How Judge Loya’s Mysterious Death Led to a Constitutional Crisis
On 30 November 2014, Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, along with two other colleagues– Judge Bhushan Gavai and Judge Sunil Shukre, travelled from Mumbai to Nagpur where they checked into the government-run Ravi Bhawan complex in Nagpur. They were in town to attend the wedding and reception of the daughter of fellow judge Judge Swapna Joshi, who is now serving in the Bombay High Court. As per the police report, Judge Loya developed chest pains at around 4 am and was taken to two hospitals. At 6:15 am on 1 December 2014, he died.
The postmortem report states the cause of death as “coronary artery insufficiency.”
However, the family started receiving calls from 5 am in the morning informing them of the CBI judge’s death. This and several other discrepancies in the events that followed his death have quite inadvertently led to a constitutional crisis in the country.
What Were the initial Reactions to Judge Loya’s Death?
Loya’s family did not speak to the media immediately after his death. Except for routine reportage, nothing unusual was said about Judge Loya’s death. On 3 December 2014, Trinamool Congress MPs staged a protest outside the parliament where the winter session was underway.
Trinamool spokesman Derek O ‘Brien said: “Judge B H Loya was hearing the case after Judge JT Utpat was transferred within a week of reprimanding Amit Shah for seeking exemption from appearance in court. Judge Loya had no medical issues. We ask for an independent inquiry and a forensic investigation into the death of Judge Loya.”
Sohrabuddin’s brother Rababuddin had even written a letter to the CBI expressing shock over Judge Loya’s death, but nothing significant came of it.
The Caravan Report
On 20 November 2017, The Caravan magazine published a report raising “deeply disturbing questions…about the inconsistencies in the reported account of the death, about the procedures followed after his death and condition of the judge’s body when it was handed over to the family.”
In its report, The Caravan quotes two unnamed sources in a local police station and the government medical college saying that they had been informed of Judge Loya’s death by midnight and the postmortem was done shortly after midnight.
The report quotes Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani to indicate the involvement of Ishwar Baheti, purported to have links to the RSS, in delivering the judge’s body to the family.
Loya’s father normally resides in Gategaon, but was in Latur at the time, at the house of one of his daughters. He, too, received a phone call, telling him his son’s body would be moved to Gategaon. “Ishwar Baheti, an RSS worker, had informed father that he would arrange for the body to reach Gategaon,” Biyani told me. “Nobody knows why, how and when he came to know about the death of Brij Loya.”– Excerpt from The Caravan’s 20 November 2017 report
According to the report, Anuradha Biyani also found blood stains on Judge Loya’s neck.
A diary entry by Biyani from the time reads, “There was blood on his collar. His belt was twisted in the opposite direction, and the pant clip is broken. Even my uncle feels that this is suspicious.” Harkishan told me, “There were bloodstains on the clothes.” Mandhane said that she, too, saw “blood on the neck.” She said that “there was blood and an injury on his head … on the back side,” and that “his shirt had blood spots.” Harkishan said, “His shirt had blood on it from his left shoulder to his waist.” But in the postmortem report, issued by the Government Medical College Hospital in Nagpur, under a category described as “Condition of the clothes—whether wet with water, stained with blood or soiled with vomit or faecal matter,” a handwritten entry reads, simply, “Dry.”– Excerpt from The Caravan’s 20 November 2017 report
The report also points out that the fact that a postmortem was ordered suggests that his death was deemed suspicious. Yet, the family was not given a copy of the panchnama that should have been prepared in a medico-legal case.
The fact that it was the RSS-connected Ishwar Baheti who handed over Judge Loya’s cellphone to the family and not the police, and that too, after 3-4 days, also raises some serious questions.
A mysterious – maiyatacha chukatbhau– or the paternal cousin of the deceased has signed and received the postmortem report from the senior police inspector of the Sadar police station. But Anuradha Biyani clarifies that she and her brother Judge Loya do not have a brother or paternal cousin brother in Nagpur. So, who signed the report was another unanswered question.
In addition, the time of death mentioned in the postmortem report, 6:15 am, does not match the statements by the family members who say they started receiving calls at 5 am stating Judge Loya was no more.
Was Judge Loya Under Any Pressure?
According to The Caravan, a former Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court had offered Loya a Rs 100 crore bribe for a favourable judgment in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.
She added that Mohit Shah told her brother that if “the judgment is delivered before 30 December, it won’t be under focus at all because at the same time, there was going to be another explosive story which would ensure that people would not take notice of this.”– Excerpt from The Caravan’s 20 November 2017 report
Loya’s father is also quoted as having said that multiple offers were made to the judge at different points in time.
Loya’s father Harkishan also told me that his son had confided in him about bribe offers. “Yes, he was offered money,” Harkishan said. “Do you want a house in Mumbai, how much land do you want, how much money do you want, he used to tell us this. This was an offer.” But, he added, his son refused to succumb to the offers. “He told me I am going to turn in my resignation or get a transfer,” Harkishan said. “I will move to my village and do farming.”– Excerpt from The Caravan’s 20 November 2017 report
What Happened to the Case Against Amit Shah?
