New Delhi: Testimony by a key prosecution witness in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case has reignited public and political interest in the unsolved 2003 murder of Haren Pandya, the senior Gujarat BJP leader who was a critic of Narendra Modi in the early months of his chief ministership and whose testimony about the state government’s complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence had deeply embarrassed the Bharatiya Janata Party at the time.
Pandya’s body was found riddled with bullets outside a popular park in Ahmedabad on March 26, 2003 but 15 years later – with the men accused of the killing by the Central Bureau of Investigation all acquitted – the identity of his killers is still unknown. In the high court, the CBI case was found plainly impossible, besides failing to account for the number of bullets, the number of firearms and assassins and even the place of murder.
On Saturday, Azam Khan, a prosecution witness in the case against several policemen for the murder of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauser Bi and associate Tulsiram Prajapati, testified before a Mumbai court that Sohrabuddin had told him the former Gujarat IPS officer D.G. Vanzara had ordered the killing of Pandya. Notably, Azam Khan is not the first to link Sohrabuddin, and through him Vanzara and another top Gujarat police officer, Chudasama, with the Pandya murder.
Vanzara, who was one of the prime accused in the fake encounter case, was discharged by the trial court on August 1, 2017. At the moment, 22 accused, including Rajasthan and Gujarat policemen, are facing trial for the killing of the three.
Vanzara himself was reported to have told the CBI about a political conspiracy to assassinate Pandya. Pandya’s security cover was inexplicably withdrawn just days before the killing. The Law Garden lane in which his body was found was also cleared of all carts and hawkers two days before he was found dead there.
Even as the CBI’s commitment to prosecuting the Sohrabuddin case has been widely questioned – the agency has refused to appeal the discharge of BJP president Amit Shah and others who it had chargesheeted for the crime – Khan’s testimony has led to calls from the opposition for the Pandya case to be reinvestigated.
Pandya’s father, sister and wife had continuously maintained that the killers are at large, as did some BJP leaders like Gordhan Zadaphiya, Suresh Patel and Janak Parmar – the complainant in the Pandya murder case. However, the CBI has refused so far to consider that it has been pursuing a wrong line of investigation.
‘Sohrabuddin told me order for killing Pandya came from above’
In his submission, Azam Khan told the court that Sohrabuddin had said the order for the execution had come from those holding high position – “upar se yeh kaam diya tha” (the work was given from above).
An associate of Sohraduddin and Prajapati, Khan submitted that “during discussion with Sohrabuddin, he told me that he, along with Naeem Khan and Shahid Rampuri, got the contract to kill … Haren Pandya of Gujarat and they killed him. I felt sad and I told Sohrabuddin that they have killed a good person. Sohrabuddin told me that the contract was given to him by Vanzara.”
CBI officer ignored Khan’s disclosure about Pandya killing
Khan also disclosed that way back in 2010, he had said the same thing to a CBI investigator, N.S. Raju, but he was told not to create “new confusion”
“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 (don’t involve me in new confusion),” Khan told the court, the Indian Express reported.
On why he had felt bad about the former minister’s killing, Khan explained that after the 2002 violence, Pandya had worked towards bring the bringing communities together. “I felt bad and made up my mind to leave the company of Sohrabuddin,” he said.
Huge holes in the official version of Pandya’s killing
Pandya had testified in confidence before the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal probing the 2002 Gujarat riots about the complicity of the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi in the anti-Muslim violence. He 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. As Outlook reported later:
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.”
Pandya was shot dead seven months later.
In is investigation, the CBI, which was handed over the case by the Gujarat government, pursued the line that Pandya was killed on the orders of a Muslim fundamentalist cleric named Mufti Sufiyan to avenge the role he was said to have played in the 2002 riots. Sufiyan apparently fled to Pakistan the day before the men he is said to have motivated were arrested. However, at the trial it became apparent that the CBI theory did not add up. As discrepancies mounted between what the actual physical evidence disclosed and what the prosecutors argued, the trial court was forced to disregard many of the CBI’s more improbable claims. However, armed with confessions obtained in custody – the accused were charged under the erstwhile Prevention of Terrorism Act – the state in 2007 was able to secure the conviction of 12 persons.
