Brother of Slain RTI Activist Finds Deadends, Roadblocks in Quest for Justice

Satish Shetty was probing a highway project when he was murdered in 2010. The CBI was close to cracking the case before it made a curious U-Turn.

Pune/Mumbai: Ten years after Satish Shetty, a Pune-based RTI activist seeking information about a road project in Maharashtra was brutally killed, his case has reached a crucial point with the matter now scheduled to be taken up by the Supreme Court on November 7. The hearing was adjourned on Thursday after a judge recused himself.

Shetty, 38, was in the process of unearthing what he believed was a multi-crore land grab scam when he was stabbed to death on January 13, 2010. His brother Sandeep has since been doggedly following the matter up with the police, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – to whom the case was entrusted,  the trial court and the Bombay high court for over a decade and has knocked at the apex court’s door as a “final resort”, he says.

A bunch of “strange developments” that occurred in the case in the lower judiciary and high court in the past decade, Sandeep’s petition points out. In a special leave petition (SLP), filed through senior advocate Dushyant Dave, Sandeep has raised objection over the Bombay high court’s decision to allow  Virendra Mhaiskar – chairman and managing director, Ideal Road Builder (IRB), the company Satish Shetty had been probing – to intervene in the writ petition filed by him even when Mhaiskar, who was named in the FIR, had not been made a party in the matter.

In his petition, Sandeep claims, “It is a settled position of law that in a writ petition seeking impartial investigation, the person who has been named as an accused person in the FIR is not entitled to opportunity of hearing as a matter of course.” He has also cited case law to support his claim.

On Thursday, when the matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, Justice B.R. Gavai recused himself from the hearing citing his association with IRB as a lawyer. The matter has been adjourned until the second week of December.

Sandeep had last moved the Bombay high court against the sessions court’s decision to accept a closure report filed by the CBI on April 13, 2018, claiming that, “no further prosecutable evidence emerged against any person” in the murder case.

While the closure report had given a clean chit to all accused, it named two retired police officers, Bhausaheb Andhalkar and Namdeo Kauthale,  for “botching up the initial investigations.” These men were booked for conspiracy and destruction of evidence but the murder charge was dropped.

Sandeep’s writ petition sought a relook into the investigation and had challenged the session court’s decision to accept the CBI closure report. He had not named any accused, including Mhaiskar, as a party in his petition.

Strangely the CBI, which was made a party in the petition, did not appear before the high court. Sandeep says that each time he has approached the court, instead of the CBI, Mhaiskar would intervene.

However, when the writ petition was heard before the division bench of the Bombay high court comprising Justice Ranjit More and Justice Bharati Dangre, Mhaiskar, through his lawyer, approached Sandeep for a copy of the petition. Sandeep told The Wire that he refused to provide a copy since Mhaiskar was not named as a party in the petition. “Within days, Mhaiskar moved the high court. The court allowed this despite the fact that he was not made a party in the case and on March 18, this year, it upheld the sessions court’s order and disposed of my petition in favour of the accused,” he says.

Sandeep considers this a serious violation of law and he points out “the high court’s failure to appreciate a settled law and the lacunae that were highlighted before the court” in his apex court petition.

Satish Setty was killed while he was in the process of investigating a land scam that allegedly involved IRB officials. On October 15, 2009, he filed a cheating case at the Lonavala police station against 13 persons. Of them, two were IRB representatives. Shetty alleged that IRB representatives had used forged documents to deceitfully grab over 85 hectares of state-owned land.

Shetty had anticipated the threat to his life. While investigating the land grab scam, he had complained to the Lonavala police about this too. Within days, however, he was stabbed to death, close to his house in Talegaon Dhabade.

Several twists and turns

The case has since gone through several twists and turns with different investigating agencies handling the case – some trying to sincerely investigate and others trying to help the accused find an easy escape.

Soon after Satish Shetty’s death, Sandeep filed a case at the local police station naming Mhaiskar and a few other IRB representatives. However, only five persons – Vijay Dnayeshawar Dabhade, Pramod Dattatray Waghmare, Navnath Maruti Shelar, Dongra alias Dongarya Hanumanth Rathod and Shyam Ramchandra Dabhade – were arrested.

