Ahmedabad: The Gujarat police officer who supervised the initial investigation into the mysterious murder of BJP leader Haren Pandya before the CBI came in and “botched up” the case now believes the killing should be investigated afresh so that the actual culprits can be identified and punished.
Of all the unexplained killings and encounters that happened in Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s 13-year tenure as chief minister, the murder of Pandya was in many ways the most intriguing. A popular leader of the ruling party and a former home minister of the state, Pandya had been sidelined by Modi and was known to have testified before an independent tribunal probing the state government’s complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots.
On the morning of March 26, 2003, his lifeless body was found in his car just outside the city’s Law Garden. Though his car was parked near a crowded intersection, no one even heard the gunshots fired apart from a sole witness that the Gujarat high court would later describe as unreliable.
The CBI prosecuted 12 Muslims for the crime and secured their convictions at a special anti-terrorism court. The agency claimed their motive for killing Pandya was to take revenge for the riots. But so improbable was the CBI’s case that the Gujarat high court in 2011 not only acquitted all the accused but felt compelled to assail the shoddy quality of the investigation.
Speaking to The Wire at his residence in Ahmedabad, Y.A. Shaikh drew attention to the fact that the Gujarat high court had actually suggested action be taken against the investigating officers.
“What clearly stands out from the record of the present case,” the high court had noted, “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’s chief investigator was Y.C. Modi. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed him head of the National Investigation Agency.
Conceding that the basic facts of the case – from the position of Pandya’s body to the nature of his bullet wounds and the absence of blood in the car – were difficult to square with the CBI’s claims, Y.A. Shaikh said it would have been logical for the agency to have gone back to the drawing board and reinvestigated the murder.
Instead of heeding the high court’s strictures, however, the CBI decided in November 2011 to appeal its verdict.
The matter is due to be heard by the apex court later this month but the sensational revelation made by a witness in a seemingly unrelated case last November is likely to cast its shadow on the arguments and counter-arguments that will be made.
Allegation of contract killing against Vanzara
On November 3, 2018, Azam Khan, a prosecution witness in the Sohrabuddin-Kausarbi-Prajapati killings case, testified that Sohrabuddin told him senior Gujarat police officer D.G. Vanzara had put out a contract to kill Pandya.
In his deposition, Khan said, “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. Thereafter, Sohrabuddin told me that this contract of killing was given to him by Vanzara.”
Although Khan said in open court that the order to kill Pandya had come from ‘people on top’ – “upar se yeh kaam diya tha” (the work was given from above) – judge S.J. Sharma expunged those words from the official court transcript of the deposition.
Khan said that subsequently, Sohrabuddin engaged Prajapati and “another boy” to commit the murder. “I told before the CBI officer about my discussion with Sohrabuddin at his house in Udaipur and the killing of Shri Hariyan Pandya by Tulsiram and one boy at the instance of Sohrabuddin…,” he said under cross-examination, the court transcript records.
Was Tulsiram Prajapati the shooter?
Khan’s statement that Vanzara, Sohrabuddin and Prajapati were involved in Pandya’s killing and that Prajapati was the gunman has opened up a can of worms. Not only has it rekindled speculation about a political conspiracy behind Pandya’s murder but has also put on the table a new motive for the killing of Sohrabuddin and Prajapati by Vanzara and the Gujarat police – the fear that the duo might not be willing to keep quiet about the killing of Pandya.
A hitherto unnoticed detail about the Pandya case is also relevant here. The crime branch had prepared a sketch of the alleged shooter on the basis of a description provided by a man the CBI claimed at the trial was the sole eyewitness to Pandya’s killing, a vendor named Anil Yaadram.
The sketch proved to be of no use in the trial court with the judge, Sonia Gokani, herself noting that it bore no resemblance to the man the CBI said was the gunman, Asgar Ali. Curiously, however, the sketch does bear a striking resemblance to Tulsiram Prajapati, whom Azam Khan says was Pandya’s assassin.
When The Wire shared the two images above with Shaikh, the original investigating officer, he accepted that there was a resemblance but had no explanation for how this could be. He said that the police artist, A.A. Chauhan, had prepared the sketch based on the witness’s inputs and that he became aware of the existence of a sketch only at the time of the trial.
What makes the resemblance especially bizarre is that Tulsiram is said to have been in a Madhya Pradesh jail on the day of Pandya’s killing.
Shaikh, who was sent to scene of the crime by the police control room on the morning of the shooting, handled the investigation for only two days. He recorded the statements of those who first saw Pandya’s body, and took charge of his mobile phone. He heard that a vendor might have been an eyewitness to the shooting and made contact with him.