Judge Loya was hearing only one case at the time – the alleged fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in which BJP President Amit Shah was an accused. After the CBI said it would not be possible to get a free trial in Gujarat, the case was moved to Maharashtra. The case was first assigned to Judge JT Utpat who was transferred a day before Amit Shah was to appear in Court. The transfer was processed despite a 2012 SC order specifying that the same judge should hear the case from start to finish. After Judge Loya’s death, the third judge to hear the case, Judge MB Gosavi, on 30 December 2014, dropped the charges against Amit Shah at the end of a three-day hearing,
The Contradictory Findings
Independent investigations conducted by The Indian Express and NDTV, however, contradicted The Caravan’s report on three main issues.
1. How Judge Loya was taken from Ravi Bhawan to the Hospital
On 27 November, NDTV published a report, based on information from Judge Gavai, who had reached the second hospital, Meditrina Hospital upon being informed of Loya’s condition (not the first one to which Loya had been initially taken). It said, “when Judge Loya began feeling uneasy, he was driven to a local hospital accompanied by a court official and a judge from Mumbai with whom he was sharing a room, recalled Judge Gavai.” The report concluded that this “contradicts the family’s claim that Judge Loya was transferred to hospital in an auto rickshaw and without appropriate supervision.”
Gavai told The Indian Express that a local judge named “Vijaykumar Barde and then Deputy Registrar of the Nagpur bench of the High Court Rupesh Rathi first took him to Dande Hospital in two cars.” Judge Sunil Shukre, who also went to Meditrina Hospital, told The Indian Express, “There was no question of taking him in an auto rickshaw,” and that “Judge Barde drove him to Dande Hospital in his own car.”
2. Whether an ECG was conducted
The Caravan report states that no ECG was done at the Dande hospital (first of the two hospitals Judge Loya was taken to that night), but hospital records as accessed by The Indian Express seemed to show that an ECG had been conducted at the hospital.
The Caravan’s 21 December 2017 report, however states that the time stamp on the ECG reads 5:11 am on 31 November 2014 – a full day prior to Judge Loya’s death. This anomaly was clarified by The Indian Express with a statement from Pinak Dande, the owner of Dande hospital who blamed the faulty date on a ‘technical glitch’.
NDTV and The Indian Express have not made clear what measures, if any, they took to verify the authenticity of the ECG chart before they reported it. Until the chart is reliably verified, there remains the possibility that it was fabricated.–The Caravan report dated 21 December 2017
The Caravan has also questioned the choice of Dande hospital, owned by Pinak Dande who has known links with the RSS. Lata Mangeshkar Hospital, Wockhardt hospital – are both considered among the best medical facilities in Nagpur and were within easy driving distance of Rai Bhavan, but were not the first choice for treating Loya.
3. Who received Judge Loya’s body
The Indian Express contradicts The Caravan’s claim that an unknown “paternal cousin brother of the deceased” collected the body. The Indian Express claims to have tracked down the man who collected Judge Loya’s body – Prashant Rathi, a doctor himself.
Recalling that morning, Rathi said that he got a call from his uncle Rukmesh Pannalal Jakotia. “He said his cousin (judge Loya) had been admitted to Meditrina hospital and asked me to help him. When I reached the hospital, doctors told me he was no more. I conveyed this to my uncle. He asked me to take care of the formalities,” said Rathi.
Rathi added: “There were about seven to eight judges, including Judge Bhushan Gavai. The judges said a postmortem needed to be done. A senior police official was called from the Sitabuldi police station for panchnama.”
Demand for Justice
Within a week of The Caravan magazine publishing its article, demands for an independent investigation into Judge Loya’s death were made from several judicial and political quarters.
On 21 November, retired judge BH Marlapalle wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court Manjula Chellur, saying – “I, for one, believe firmly that it is a fit case for causing investigation by an SIT, irrespective of its outcome at this point of time. The Supreme Court of India, while interpreting Article 225 of the Constitution of India, has repeatedly stated that the High Court is the guardian of the subordinate judiciary. In my humble view, ordering an investigation by an SIT by registering this article as a PIL petition, will certainly make subordinate Court Judges to believe that they are not orphans.”
On 23 November, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court AP Shah in an interview to The Wire, said– “It is necessary that the chief justice of the high court or the Chief Justice of India himself should look into this material and decide whether to order an enquiry, because if these allegations are not investigated it causes serious stigma on the judiciary.”
The same day, the Communist Party of India released a statement on their website demanding a high-level judicial enquiry to immediately look into Judge Loya’s death. The statement read as follows:
The exposure in sections of the media raise serious issues over the circumstances of the death of the CBI court judge, HP Loya, in November 2014. Judge Loya was hearing the case regarding the encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in 2005. The family members of Judge Loya have alleged that attempts were made to bribe and intimidate him during the course of the trial. These have raised disturbing questions of murder, bribery, subversion of law and the manipulation of institutions of our parliamentary democracy at the highest level, which must be seriously investigated.
Speaking at a book launch in Delhi on 24 November, former BJP leader Arun Shourie came down hard on the “complete resolute silence” of the mainstream media on The Caravan’s investigative report. “Every media house should have been running to develop that story”, he said.
