Who killed Sohrabuddin?

Who killed Sohrabuddin?

Rajendra Jeerawala, owner of a farm house in Gujarat who, according to CBI, facilitated the illegal detention, leaves the special CBI court after he was acquitted, in Mumbai, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. The court has acquitted all 22 accused in the alleged fak

More than a decade after gangsters Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Tulsiram Prajapati were gunned down by teams of Gujarat and Rajasthan police, the politics over the alleged fake encounter killings continues. The acquittal of the 22 who stood trial in a special CBI court recently, for lack of evidence, has only raised more questions than it answered.

Additional Sessions Judge S J Sharma, who presided over the trial and delivered the 358-page verdict made two key observations: that the CBI could not prove the alleged “politician-police nexus” and that “the entire investigation was thus targeted to act upon a script to achieve the said goal and in the process of its zeal to anyhow implicate political leaders”.

The story begins in 2005, when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Amit Shah the home minister and DIG of Police DG Vanzara, often described as an encounter specialist, was in full flow as head of the Gujarat Anti-Terror Squad (ATS). Every problem was a national security problem, every criminal a terrorist out to assassinate Modi, and the solution to every threat was an encounter killing – real or fake didn’t matter.

Indeed, on December 21, when the CBI court acquitted all 22 accused in the case, Vanzara, who was accused no. 1 until he was discharged from trial in 2017, tweeted: “Terrorists successfully assassinated political leaders like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Beant Singh, Benazir Bhutto and Premadasa. Had post-Godhra pre-emptive encounters not (been) carried out by Gujarat Police, Narendra Modi would have met the same fate. We saved the saviour.”  

Yet, what raises suspicion of foul play in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh-Kausar Bi-Tulsiram Prajapati case are the background of the gangsters and their alleged association with some of the very police officers, if not politicians, who were on trial for their killings, the circumstances of the alleged encounters and the fate that Kausar Bi met, the way in which the trial proceeded, the prosecution witnesses turned hostile, the judges changed -- and one even died mysteriously, and that so much of the available evidence was rejected or disregarded at various stages.

Indeed, as Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “No one killed...Haren Pandya, Tulsiram Prajapati, Judge Loya, Prakash Thombre, Shrikant Khandalkar, Kauser Bi, Sohrabuddin Shiekh...they just died.”

To which the BJP reacted sharply, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley saying: “It would have been more appropriate if he had asked the right question, namely who killed Sohrabudin case investigation, he would have got the right answer.”

As we near the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Sohrabuddin case could well be a whip for each party to flog the other with. It may be recalled that a year ago, the death of Special Judge BH Loya became a major political issue. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, only for it to rule that the death was natural.

The Sohrabuddin-Prajapati case itself has gone through several stages of investigations -- first by the Gujarat ATS itself and then by the State CID-Crime. However, after petitions and letters by Sohrabuddin’s brother Rubabuddin and Prajapati’s mother Narmada Bai, the Supreme Court asked the CBI to “further investigate” the matter. The trial, too, was transferred to the Mumbai court.

The trial saw four special judges after the Modi government came to power at the Centre -- despite the Supreme Court having stipulated that the same judge should hear the case from beginning to end: Judges JT Utpat, BH Loya, MB Gosavi and SJ Sharma, the last of whom completed the larger part of the trial. 

There were a total of 38 accused in the case, of which 16 were discharged between 2014-17, including Amit Shah, former Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria and Vanzara, besides several IPS officers posted in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

According to the CBI case, on November 23, 2005, a team of Gujarat and Rajasthan police abducted Sohrabuddin, Kausar Bi and Prajapati from a bus on which they were travelling from Hyderabad to Sangli. On November 25, Prajapati was taken to Udaipur and arrested in a case. On November 26, Sohrabuddin was shot dead in an alleged encounter with the police somewhere between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. Kausar Bi was taken to Illol in Banaskantha district and kept in a private farmhouse, where she was raped and murdered. Her body was burnt and ashes thrown into the Narmada river in Bharuch on November 29.

In jail, Prajapati had told inmates that he feared he, too, would be bumped off. On December 27, 2006, after a court hearing in Ahmedabad, he allegedly made a bid to escape while he was being taken back to Rajasthan. On December 28, he was shot dead near Ambaji town on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. According to CBI, both encounters were fake, and politicians, policemen and others colluded to eliminate the two gangsters.

At least one prosecution witness, Azam Khan, who too is in jail, had said Sohrabuddin was involved in the murder of the then Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya in March 2003, at the instance of Vanzara. “During a conversation with Sohrabuddin, he told me that he, along with Naeem Khan and Shahid Rampuri, got the contract to kill Haren Pandya and they killed him on March 26, 2003, in Ahmedabad. I felt sad. I told Sohrabuddin that they had killed a good person. Sohrabuddin told me that the contract was given by Vanzara,” Khan, currently lodged in a jail in Rajasthan, said in the Mumbai court during his deposition.

All this may well be true, but the CBI probably never had a chance to gather water-tight evidence and prove its case. After all, it came into the picture in the case almost five years after the encounter killings. Moreover, “Several witnesses turned hostile and did not cooperate,” CBI counsel BP Raju told the court during the final arguments.

In fact, of the 700-odd prosecution witnesses drawn up, the CBI produced 210 for examination before the court, of which 92 turned hostile. It is this that the judge rued in his verdict. “I am sorry....three lives were lost....but the (judicial) system and law demands that we go by evidence...I am helpless,” Judge Sharma said, pointing out that while the investigating agency and the prosecution made all efforts, if the witnesses do not speak when they come to the witness box, the law is helpless. Perhaps that’s why, shockingly, the accused did not produce a single witness in their defence. They did not need to. They just had to ensure the prosecution witnesses turned hostile.  

In the end, the CBI could match the bullet recovered from Sohrabuddin’s body with a weapon seized from the Gujarat ATS office, but who used it – Police Inspectors NH Dhabi or Abdul Rehman or Sub-Inspector Himanshu Singh Rajawat – could not be proved; various blood stained documents like driving license, etc., were seized from Sohrabuddin’s body, but who planted the clean-looking Surat to Ahmedabad bus ticket on him could not be found out; in the Prajapati encounter, however, a mere wound and treatment record produced by one of the police officers was enough to declare the encounter a genuine one. It was thanks to failure on such little details that the big picture never came to light: who killed Sohrabuddin, and why?