On Friday July 5, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of 12 people in the murder of former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya. Pandya was shot dead in March 2003 while on his morning walk near the Law Garden in Ahmedabad.
12 people, Asgar Ali, Mohammed Rauf, Mohammed Parvez Abdul Kayum Sheikh, Parvez Khan Pathan Khan alias Athar Parvez, Mohammed Farroq alias Haji Farooq, Shahnawaz Gandhi, Kalim Ahmed alias Kalimullah, Rehan Puthawala, Mohammed Riaz Sareswala, Aniz Machiswala, Mohammed Yunus Sareswala and Mohammed Saifuddin were first found guilty by a special trial court, which was also hearing a case against them for the alleged attempt on the life of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jagdish Tiwari.
The CBI had claimed both cases were connected and part of a conspiracy to avenge the 2002 carnage. But the Gujarat High Court dropped the murder charge against the 12 in the Haren Pandya murder case. The prosecution then challenged this acquittal in the Supreme Court that has now restored the conviction and sentences of the accused.
The judgment by Justice Arun Mishra reads, “The evidence collected during the investigation in the cases revealed that both the incidents were part of the same transaction and in pursuance of a well-designed common conspiracy, they were committed. The motive was to spread terror amongst the Hindus.”
The SC also dismissed a PIL seeking a fresh probe filed by the NGO Common Cause, with costs to the tune of Rs 50,000/-.
Brief background of the case:
Pandya was found shot dead on March 26, 2003 and the gunmen still remain unidentified. But what is more curious is how the investigation progressed. CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad who was part of a Concerned Citizens Tribunal that conducted hearings of witnesses and survivors in the aftermath of the post-Godhra anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat says Pandya was punished for testifying against powerful perpetrators. In this piece that was written as a part of her yet to be published book she says, “Law Gardens, where Pandya was found dead inside a white Maruti car is a fashionably busy part of Ahmedabad but there were no inconvenient witnesses to the incident that day. The thelas selling banjara costumes and cholis that litter the border of the garden had been evicted from the area just a few days before Pandya’s murder.”
She points out the lapses in the manner in which the investigation began and the direction it took, saying, “Ellis Bridge is the closest police station to Law Gardens but mysteriously it was the Navrangpura police who first arrived at the spot. Officers of the Ellis bridge station had been mis-directed and initially told to go to the Piramal Gardens, not Law Gardens where the incident was supposed to have occurred. Halfway there, someone guided them back to the correct spot.”
The matter was first investigated by the Gujarat Police under the supervision of DG Vanzara, who was one of the key accused in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case (he was subsequently discharged from the case). Under pressure from civil society groups the case was subsequently handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Curiously the CBI never spoke to Pandya’s wife Jagruti who was the last person to speak to him. She was also not called in to testify before the special trial court.
When the Haren Pandya murder case was heard before a special trial court, the court also hearing another case where the same set of accused were facing charges for the attempt to murder Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jagdish Tiwari. The 12 men, all belonging to the minority community were convicted by the trial court. Key accused Asgar Ali of Hyderabad was awarded a life sentence, others were to serve anywhere between five years to life.
Jagruti told rediff.com in June 2007 after the trial court’s judgment came out that she found it difficult to accept it and pointed out key prosecutorial lapses saying, “For two-and-a-half years, the mobile and phone records of my husband were not produced by the CBI. The CBI investigating officer admitted during his cross examination that the CBI had procured these records as early as March 30, 2003, but he admitted in open court that the CBI has no idea where the original printouts are. Where did the original phone records disappear?” There are allegations that despite being taken off the case Vanzara continued to influence the investigation. Curiously, Jagurti subsequently went on to join the BJP in 2016 and became chairperson of the Child Rights Commission.
But the Gujarat High Court dropped the murder charges against and observed that the investigation was botched and misdirected. However, the High Court did hold them guilty under sections 120 (criminal conspiracy) and 307 (attempted murder) as well as various sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in connection with the Jagdish Tiwari case.
The CBI and the state of Gujarat challenged the acquittal under murder charges and moved Supreme Court.