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Why the Haren Pandya Murder is Back in the Spotlight

Azam Khan’s deposition in the Sohrabbudin Sheikh case – that a Gujarat police officer ordered Pandya's assassination – is being held out as grounds for a reinvestigation.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court reserved its order today on a public interest litigation (PIL) that sought a fresh investigation into the murder of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya. Pandya held the position before Narendra Modi became chief minister of the state and moved him to a less important portfolio.

The petition was prompted by evidence, which came to light in November 2018. Azam Khan, a state witness in another murder case – the custodial killing of Sohrabbudin Sheikh, Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati – said in his deposition in a trial court that Sohrabbudin told him that Pandya’s murder had been ordered by a top Gujarat police official, D.G. Vanzara.

Pandya was founded dead in his car on the morning of March 26, 2003, in Ahmedabad. The CBI charged 12 people for the killing, one of whom, Asghar Ali, was described as the gunman.

In 2007, a trial court in Gujarat convicted the 12 people for murder.  However, the high court in 2011, acquitted all of them, describing the entire investigation as motivated and “botched.” The CBI’s investigator at the time was Y.C. Modi, who is now the head of the National Investigation Agency

The CBI has appealed this acquittal in the Supreme Court, and arguments in the matter concluded before a bench comprising Justices Arun Misra and Vineet Saran last month.

On Tuesday, the same bench heard arguments from senior advocate Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant Bhushan – the lawyers who filed the PIL. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta represented the union of India, arguing that there was no need to order a fresh investigation.

Also read: Explainer: Why There Is a Plea Seeking Re-Investigation of Haren Pandya’s Murder

How is the Sohrabuddin encounter linked to Pandya’s murder?

Azam Khan’s trial court deposition in the Sohrabbudin case has also come to be important in Haren Pandya’s case.

Sohrabuddin was a gangster who was killed in an encounter with his wife Kauser Bi in 2005 – two years after Pandya’s murder. BJP chief Amit Shah was arrested as an accused in Sheikh’s case. D.G. Vanzara, an important police officer in Gujarat, was also arrested.

Azam Khan was a prosecution witness in the Sohrabuddin case. In the trial last December, Khan said Sohrabuddin had told him that Vanzara had given out a contract to kill Pandya. Sheikh said his associates, Tulsiram Prajapati and others, had fulfilled that contract and murdered Pandya.

“During discussions 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 told Sohrabuddin that they have killed a good person. Thereafter, Sohrabuddin told me that this contract of killing was given to him by Vanzara,” said Azam Khan in his deposition. 

Khan told the court in November that he had disclosed all this to the CBI back in 2010, but was told to keep quiet about it.  His comments about those orders having come from “above” were ordered to be expunged from court records by the judge.

In December, all the accused in the Sohrabbudin encounter case were acquitted.

Which media reports have become key? 

Since the Gujarat high court acquitted all the accused in Pandya’s murder in 2011, some new pieces of information have come to light which may have bearings on the case.

All of this was brought to the judges’ notice in open court today and also recorded in the PIL.

In 2013, the Times of India reported that Vanzara told the CBI officers interrogating him that Pandya was killed as part of a political conspiracy.

In 2016, journalist Rana Ayyub published a book titled Gujarat Files, which had a transcript of her conversation with Y.A. Sheikh –  the Gujarat police officer who first handled the case before the CBI. He, too, said the investigation lacked integrity and was a political conspiracy. He named Vanzara as being involved in the conspiracy to murder Pandya.

Justice Arun Misra asked for a copy of the book and skimmed through it in court today.

Last month, Y.A. Sheikh told The Wire that the investigation should be reopened.

In November, The Wire reported, that even though Vanzara was not actively part of the investigation, he was present inside the post-mortem room and at the crime scene – instances of which were recorded in photos taken by the Gujarat police.

Justice Arun Misra expressed displeasure at news articles being cited in court for a plea seeking to reinvestigate a case. Questioning Bhushan about the appropriateness of this, he said that perhaps he should lay down some finality on the matter. Bhushan, in return, referred to several cases where courts had even taken suo moto cognisance of news articles and initiated cases.

Also read: Did the CBI Even Investigate Haren Pandya’s Murder?

Can this PIL be heard in the Supreme Court?

Apart from objecting to the news articles being referred to in court, Justice Mishra also questioned the Bhushans over the procedure they had followed in filing this case.

Early into the hearing, Mishra asked Bhushan why he was bringing a PIL to ask for a complete reinvestigation, when an appeal in the criminal trial was already being heard by him at the Supreme Court.

Prashant Bhushan explained that while the CBI’s appeal of the high court verdict was only concerned with the acquittals, his PIL was asking for a complete reopening of the case. Towards the end of the hearing, he said the court should order the reopening first, before getting to the appeal.

However, Mishra repeatedly quizzed Bhushan on procedure, remarking to himself that the appropriate action would have been for this new evidence (cited by Bhushan) to be made a part of the criminal trial’s appeal and not as a fresh matter.

The Centre’s representative Tushar Mehta commented that the petitioners did not have the locus standi to be asking for this reinvestigation.

To this, Shanti Bhushan replied that in a criminal offence, the act is committed against society and, thus, there was societal interest at large in seeing an honest investigation and prosecution in the case, and that anyone could do this.