Also on the panel, was Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who spoke critically of the media’s silence on the story. “The media is also afraid, the media is also influenced”, he said, adding that:
If we can’t save the nation’s judges, then there will be no democracy. We used to think that the judiciary can be bought. But now it will appear as if there is no need to buy the judiciary because they can be intimidated.
On 26 November, former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas wrote to Chief Justice Dipak Misra, stating that the inaction of the judiciary was surprising and that a “judicial probe at this point, atleast to respond to the queries raised by the family and to uphold the image of the judiciary in the eyes of the people of India is absolutely necessary.”
On 27 November 2017, the Latur Bar Asscoation held a protest demanding an independent investigation into the circumstances that led to Judge Loya’s death. Among the 150 advocates, also present were 15 members of the Aam Aadmi party holding placards, demanding justice for the CBI judge. Incidentally, Judge Loya belonged to Latur and had studied law in the city.
On 12 January, the Supreme Court took up a PIL filed by Maharashtra-based journalist BR Lone seeking an independent probe into the death of special CBI judge Brijgopal Loya. The Supreme Court noted that his “mysterious death” was a “serious issue” and directed the Maharashtra government to produce all documents related to the case, which was to come up on Monday 15 January.
Notably, senior advocates Dushyant Dave and Indira Jaising pleaded before the Supreme Court that the bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra not hear the case on Judge Loya’s mysterious death as the matter is pending in the High Court. Two days later, CNN News 18 quoted Dave as having said –“Everyone knows Justice Arun Mishra has close relations with BJP and top politicians…Justice Arun Mishra should not hear the case.”
The Judges’ Revolt
On 12 January four dissenting Supreme Court judges, Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph, and Madan Lokur convened a first-of-its kind press conference to bring in the public eye the incongruity in the administration of the Indian judiciary. The four most senior judges of the country’s top court released a letter they had written to the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra two months ago, which according to them, had not been accorded an adequate response.
There have been instances where case having far-reaching consequences for the Nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justices of this court selectively to the benches “of their preference” without any rational basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against all costs. We are not mentioning details only to avoid embarrassing the institution but note that such departures have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent.– Excerpt from the letter addressed to CJI Dipak Mishra
Upon being asked during the press conference, Justice Gogoi seemed to confirm speculation that one such instance, which also triggered their decision to hold a press conference, was the Judge Loya case, wherein the court had to decide on a PIL demanding an independent investigation into the CBI Judge’s death.
Family’s U-Turn Justice
Brijgopal Harkishan Loya’s son Anuj has said that the family is convinced the judge – who was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – died of a heart attack. Anuj told The Times of India that the family did not doubt the “integrity of investigative agencies”. In a letter to Bombay High Court Chief Justice Manjula Chellur, accessed by The Times of India, Anuj said: "We have full faith in the members of the judiciary who were with him on the night of 30 November" Anuj’s stance is in sharp contrast to the statements made by Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani, and father Harkishan. The two had, in an interview with The Caravan, alleged foul play in the death of the CBI Special Judge and have not offered any comment on Anuj Loya’s press conference which contradicts their earlier claims.
1. Why was Judge JT Utpat, Judge Loya’s predecessor in hearing the case, transferred from hearing the case despite a 2012 Supreme Court order specifying that the same judge should hear the matter from start to finish?
2. Were Bombay High Court Chief Justice Mohit Shah or the principal accused Amit Shah aware of any alleged inducements offered to Judge Loya to ensure a favourable judgment in the case?
3. Does Justice Mohit Shah deny the allegation by Judge Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani, that he himself made an offer of Rs 100 crore in return for a favourable judgment?
4. What was the time of Judge Loya’s death according to the records of Meditrina Hospital and when do call records show this was intimated to Judge Loya’s family? Did the death occur at 6:15 am or before 5 am on 1 December 2014, or did it in fact occur before midnight?
5. In what circumstances can a person die of “coronary artery insufficiency”? Is it possible for a person in good physical health without any cardiac history or other markers of this condition, experience “coronary artery insufficiency” and lose their life?
6. If Ishwar Baheti was a friend of the deceased, why did neither his sister nor his father know who he was? Can the family confirm whether they were aware of this friendship?
7. Why was Judge Loya’s phone returned to the family by Mr Baheti rather than the police? Alternatively, did the police ask Mr Baheti to return the phone to Judge Loya’s family?
8. Is it true that the CBI was only given 15 minutes to argue against the discharge of Amit Shah in subsequent hearings of the case before Judge Loya’s successor in hearing the case, Judge Gosavi, as against three days for the defence lawyers?
9. Does Judge Loya’s family still have the allegedly bloodstained shirt worn by Judge Loya at the time of death which the postmortem report claims was dry?
10. Who made the decision to announce MS Dhoni’s retirement from test cricket on 30 December 2014? Was this decided by the player or the BCCI and did any external source suggest the specific date? Judge Loya’s sister alleges that Judge Loya was informed that if he would deliver the judgment in the case before 30 December 2014, it would not be under focus because another news story would dominate the headlines and distract focus from the judgment.