The vendor Yaadram’s conduct even before he made it to the witness stand was curious. By his own account, he witnessed the shooting at 7:30 in the morning. Though the shooter fled, Yaadram did not apparently bother to see if his victim was dead or alive, nor did he call the police. Instead, he left the scene and purportedly told his employer later that someone had been shot. It is only when Pandya’s staff arrived at the scene that someone placed a call to the police control room. The time was around 10:30-10:40 and even then the PCR did not know exactly what had happened and to whom. The message which Shaikh received from the control room simply was that “there is some disturbance, please find out is going on”.
Two days later, the CBI was brought in and Shaikh was off the case. Within two weeks, the CBI declared that it had cracked the case. It charged a young man, Asghar, with the murder and roped a few others into the conspiracy, alleging that all of them had been motivated to commit the crime at the behest of a local cleric, Mufti Sufiyan. The cleric fled the state, reportedly to Pakistan, just when the CBI was unravelling the case and has remained untraceable since. His family, too, disappeared, several weeks later despite being under police surveillance.
The serendipitous emergence of Tulsiram Prajapati’s likeness in the Pandya case files is only one of the many mysteries surrounding the assassination.
After reviewing the trial court’s verdict and the arguments of the defence counsel, the high court reached the conclusion that key questions about the killing still remain unanswered. The time of the shooting remains a mystery, as does the awkward position in which Pandya’s body was found inside his car, a Maruti 800, with his feet, according to media reports, almost touching the steering wheel. The CBI’s explanation for the number of bullets found and the nature of the wounds they caused was seen as utterly implausible. The ballistics did not match the gun produced in court and the fact that another gun had been recovered from Udaipur – where Sohrabuddin had been staying – was never brought to the court’s notice.
Then there was the complete absence of blood in the car except for one drop despite the fact that one bullet entered Pandya’s scrotum and travelled upward. The trajectory of that bullet also appears to have defied all laws of physics since the eyewitness produced by the CBI said the gunman had fired on the car from the outside, through the opening of its door window that was just 3 inches wide.
This is what the high court observed:
“The opening of glass having been scientifically measured to be hardly 3 inches and [the eyewitness] having confirmed that Mr. Pandya was fired upon from outside the car, the version of the sole eye witness was practically improbablised by medical evidence and FSL reports which clearly indicated that at least [the scrotum] injury … was impossible to be caused from the height and angle of the weapon attributed to the assailant while the victim would be seated in the driver’s seat or even while he was sliding onto the adjoining seat, within seconds of the first fatal shot.”
On the mysterious absence of blood in the car, the high court noted:
The mystery of the murder is deepened by the facts, borne out from the record, that no blood was found in Shri Pandya’s car except a negligible spot on the seat near the driver’s seat even as his clothes bore tell-tale signs of profuse bleeding from injuries on the neck and forearm; and mobile phone and keys lying on the floor of the car below that seat had stains of blood.
Based on the bullets recovered, there is every likelihood that there were two weapons and two assassins. The absence of blood in the car when Pandya had clearly bled profusely suggests he was killed not in his car but elsewhere and that his body was then stuffed into his car. Why this was done, and by whom, can only be answered by a proper investigation – of the kind the CBI never did.
In an angry letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2013 about the Sohrabuddin and Ishrat Jahan fake encounter cases, BJP leader Arun Jaitley had also complained about attempts to “politicise the [Pandya] case”. He said “suggestions … are being made in the corridors of power by senior Congress leaders to implicate BJP leaders at this belated stage…. the CBI is being pressurised to admit that its own investigation was faulty.”
Far from “politicising” the Pandya case, it was the Congress-led UPA government that moved the Supreme Court in appeal against the high court’s decision to acquit the accused. And it was the Gujarat high court judgment acquitting the 12 men accused of Pandya’s murder which made no bones about the fact that the CBI’s investigation was not just faulty but “blinkered” and “inept”.
Simply put, the high court found that Pandya could not have been killed in the way the CBI said he was. It also found that the investigation left out innumberable clues and leads and expressed surprise at the CBI’s refusal to allow Pandya’s staff to testify about the state they found his body in.
In the 15 years since the crime, Pandya’s father and his widow, various BJP leaders in Gujarat and now the original investigating officer, have all questioned the sheer improbability of the CBI’s investigation. The more a reinvestigation is delayed, the greater is the likelihood of the trail going completely cold. Perhaps that is what the CBI, which clearly knows more than it is revealing, is hoping will happen.
Note: In an earlier version of this story it was stated that the CBI appealed the high court verdict on Pandya in 2013. In fact, the agency moved the Supreme Court in November 2011.