Who killed Sohrabuddin? Debate around judge’s death puts focus back on murders by Gujarat police

 Thursday, November 29th 2018

On November 26, 2005, a man in his thirties named Sohrabuddin Sheikh was gunned down by a team of the Gujarat police. The police claimed that Sheikh was an operative of the Lashkar-e-Toiba Millitant organisation and that he was, along with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, planning a high-profile assassination of a senior leader in Gujarat – presumably Narendra Modi.

The Rajasthan police had tipped off their Gujarat counterparts about the conspiracy, and came to Gujarat to help catch the Millitant. A police party was said to have spotted Sheikh riding a motorcycle on a highway at Vishala Circle near Ahmedabad. They challenged him, but he refused to halt. As he desperately tried to escape, he shot at the policemen. The police said that they fired back in self-defence and killed him.

In the wake of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, sensational reports frequently flashed on the front pages of newspapers and on television screens about men and women gunned down in encounters with the state police. The police mostly claimed that these men and women were dreaded Millitants who intended to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

But in each case, the authorities had been able to gather advance information of their plans and apprehend the Millitants almost miraculously (or with the utmost professionalism) just in time. The official story on every occasion was that the men and women had been killed because they tried to shoot at the police while attempting to escape.

In reply to a question in the legislative assembly, the Gujarat government conceded that as many as 21 people had been killed by the state police in what are popularly known as “encounters” between just 2003 and 2006. But the names of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi did not figure in the Gujarat government’s response.

“Encounters” are extra-judicial killings of people in the custody – legal or illegal – of the police. The stories given by the police about the circumstances of many of these encounter deaths in Gujarat, however, were mostly clumsy and unconvincing.

Six of the people killed were officially in police custody when they died. It was incredible that they could possess firearms in custody to warrant the police killing them in self-defence. It was claimed in all cases that the persons killed by the police were dreaded Millitants, with plans to assassinate Modi or other senior leaders, or launch terror strikes, but there was rarely any convincing evidence to establish these allegations. No postmortem followed the killings, or statutory magisterial enquiry.

The story of how Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi, and a year later his associate Tulsiram Prajapati were killed may never have come to light, like numerous other encounter killings buried in the dusty files of official malfeasance.

But the shadowy truth of these encounters was exposed by a combination of chance, the unconventional investigation techniques of a maverick journalist, the dogged pursuit of justice by human rights workers and the families of those killed, and above all public officials who displayed unexpected sterling courage and fairness.

The pursuit of these cases uncovered the brazen way that people had been killed by the Gujarat police and how these custodial murders were dressed up as acts of self-defence. Subsequently, many senior policepersons and Amit Shah, who was Gujarat’s home minister at the time, were jailed on extremely grave charges of extra-judicial murder.

A brother’s plea

In the case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, two events intervened. In December 2005, Sheikh’s brother, Rubabuddin, wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India that he was not convinced about the police version of how his brother died, and was worried about his sister-in-law Kausar Bi, who had also gone missing at the same time as Sohrabuddin’s murder. The Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat police to investigate how he had been killed and what had happened to Kausar Bi.

Matters may still never have surfaced, except for a discussion over drinks of a few police inspectors with a journalist with a colourful history Prashant Dayal, who worked with the widely circulated newspaper, Divya Bhaskar. Dayal had been employed in a garage and then drove an auto-rickshaw before he established his credentials as an investigative reporter. He often plied police officers with liquor to extract “inside” news in a state that officially has a policy of prohibition. That evening, with much liquor in their bloodstreams, the officers bragged about how they had eliminated “anti-national elements”.

The journalist investigated further, and his enquiries confirmed that two men and a burqa-clad woman had been confined in a farm house. In November 2006, he finally broke the sensational story of the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi. (In 2008, he was soon charged with sedition by the Gujarat police. It took until 2013 for him to be acquitted.) Dayal’s report sparked a series of developments that led ultimately to the arrest of senior police officials like DG Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandian of the Gujarat police, and MN Dinesh Kumar of the Rajasthan police, for the murder of Sheikh and others.

The investigation ordered by the Supreme Court into Sheikh’s killing was initially supervised by Inspector General of Police Geetha Johri. Her investigation established quickly that the police story was a criminal fabrication, and that Sheikh had been deliberately murdered by the Gujarat police without any provocation.

The motorcycle that the police claimed Sheikh had been riding actually belonged to the cousin of a constable of the Gujarat Anti T Squad. The Gujarat state government counsel was forced to admit to the Supreme Court that this was indeed a fake encounter.

It became clear that a police team had taken Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi and associate Tulsiram Prajapati into custody on November 22, 2005, as they were travelling in a luxury bus from Hyderabad to Sangli.

The group of policemen who abducted them were from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and were led by a senior IPS officer from Gujarat, Rajkumar Pandyan. The police team initially apprehended only Sheikh and Prajapati, but Kausar Bi refused to let them take away her husband without her.

All three were pulled out of the bus by the police. After they reached Gujarat, though, a protesting Kausar Bi was taken to a separate farmhouse. Prajapati was later handed over to the Rajasthan Police and subsequently sent to jail. Sohrabuddin Sheikh was killed by the police team on November 26, 2005.

A gruesome killing

Investigations established that Kausar Bi was killed and her body was burnt on or around November 29, 2005. The police had never announced her killing, nor claimed that she was a Millitants.