The local police filed a chargesheet against the five arrested persons. Sandeep, who suspected a larger network was involved in the case, sought a CBI inquiry in the matter and the state eventually transferred the case to the CBI.

Other than Mhaiskar, an investigation was also sought against IRB lawyer Ajit Kulkarni, IRB liaison officer Jayant Dangre and former deputy superintendent of police Dilip Shinde. Both the local police and the CBI never proceeded against them.

Since the time the CBI got involved in the case, Sandeep says all his efforts have been focussed only on keeping the case alive. “The investigations were disrupted several times and the agency behaved differently from time to time, to the point that it became unreliable,” Sandeep says.

Between April 2010 and February 2011, the CBI  only looked at the periphery and not into the prime accusations. It was only after the Bombay high court made a scathing remark criticising the agency for its unwillingness to touch Mhaiskar and other IRB officials that there was some progress.

The court had observed:

“Before concluding, it will be necessary to note down that for reasons best known to the local police, they never investigated the case from the angle of suspicion against Mhaiskar, the promoter of IRB infrastructure… even though the name was specifically mentioned in the FIR… After the investigation was handed over to the CBI, it was expected the CBI would investigate the case thoroughly from all the angles. But it appears, that for the last eight months, the CBI has not even touched any of the suspects of the murder for the reasons best known to the investigation officer.”

It added, “Maybe because all of those parties appear to be very powerful financially and otherwise.”

While the CBI continued to drag its feet in the investigation, the Lonavala police, which was handling the cheating case filed by Satish Shetty before his death, filed a “C Summary” case claiming that it was difficult to ascertain if the cheating and forgery had really taken place. The Wadgaon Maval magistrate court accepted this ‘closure’ report on December 27, 2011 without any objection.

RTI activists stage a protest to demand justice for Satish Shetty. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

RTI activists stage a protest to demand justice for Satish Shetty. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

Progress by CBI and then a baffling  U-turn

A year passed and the CBI by now had made some inroads in the investigations. IRB Infra and its associate companies were raided by the agency. The CBI also moved the Bombay high court in appeal against the local police’s closure report and claimed, “There was enough material available to chargesheet the accused persons and the filing of “C” summary was bad in law.” The CBI asked that the land grab case be transferred to them as they had evidence that linked Sayish Shetty’s exposé of the land-grabbing case to his death.

On August 8, 2014, the land grab case too was handed over to the CBI and it now officially began looking at the larger “nexus”. Strangely, within three days, the CBI filed a closure report in the murder case for “lack of sufficient evidence”.

The CBI’s closure report was interesting. The investigation carried out under the supervision of Sushil Pratap Singh was able to identify a motive, and was also able to unearth evidence of abetment, bribes offered, and threats made to the deceased, by those named as accused in the FIR. Yet, in the most surprising and incomprehensible manner, the officer had sought closure of the murder case.

Also Read: As Number of Murdered RTI Activists Rises to 67, It Is the Modi Government That Needs to ‘Act Rightly’

While the agency did not explain what could have changed in just three days, Singh in a phone conversation with Sandeep, claimed that he was under tremendous pressure. The phone conversation was recorded by Sandeep and The Wire has accessed the recording.

Since the high court did not accept the CBI’s sudden U-turn, the agency was compelled to go on with the investigation. In the first week of January 2015, the CBI raided 22 different premises linked to IRB. The CBI also claimed to have recorded the statements of over 500 persons. This, Sandeep, in his petition says was done to thwart his efforts to expose the CBI. After all this, the CBI still ignored those alleged to be the real players and went after two retired officers instead, accusing them of botching the investigation.

Nine years later, and after several rounds of investigation, the agency once again appeared before the magistrate’s court on April 13, 2018, to “intimate” it about a closure report. This, Sandeep’s SLP states, was done without following the due process prescribed under section 173 (8) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Under the section, an investigation has to be concluded either with a chargesheet or a final report and has to be submitted to the court for permission to conclude the investigation. The CBI had claimed it was only intimating the court and was not filing a closure already. Sandeep’s petition has also challenged this process of intimation since it is not defined under the law.

Note: The Wire contacted IRB for this story but a company official said it had nothing to say on the matter.