particularly the testimony of Azam Khan in the Sohrabuddin trial that the Pandya assassination had been ordered by the top Gujarat police officer D.G. Vanzara – the Centre For Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) has moved the Supreme Court with a petition seeking a fresh probe in the case.
A trial court in June 2007 had convicted 12 of the 15 persons named as accused by the CBI, including Asghar Ali, whom the CBI had said was the actual shooter. In August 2011, however, the Gujarat high court acquitted all of them, citing lack of evidence and a slew of contradictions in the prosecution case – but not before giving the CBI a dressing down.
Not only did the high court call the CBI investigation – conducted under the supervision of Y.C. Modi, now National Investigative Agency chief – “botched” and “misdirected”, but also had the following stern words to say:
“…What clearly stands out from the record of the present case is that the investigation in the case of murder of Shri Haren Pandya has all throughout been botched up and blinkered and has left a lot to be desired. The investigating officers concerned ought to be held accountable for their inaptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the Courts.”
In an interview to The Wire in January 2019, the Y. A. Shaikh, the original investigating officer for the murder, said he too was now convinced the case needed to be reinvestigated.
A brief timeline of how the case unfolded – also mentioned in the petition – indicates how controversial the CBI probe has been.
March 28, 2003: The CBI took over the investigation.
April-June 2003: 15 people were arrested and charged with sections of The Prevention of Terrorist Act, 2002.
December 2003: A special court framed charges against the 15 arrested.
November 26, 2005: Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a gangster, was killed in an alleged police encounter along with his wife, Kausar Bi. Later, a high-ranking Gujarat policeman, D.G.Vanzara and current BJP president Amit Shah were named as accused in the case.
December 2006: Tulsiram Prajapati, another gangster, was killed allegedly in an encounter with the Gujarat police.
December 2006: Vithalbhai Pandya, Haren’s father, claimed in an application to the special court that his son’s murder was a political conspiracy and that the CBI sabotaged the probe. He said that Haren’s wife, Jagruti Pandya, was deliberately dropped as a witness, and thus, sought a fresh investigation. The court, however, rejected the application.
March 2007: Vithalbhai moved the special court with same plea but was rejected again.
June 25, 2007: The trial court convicted 12 people for Haren Pandya’s murder.
2008-2009: Various courts dismissed Vithalbhai’s appeals multiple times.
August 29, 2011: Hearing a plea by the convicted, the Gujarat high court overturned the lower court’s decision and acquitted all of them.
February 2012: An appeal by Haren’s wife, Jagruti Pandya, for a reinvestigation was also rejected by the high court.
September 21, 2013: The Times of India reported that Vanzara, who was in prison and undergoing trial for the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, said Pandya’s murder was a political conspiracy. Vanzara’s statements assumed significance as he was considered to be one of the favourite police officials of the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat state government.
2016: Journalist Rana Ayyub’s book Gujarat Files published a recorded conversation between her and Y.A. Shaikh, the first Gujarat police officer who probed the murder before it was handed over to the CBI. In it, Shaikh claims that the CBI did not do a proper investigation and only repeated in its report what the state police had told it.
He is also said to have repeated that the murder was a part of political conspiracy and several politicians and policemen like Vanzara were involved in the BJP leader’s killing.
November 3, 2018: A new account emerged. A, Udaipur-based gangster, Azam Khan – a witness in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case and himself endangered – told a trial court that Sohrabuddin had told him that Pandya was murdered as a part of contract killing assignment given by Vanzara. Khan was a friend of both Sohrabuddin and Prajapati. He also said that Prajapati along with two others killed Pandya.
In a controversial claim, he also said he had told this to the CBI investigator, N.S. Raju, in 2010 but the official refused to record it.
“I had told the CBI officer that Haren Pandya’s murder was done by Tulsiram Prajapati and one boy at the instance of Sohrabuddin. When I told him (Raju) about Haren Pandya, unhone bola ‘naye bakhede mey mat dalo’ (he said ‘don’t involve me in new confusion’),” Khan told the court.
Khan also said that Prajapati told him in the Udaipur central jail – where both were lodged – that he was tricked into divulging the whereabouts of Sohrabuddin before he was killed, and that Prajapati too feared that he would meet the same fate.
Khan is currently lodged in an Udaipur prison. He has been seeking protection and unsuccessfully appealing to the courts to allow him to give his full statement again.
In his 2013 resignation letter from jail where he was an undertrial, Vanzara too added to the mystery. He wrote that he and other officers, accused of fake encounters, had only implemented the “conscious policy of this government”, by which he meant the Modi-led state government.
Throughout the investigation, Pandya’s father, sister and wife, and also BJP leaders like Gordhan Zadaphiya, Suresh Patel and Janak Parmar, maintained that the actual killers were still at large.
The matter blew up as a political controversy also because Pandya was seen as Modi’s rival in the state. He was also one of those from Gujarat who had testified in confidence before the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal that the Gujarat government was complicit in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots.
The Wire had earlier reported, “He (Pandya) also spoke to Outlook magazine off the record in June and August 2002 about a meeting he said Modi convened on February 27, 2002, in which he alleged the chief minister told the police “to go soft on rioters” and indicated that the Hindus be allow to vent their ire.”
Pandya was killed seven months later, following which Outlook reported:
The former revenue minister implored us not to reveal his identity under any circumstance since he feared the worst. “Don’t disclose my identity even verbally,” he had said. “My name should not be quoted in any story, not even as minister or BJP leader. If you write BJP leader, I will die. If you write minister, even then I will die.”
The CBI has maintained that the former home minister was killed on Muslim fundamentalist cleric Mufti Sufiyan’s orders. The cleric, the CBI claimed, fled to Pakistan the day before 15 people, against whom the CBI pressed charges, were arrested.
However, with the way the high court rebuked the CBI for a poor investigation, and Azam Khan’s subsequent claims, many aspects of the case clearly remain neglected.
Given so many open ends to tie, the CPIL through its secretary, senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal, has now moved the apex court for a fresh probe.
The matter will be heard before a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, the same judge who is hearing the CBI’s appeal against the high court’s 2011 verdict overturning the convictions of the men the agency had charged with the crime.