The probe into the murder of Haren Pandya closed in just six months. But, as the POTA trial against 18 men progresses, too many doubts have arisen about the prosecution’s case. Sankarshan Thakur investigates. First published in Tehelka, 19 August 2006.
Fact: this is how Haren Pandya was found in his white Maruti 800 (GJ 1 AP 4606) near midtown Ahmedabad’s Law Gardens by Neelesh Bhatt, his secretary for close to two decades, a little after 10 on the morning of March 26, 2003: shot, sprawled, apparently dead, on the driver’s seat, his head rolled to the left, his feet almost stuck into the steering.
Most of what happened before and after in the Pandya murder case is a matter of serious doubting.
An in-camera trial is proceeding apace in the POTA court of Judge Sonia Gokhani inside Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Jail, but our investigations reveal critical and disturbing questions over the entire premise of the prosecution’s case. So much so that more than three years after Pandya was shot dead, the only certain fact to emerge about the murder is that he was murdered sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 that morning.
We cannot be sure who shot him, although Asghar Ali, a 30-year-old odd-job man with a criminal record from Hyderabad, and 17 others stand charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for conspiracy and murder.
We cannot be sure how and in what circumstances he was shot.
We cannot be sure how many times he was shot.
We cannot be sure why he was shot.
We cannot even be sure where he was shot.
But first, briefly, the prosecution’s case. Pandya had gone to Law Gardens for a walk, as usual. As he parked, Asghar Ali approached his car and shot him five times through a three-inch opening in the pane on the driver’s side. Asghar’s recruitment for the job was part of a plot hatched by Muslim elements — among them Mufti Sufian, rabble-rousing cleric of Ahmedabad’s Lal Masjid — that wanted to avenge the post-Godhra carnage. The CBI, which took over the case three days after Pandya’s murder, uncovered an elaborate conspiracy to kill Pandya that included links with Pakistan’s ISI and ganglords of the Muslim underworld in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The CBI wrapped up investigations in less than six months and filed its chargesheet on September 8, 2003. The cornerstone of its case was a single eyewitness to the murder, a Law Gardens sandwich vendor called Anil Yaadram, who claims to have been present at the time of Pandya’s shooting and who identified Asghar Ali as Pandya’s assailant.
Now for all that is missing or does not fit, at least not with the prosecution’s story.
At the time he was killed, Pandya was one of Gujarat’s most high-profile BJP leaders. True, Chief Minister Narendra Modi had successfully sidelined him — he was neither minister nor MLA — but he remained a man to watch, a man about to be promoted as spokesperson of the BJP in New Delhi. Yet, when such a man is shot in the heart of Ahmedabad, not a thing stirs for more than two hours. Nothing in the bustling Law Gardens locality, not the hungry-for-breaking-news media, not even the police.
Yaadram, the lone eyewitness, says he was too dazed by what he saw to even move from the spot for an hour; when he does move, he informs not the police but his seth, a local businessman called Snehal Adenwala. Adenwala does not inform the police either, although he knows the man lying dead in the Maruti 800 in the Law Gardens parking lot is Haren Pandya; he calls Pandya’s associate, Prakash Shah, and tells him instead. Shah, too, does not call the police. He calls Pandya’s secretary Neelesh Bhatt, who is at Pandya’s house, already worrying about why his boss is late returning. It is then that Bhatt rushes to Law Gardens, locates the car and opens it to find his boss repeatedly shot. This is at a little past 10. Gujarat’s former minister of state for home has been lying dead in a car in the centre of town for more than two hours. The police are still a good half hour away.
Ahmedabad’s bush telegraph has begun to jangle, though. Has there been an attack on Pandya? The police control room gets several calls between 9:30 and 10. Something’s happened to Pandya, nobody knows quite what, where. The police don’t even seriously care to find out until Neelesh Bhatt calls up the Ellisbridge police station (the nearest and located in Pandya’s erstwhile Assembly constituency) and speaks to a Sub-Inspector (SI) Naik. Naik leaves for the spot.
