Why Gujarat trial court’s order sentencing Sanjiv Bhatt carries little conviction

As lawyers prepare to challenge the 430-page order in Gujarati in the High Court, friends of the IPS officer recall how inmates in Sabarmati Jail had gone on a hunger strike to protest his transfer

Former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt (Social media)
Former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt (Social media)
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Nachiketa Desai

When Sanjiv Bhatt was transferred from Sabarmati Jail, where he was serving as the Superintendent, the inmates went on a strike for six days. They protested and wanted Bhatt to continue in his post. In extensive reports in the media, the inmates were quoted as saying that the prison had changed for the better under Bhatt who treated them fairly and humanely.

An unconfirmed story doing the rounds in Ahmedabad is that one of the inmates had confided to Bhatt that Tulsi Prajapati, killed in an alleged fake encounter by Gujarat Police, had carried out the murder of the state’s then Home Minister Haren Pandya. Bhatt had apparently reported the ‘Intelligence input’ to higher-ups and was advised to destroy all records related to Prajapati and the inmates, something that he apparently ignored.

Finally, in 2011, when Bhatt was summoned by the Nanavati Commission and claimed that in 2002 then Chief Minister Narendra Modi had instructed the police to allow mobs to rule post-Godhra, he finally fell foul of the establishment.

But when last week a Sessions Court sentenced him to life imprisonment in a custodial death case dating back to 1990, the news received a mixed reaction. While most people felt it was vendetta by the political establishment — especially since no Gujarat policeman has ever been convicted despite 180 cases of custodial deaths reported in 16 years ending in 2016 — the establishment shrugged and said the law had taken its course. His defence had been found untenable by the court, they said. How can Narendra Modi or Amit Shah be held responsible? How indeed?

The port town of Jamnagar was Bhatt’s first posting and he took charge as Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) on October 10, 1990. On October 30, riots erupted in Jamjodhpur, 77 km from Jamnagar, following a bandh call given by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP to protest the arrest of veteran BJP leader L K Advani during his Somnath-to-Ayodhya Rath Yatra.

Sanjiv was ordered by Jamnagar district superintendent of police TS Bisht, his superior, to rush to Jamjodhpur to control the law and order situation. He claims to have reached Jamjodhpur around 1 pm on October 30. By that time, curfew had been imposed in the town and 133 rioters rounded up by the police.

During the day, DM and Collector of Jamnagar Haribhai Patel and SP TS Bisht also reached Jamjodhpur to supervise measures taken. The next day, on October 31, the rioters, booked under TADA by the Jamjodhpur police, were presented in court which sent them to judicial custody. Among the rioters were two brothers, Prabhudas and Ramesh Vaishani, both VHP activists.

All the 133 rioters were released from jail on bail after eight days on November 8. Four days later, 40-year-old Prabhudas Vaishani complained of back pain and was taken first to a hospital in Jamnagar and later to Rajkot for treatment.

On November 18, Prabhudas died in Rajkot hospital. The doctors attending to him declared ‘acute renal failure’ as the cause of his death.

Prabhudas’ brother Amrutlal Madjavji Vaishnani, also an active member of the VHP/BJP, then asked for post-mortem of his brother’s body. His application was treated as a FIR by the Jamnagar Police and was sent to Jamjodhpur for investigation.

In the 30 intervening years, the case witnessed several twists and turns.

The case was first given to the state CID (Crime) for investigation. Following scrutiny of 2,500 pages of evidence from logbooks of vehicles, wireless messages and examining more than 200 witnesses, the Crime Branch declared that there was no evidence found against Bhatt and the five policemen accused in the case.

CID (Crime) concluded that there was no evidence that Prabhudas Vaishani and Ramesh Vaishani were ever in custody of Sanjiv Bhatt or his team. The report also observed that none of the 133 arrested by the Jamjodhpur police, including Prabhudas, had complained of either any discomfort or of ill-treatment to any doctor or medical professional. Moreover their medical examination done by doctors at the prison also did not find any external or internal injury to Prabhudas.

CID (Crime) had sought and obtained the expert opinion of celebrated Nephrologist Padmashri Dr HL Trivedi, the founder director of the well-known Kidney Disease and Research Institute of Ahmedabad, by sending him all the medical reports, treatment papers, post-mortem reports and related tests.

Dr Trivedi, in his expert opinion, stated that there was no indication of “Rhabdomyolosis” as the cause of death of Prabhudas Vaishani, thereby further confirming that the cause of death was not due to any torture.

The superintendent of CID (Crime), investigating the case also confirmed from the police sub inspector and other policemen of Jamjodhpur, who had arrested and had the custody of Prabhudas Vaishani that at no point in time was his custody handed over to Sanjiv Bhatt nor had he ever interrogated him.

After the State CID (Crime) submitted its investigation report, the Gujarat government refused to sanction the prosecution of Sanjiv Bhatt and other accused police officers. Thereafter, the prosecution filed a closure report in the court in 1995.

Bhatt’s harassment started in 2011 after he deposed before the Nanavati Commission. Why had he waited till 2011 to disclose what Narendra Modi had allegedly said in 2002? Was it an after-thought? His explanation has always been that the Nanavati Commission had summoned him and he was deposing under oath for the first time.

In any case, Sanjiv was first suspended for having abstained from duty – he was required to remain present before the Nanavati Commission which summoned him – and finally dismissed from Indian Police Service after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.

Then, last year on September 5, he was arrested in connection with a 23-year-old case involving a lawyer from Rajasthan who had accused Gujarat Police of implicating him in a false drug-peddling case. Sanjiv has been lodged in Palanpur Jail since then and has been denied bail.

Meanwhile, the trial of the case of custodial death against him in the Jamnagar session’s court began on a fast-track leading to his conviction and sentencing of life imprisonment delivered on June 20.

A close perusal of the session court’s order spanning 430 pages and written in Gujarati indicate that the court has given no reason for disregarding the closure report filed in 1995. Nor did the court find anything abnormal in the Prosecution not examining any of the investigating officer of the CID (Crime).

The prosecution examined 32 witnesses, a majority of them VHP activists who had been rounded up in 1990. At Bhatt’s insistence and following intervention by the high court, three IPS officers - HP Singh, PP Pandey and TS Bisht were examined as court witnesses. None of their testimony implicated Bhatt of any wrongdoing. But it is not clear why the court ignored their deposition.

While the Defence pleaded that there was no evidence that the deceased was ever in the custody of Bhatt, that there was no evidence of any torture and there was no motive for torture either, the court relied on the oral submissions of VHP activists.

Statements of witnesses recorded during the investigation by the state CID (Crime) had revealed that they had never witnessed any torture or forced sit-ups by the detainees.

But these witnesses were also not examined.

The public prosecutor presented 32 witnesses during the trial. They included 17 of the 133 VHP activists arrested by the Jamjodhpur town police on October 30, 1990 for rioting and arson. Among the prosecution witnesses were four doctors who gave first aid to those injured in police action on rioters on the day of the bandh.

The prosecution objected to the defence advocates’ plea to submit case diaries and log reports of vehicles used by the accused saying they were not admissible because the entries were made by the accused themselves.

No officer, police staff or any authorities have given any deposition stating that Sanjiv Bhatt or his staff removed any of the arrested rioters including Prabhudas Vaishani from the custody of the local police.

Even doctors and medical professionals who had tended to the deceased and had performed post-mortem as well as provided expert opinion were not examined by the prosecution.

And when the Defence requested for permission to produce and examine a Forensic Medicine Expert, Dr Reddy, from Hyderabad, the court ordered that he be produced in court three hours later, despite being informed that he would be travelling from Hyderabad.

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