Media reports during before, during and after the trial voiced public concerns about the glaring absurdity of the investigation and the curious disappearance of the clues – concerns that were validated when the Gujarat high court in 2011 acquitted the 12 men convicted. The high court bench was also scathing in its indictment of the investigators:
“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 ineptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the courts.”
The CBI investigation was led by senior IPS officer Y.C. Modi, who was made director of India’s premier counter-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency, by the Modi government in September 2017.
In a severe indictment of the CBI probe, the high court had stated: “The investigation clearly appears to have been so botched up and misdirected that the confessional statements recorded during police remand, before any police officer, could not be safely relied for convicting any of the appellants [of murder].”
Soon after the high court verdict, the Times of India reported how the gun used for the killing was actually found in Udaipur – home to Sohrabuddin – but shown by the CBI as having been recovered from Ahmedabad:
“What is curious is that the CBI in its chargesheet in the case had mentioned Ahmedabad as the place where the weapon of offence was found. In fact, one of the reasons why the case was thrown out was that the murder weapon did not match the bullets that were recovered from the body of the deceased. This is leading to the suspicion that the ‘murder weapon’ produced in the court may not have been the actual weapon of offence at all.
Despite these and other discrepancies that emerged during the trial and in the high court’s hearing and order, the CBI refused to launch a fresh investigation into Pandya’s killing. Instead, it went on appeal against the acquittals and the matter is now pending before the Supreme Court.
Prajapati disclosed there was `political pressure’ to arrest Sohrabuddin
In his testimony before the Mumbai trial court on Saturday, Khan said that in November 2005 he heard about the death of Sohrabuddin. And when a few days later he met Prajapati in Udaipur central jail, the latter claimed that he was tricked into giving information on Sohrabuddin to policemen. The cops told him that there was “political pressure” to arrest Sohrabuddin.
“Vanzara and other policemen wanted to arrest Sohrabuddin. He assured Tulsiram that after five-six months, he will be released. But Tulsiram said that both Sohrabuddin and Kausarbi were killed in a farmhouse in Gujarat,” Khan claimed.
Khan, an Udaipur-based gangster, also stated that Prajapati was fearful that he would be killed and had therefore lodged a complaint before an Ahmedabad court. “I last met Tulsiram on 23-24 December, 2006, when I was being taken into custody for some old theft case pending against me, while he was to be taken to Ahmedabad for a court hearing. He had told me that either one of us will be killed,” he deposed.
It was the CBI’s case that the accused policemen had deliberately separated Khan and Prajapati by seeking the former’s custody in a pending case. Later, the police claimed that Tulsiram escaped from police custody while he was being taken to Gujarat and that he was killed in an encounter.
This is not the first time that Khan has spoken of the Pandya link to Sohrabuddin’s killing. “The possible links between these high-profile cases emerged with the new probe agency, CBI, filing its first chargesheet in July ”, the Times of India reported in 2011. “An important witness and Sohrabuddin accomplice, Azam Khan made a statement that IPS officer Abhay Chudasama, who is an accused in this case, told him that he had saved Sohrabuddin from being implicated in Pandya’s murder. This was the first indication towards a possible connection between the two cases.”
Vanzara blamed “conscious policy of government” for encounter killings
Incidentally, Khan’s claim of higher ups ordering the killing of Pandya and Sohrabuddin also finds an echo in a letter Vanzara had written in 2013 through which he had also resigned from his post.
The letter was sent by Vanzara to Gujarat’s additional chief secretary on September 1, 2013 while he was an undertrial prisoner at Sabarmati Central Prison. In this letter, he had stated that he and other officers, accused of alleged fake encounters, had only implemented the “conscious policy of this government”. By that logic, he had averred that the place of this government (which was then headed by Narendra Modi) was in jail.
“Gujarat CID/Union CBI had arrested me and my officers in different encounter cases holding us to be responsible for carrying out alleged fake encounters, if that is true, then the CBI Investigation officers of all the four encounter cases of Shohrabuddin, Tulasiram, Sadique Jamal and Ishrat Jahan have to arrest the policy formulators also as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters.
By this reasoning, I am of the firm opinion that the place of this government instead of being in Gandhinagar, should either be in Taloja Central Position at Navi Mumbai or in Sabarmati Central Prison at Ahmedabad,” he had written.
Drawing a parallel between the government and the jailed officers, Vanzara had written that they were “sailing in the same boat and have to swim or sink together”.