Meantime, the Ellisbridge police receive another call from the control room — find out what’s happening at Law Gardens, there’s a commotion, there are rumours. Now another si, YA Shaikh, heads out. Midway to Law Gardens, Shaikh gets another control room call — go to Parimal Gardens, not Law Gardens; he changes course. At 10:50, he gets yet another call, this time to head to Law Gardens. He lands there at 10:54, nearly three hours after Pandya might have been shot. And guess what? Shaikh’s colleague, si Naik, who started for Law Gardens ahead of him, still hasn’t reached the spot. Who was ordering the local police about that morning? Why such delay in getting to a spot that is no more than ten minutes away?
Pandya’s body is hauled out of the car, sat at the back of a police jeep from the Navrangpura station (because they thought he was still alive? because they could not fit him in lying down?), and driven to the Vadilal Sarabhai Hospital as news of the murder spreads and leaves the city stunned. Strangely for such a high-voltage incident, no scene-of-crime records are kept. No photograph, no footage, no visible record other than a sterile shot of the car, taken later. Even the media has no images from the spot. It never got there. A television reporter in Ahmedabad, on the beat that morning, has this explanation: “Nobody seemed to know anything until it was too late. By the time we got to know, the scene had already shifted to the hospital, that’s where the tamasha was happening. I know it is strange not to have any images from the scene, but that is how it happened. By the time some of us got to Law Gardens, there was nothing.”
But the story gets stranger as it progresses.
The post-mortem, conducted at the VS Hospital the same afternoon, reveals Pandya sustained seven bullet injuries. From five bullets. Five of these injuries are 0.8cm in diameter, two are 0.5cm. It is scientifically possible for the same firearm to cause different-sized wounds because of surface tension and resistance. It is also possible for five bullets to leave seven injuries because bullets can travel through body parts. But independent experts who have examined the case closely (see box on page 22) maintain that it is highly unlikely in this case. Two bullets, in other words, have not been traced.
The bullet that caused injury number 5 on the post-mortem report was fired into the lower part of Pandya’s scrotum and travelled upwards into his chest, piercing his abdominal wall. Is it possible for a man sitting in a car — and a heavyset six-foot-plus man like Pandya in a small Maruti 800 at that — to be shot through the scrotum? The lone eyewitness says he saw the assailant firing (weapon identified as a Webley-Scott .32 bore revolver) into the opening in the car window. How could he have shot through Pandya’s scrotum? Either Pandya had to be sitting upside down in the car, or the revolver had to be below his seat. Common sense and expert opinion deem being shot through the scrotum while sitting in a car an impossibility.
Any man shot through his scrotum, as Pandya was, is going to bleed profusely; the scrotum is an intricate web of blood vessels that control body temperature. Did Pandya bleed? Yes. Are there traces in the car? No. Pandya was shot through his scrotum, his neck, twice through his chest, once through his arm. The car should have been drenched, or at least his seat should have been. Yet forensic reports find no evidence of blood in the vehicle, save for a dab on the front passenger seat and another on the key chain (Central Forensic Sciences Laboratory report no. CFSL-2003/F-0232).
Forensic reports also do not record any gunshot residue inside Pandya’s car (report of Mobile Forensic Science Laboratory, Gujarat State). Five bullets, if not more, were fired into him, apparently while he sat in the car. Yet no bullet residue?
Was Haren Pandya shot in his car at all? Or did the murder happen elsewhere and was his body planted in the car later? Where did Pandya go after he left home that morning? There are clues that could help find out. But they have vanished or become unavailable.
When Pandya’s body was taken out of the car at Law Gardens, he was wearing shoes; by the time he was taken in for post-mortem, the shoes were gone, there’s no record of them. The shoes could contain vital clues to where Pandya went that morning.
Pandya’s cellphone, a grey, fliptop Samsung, was recovered by the police from the car. The police either did not care to check or is hiding the call data records from Pandya’s phone that day. These could tell who Pandya called or was called by; these calls could, again, be a vital link in getting to the truth. But the records aren’t there. When Pandya’s mobile service provider, Hutch, was asked for the records, it produced manifests from January and February of 2003. For records of March 2003, it took a strange plea: they are too old, Hutch pleaded. But surely, January and February come before March.