Human rights lawyer Mukul Sinha pieced together what perhaps happened based on statements by police witnesses to the Central Bureau of Investigation: “Kauserbi was confined in a farmhouse known as Arham farm from 26th to 28th November, 2005…One PSI Chaube was given the job to guard her…Ravindra Makwana ASI …on 25.8.2010, stated before the CBI that …

‘Choube the then PSI who was deputed to look after Smt Kauserbi, raped her in farmhouse.’ The last journey of Kauserbi was of course the most brutal. On 29th November around 12.30 p.m, she was taken to the ATS office at Shahibaug by PSI Choube.

DG Vanzara, DIG and Rajkumar Pandyan, SP, tried to buy peace with her and offered her a huge sum of money for her silence but she refused. On being told about the death of Sohrabuddin, she turned hysteric. Narendra Amin, Dy SP Crime Branch Ahmedabad, who was earlier a doctor by profession, was summoned by Vanzara around 4 pm. Kauser Bi was drugged and killed in that very office.”

When Sheikh’s associate Prajapati realised that Kauser Bi had been killed, he immediately surmised that she had been eliminated because she was a witness to the abduction. Now that he was the only remaining witness, he was terrified that he would meet the same fate.

He spoke of his fears to many people, including some undertrials with whom he was detained in prison, and to his lawyer. He wrote desperately to the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, praying that it intervene to save his life.

He feared that he would be killed while he was taken out of jail to attend the court cases pending against him. When the police transported him to other places, he would ask members of his family to try to travel on the same train. He was prescient.

Despite his many pleas, he was killed in yet another purported encounter. The Rajasthan Police brought Prajapati to Ahmedabad by train on December 26, 2006, and boarded the night train to Udaipur from Ahmedabad station. Early on the morning on December 28, Prajapati was shot dead by the Gujarat Police near the Gujarat-Rajasthan border highway, close to a village called Chhapri.

The police claimed that he had fled en route to the court. The claimed encounter took place in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, to which accused IPS officer DG Vanzara had been transferred just 13 days before the murder. The chargesheet filed later by the Central Bureau of Investigation said that Prajapati had been abducted in Ahmedabad. The encounter took place under the direction of Vanzara and another IPS officer, Vipul Aggarwal, the agency said.

Police officer’s testimony

Prajapati was killed at a crucial point in the Sohrabuddin and Kausar Bi murder investigation, when the Investigating Officer, VL Solanki had sought permission to interrogate him. According to a statement by police officer GC Raiger to the CBI later, Home Minister Amit Shah called a meeting in the second last week of December 2006.

Raiger testified that he attended this meeting with Geetha Johri, the Inspector General of the state Criminal Investigation Department who was supervising the Sohrabuddin enquiry, and Director General of Police PC Pande.

(Both were later listed as accused in this case.) According to Raiger’s testimony, Shah “scolded us for not being able to tame Solanki, who wanted to drag the matter further in his enquiry by way of examining Tulsiram Prajapati for which he had sought permission. He told us to wrap up the matter.”

According to Raiger, Shah specifically directed that Prajapati should not be interrogated and that Solanki should be stopped from his investigation. The investigating officer Solanki also told the CBI that Johri, the senior police officer who was supervising his investigations, instructed him to change the case papers in order to delete evidence against Amit Shah.

This, she told him, was on Shah’s instructions. Solanki refused. Rajendra Acharya, who was Geetha Johri’s personal assistant, confirmed this conversation.

Vanjara’s role

Dahyaji Gobarji Vanzara, who headed Gujarat’s Anti-T Squad, was in jail from 2007 to until he got bail in 2015 on charges of having conducted a series of extra-judicial killings. In addition to being accused of killing Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Kauser Bi and Prajapati, he was also charged with the murder of Sameer Khan (killed in October 2002), Mumbai college student Ishrat Jahan and three others (shot dead on June 15, 2004) and Sadik Jamal (killed in 2003).

It is reported that in September 2013, there were 32 police officers, including six Gujarat IPS officers, who were serving time in jail for their involvement in fake encounters. Most of them had worked under Vanzara.

From jail, he wrote a letter of resignation, in which he was entirely unrepentant. “The CID/CBI arrested my officers and me holding us responsible for carrying out allegedly fake encounters,” he wrote.

“If that is true, then the CBI investigating officers for all four cases have to arrest the policy formulators too as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters.” He described himself as a “nationalist Hindu”, spoke of Narendra Modi as “god”, yet he felt abandoned and disgruntled. Vanzara was released on bail in February, 2015, and returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Change of fortunes

The winds had changed course once the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi took charge of the government in Delhi in May 2014. The fortunes of Shah and the indicted police officers changed dramatically.

There were some initial hiccups, but these quickly remedied. The trial judge JT Utpat pulled up Amit Shah on June 6, 2014, for failing to appear in court in person. He ordered Shah to present himself in court on June 26, 2014. But only a day before this scheduled hearing, Utpat was transferred to another court, and replaced by another judge BH Loya.

Judge Loya also expressed concerns over Shah’s failure to appear before the court. But this judge died on the night of November 30 or in the early hours of December 1, 2014, in circumstances that his family claims were suspicious. In an article published this week, they detailed their misgivings to The Caravan magazine.

Within weeks of Judge Loya’s death, on December 30, 2014, the third judge to hear the case, MB Gosavi, discharged Amit Shah from the Sohrabudin Sheikh fake encounter case. Gosavi said he saw no evidence against Shah, and instead said he “found substance” in his main defence that the CBI had framed him “for political reasons”. In so doing, Gosavi ignored crucial pieces of evidence such as police officer Raiger’s categorical statement that Amit Shah had instructed obstruction of the investigation, and his phone records.( Scroll )