Are there too many holes in the story the CBI and the prosecution have left gaping as they went about sealing a case of Muslim conspiracy? Is it in somebody’s interest not to probe the truth deeper, more comprehensively?
Pandya’s family has consistently disbelieved the government’s version on the murder and alleged that there was a “political conspiracy” to kill the leader. Pandya’s father, Vitthalbhai Pandya, has, in fact, directly pointed to Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s involvement. When Modi arrived at the VS Hospital soon after hearing of Pandya’s murder, Vitthalbhai greeted him with rage, calling the chief minister by his caste name (Ghanchi, considered a derogatory reference), and asking why he had arrived there. Pandya supporters, ranged behind Vitthalbhai, raised slogans amounting to calling Modi the killer.
rivalry is well-known, it was probably at its most intense when Pandya was shot
The Modi-Pandya rivalry is well-known; it was probably at its most intense when Pandya was shot. When Modi arrived as chief minister, imposed by the BJP high command as replacement for Keshubhai Patel, one of the first things he did was to remove Pandya from the home ministry and give him charge of revenue. Then he asked Pandya to vacate the Ellisbridge Assembly seat so he could contest a by-election. Pandya had nursed Ellisbridge, a central Ahmedabad seat, for long; he bluntly refused. Pandya suspected Modi was trying to sideline him. Modi, never one to take kindly to dissent, began to suspect Pandya was trying to set himself as a challenger. Relations deteriorated. In the 2003 Assembly elections, Modi defied the BJP high command to deny Pandya a party ticket. Modi won a runaway victory, Pandya was left with nothing but a grouse to nurse.
Then, perhaps, came a key fault in the fracture. Pandya deposed before the VR Krishna Iyer-led citizens’ inquiry into the Gujarat genocide of 2002. It was a secretly-arranged deposition, but Modi found out. Nobody quite knows what Pandya told the inquiry team, but Modi was stung by the fact that Pandya had cooperated with what he thought an utterly non-kosher probe.
But did Pandya himself not have a hand in the post-Godhra anti-Muslim violence? By all accounts, he did. He is known to have led anti-minority mobs in the Ellisbridge area and even participated in the desecration of a local dargah. In the words of one Ahmedabad-based human rights activist: “Modi was the villain of the violence, but it is not as if Pandya was clean. He did much less compared to what Modi did, but Pandya was part of the bloody campaign. He made enemies during that time.”
Enough for someone to plot to kill him? “Tough to say,” says a senior Gujarat police officer who fell out of favour with the Modi government for his stand on the handling of the post-Godhra carnage. “There is no denying Muslims were seething with anger. There is no denying there are elements in the Muslim underworld capable of undertaking such a killing, they routinely do it, crime is big in Gujarat and Muslims are a part of it. But it is also possible someone used their anger and got them to get rid of Pandya. That happens too; we call it a cutout murder, a murder in which you may know the murderer but not the man who got him to do it; the motivator is cut out of the crime.”
Could the strange case of Mufti Sufian, an accused in the case, be a part of that cutout? Sufian is a young cleric who made a quick name for himself making incendiary speeches at Ahmedabad’s Lal Masjid. It is known that he had become more hardline following the 2002 violence, fanning counter-communal flames during his post-prayer discourses. It is also known he had links with Ahmedabad’s underworld which lives off bootlegging. Sufian is alleged to have played a role in contracting Asghar Ali for the Pandya hit. Within a week of the murder, while he was apparently still under watch, Sufian slipped out of the country. Where to? Nobody knows. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, nobody quite knows. The CBI elevated Sufian to the rogues’ gallery on its website and had Interpol post a red-corner notice for him. He was, on paper, a wanted man, accused of the conspiracy to murder Pandya. Yet, a year or so after Sufian’s mysterious escape, his wife and children managed to vapourise as well. “They should have been under strict watch, they were the last clue we had to Sufian’s whereabouts,” says a senior police officer, “and yet they got away. How could that be possible? Did someone help them out? Did Sufian hold uncomfortable secrets? Was there a deal?”
Another set of questions on the Pandya murder that beg answers.