The ‘Fake’ Encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kausar Bi
(Update: A special CBI court on Friday, 21 December, acquitted all the 22 accused in the Sohrabuddin ‘fake’ encounter case, citing lack of evidence.)
In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered an investigation into as many as 22 alleged extra-judicial killings in Gujarat between 2003 and 2006. Among them was the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case which in 2010 led to the resignation and arrest of the then Gujarat Minister of State, Amit Shah. And although the CBI court gave the BJP President a clean chit in 2014, the decision was followed by a series of unfortunate events that brought the very autonomy of the Indian judiciary under threat.
This includes the mysterious death of CBI court Judge, Brijgopal Harkishan Loya – who was allegedly offered a Rs 100 crore bribe for a favourable verdict – leading to an unprecedented and very public revolt against the Chief Justice of India by four sitting Supreme Court justices who claimed Justice Dipak Misra was selectively assigning cases to benches without any rational basis. Although the senior most judges in the country refrained from specifying any case, the indication was to the hearing of a PIL demanding an investigation into Judge Loya’s death.
The Quint retraces the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case and the web of controversies that have spun in its aftermath.
The (Fake) Encounter
On 23 November 2005, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi were travelling from Hyderabad to Ahmedabad. At 1:30 am, the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) of the Gujarat Police stopped the bus at Sangli, Maharashtra and escorted the couple off the bus.
Three days later, on 26 November 2005, Sohrabuddin Sheikh was shot dead in what deputy inspector general of police DG Vanzara calls an encounter. According to the police, Sheikh had been operating from the Narol area of Ahmedabad city and when a police team spotted him riding a motorcycle near the Vishala Circle, they tried to intercept him, but he refused to stop. In a desperate attempt to escape, he shot at the policemen who shot back in self-defence and killed him.
In the press conference convened that day, DIG Vanzara told reporters that “Sheikh, a sharpshooter with underworld connections, had come to the city at the behest of the LeT and the ISI to assassinate a top political figure.” Although Vanzara did not name anyone, it was speculated that the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was the target.
According to Vanzara, the Gujarat ATS had acted on the basis of intelligence inputs from the Rajasthan Police, who were also part of the encounter team. As for Sohrabuddin’s criminal past, Vanzara said he was wanted in an arms case in Madhya Pradesh and for a murder case in Rajasthan. Additionally, he said “Sohrabuddin was known to be a close aide of Pakistan-based Sharif Khan and Rasool Parti, who are themselves henchmen of Dawood Ibrahim and were instrumental in the assassination bid on a BJP leader in Gujarat in the recent past, including the murder of the former home minister Haren Pandya.”
Who was Sohrabuddin Sheikh, really?
It would depend entirely on whom you’re asking. There are three different portraits of the man – an extortionist-murderer whose gang operated in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, a terrorist with links to underworld gangs known to be close to Dawood Ibrahim and a police informer who turned rogue.
In the late 1980s, Abdul Latif was the kingpin of the underworld in Gujarat. A bootlegger with considerable political clout, he moved from organised crime to terrorism when he began handling Dawood Ibrahim’s business interests in India. He was also suspected to have facilitated the transport of the RDX that was used in the 1993 Mumbai bombings, which landed on the Gujarat coast. Part of this consignment was a huge cache of arms, which was hidden by Abdul Latif’s driver in his village home in Jharnia, Madhya Pradesh.
The driver, allegedly, was Sohrabuddin Anwarhussain Sheikh.
Between 2002-2003, Sohrabuddin, then in his mid-30s, Tulsiram Prajapati and Mohamad Azam (who later became a key witness for the CBI) formed a gang. They operated by extorting ‘protection money’ from marble traders and factory owners in Udaipur, Ahmedabad and Ujjain.
In the aftermath of his boss Abdul Latif’s killing (who was shot dead as he allegedly tried to escape police custody), Sohrabuddin Sheikh faced as many as 50 cases under the National Security Act. However, he avoided conviction. While there exists no evidence that Sohrabuddin was a terrorist, he was active on the periphery of terrorist activities. Whether he was “a sharpshooter with underworld connections, had come to the city at the behest of LeT and ISI to assassinate a top political figure” as described by DG Vanzara, remains disputed.
On 9 May 2007, the Hindustan Times reported how the terror link came as an “after-thought.”
In the political pushback that followed Sohrabuddin’s encounter, the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was forced to respond in the state Assembly. On 20 March 2006, he submitted a written reply wherein he noted that Sheikh was an accused in an unspecified murder case and that he was wanted under the Arms Act. There was no mention of the ISI or the LeT by the then chief minister.
Eighteen months after the encounter, in May 2007, SK Saikia, secretary in Gujarat’s home department, told reporters, “Sheikh had links with the ISI, and was working for the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT).” When asked why the Gujarat government and CM Narendra Modi had not mentioned his terror links in his written reply tabled in the Gujarat Assembly four months after Sohrabuddin and Kausar Bi’s encounter, Saikia replied, “At that time, Sheikh’s involvement in many cases may not have been known. Though we were aware of his criminal activities in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, his links with the ISI and the LeT were known only later on.”
3. Henchman for Corrupt Cops
Among the various claims by Mohammad Azam (Sheikh’s partner in crime and later key witness for the CBI), was one that led to the arrest of IPS officer Abhay Chudasama. As per the CBI’s chargesheet, as quoted in the Times of India, Sohrabuddin Sheikh was the henchman of IPS officer Abhay Chudasama and the two had a “75:25 partnership in the murky world of extortion and other criminal activities”.
On Chudasama’s instructions, Sohrabuddin issued threats to businessmen and demanded money. Harried traders would rush to the police with their complaints. Chudasama would then demand huge sums of money in the name of extending police help and Sohrabuddin got his share too.CBI chargesheet
This was further reiterated by another one of Sohrabuddin’s accomplices. Mushtaq Ahmad told the CBI that when he met Sohrabuddin in 2002-2003, he’d told him that he was working with Chudasama.
Abhay Chudasama was arrested by the CBI in 2010 for murder, abduction, illegal confinement and criminal conspiracy. He was also accused of threatening witnesses on the instructions of former Gujarat Minister of State for Home Amit Shah. He had been chargesheeted as the “main conspirator” in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh-Kausar Bi ‘fake’ encounter case along with 23 others.
However, the CBI could not prove the charges against him.
In April 2014, the Bombay High Court granted bail to Abhay Chudasama. Four months later, he was reinstated in service by the Gujarat state government. Later, he was promoted as DIG of the State Monitoring Cell.
How Was the Encounter Exposed as Fake?
A few weeks after the encounter, Sohrabuddin Sheikh’s brother Rababuddin wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India, saying that he was not convinced about the Gujarat Police’s version of how his brother died and that he was concerned about his sister-in-law Kausar Bi who had gone missing around the same time. In response, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat Police to conduct an investigation into the circumstances which led to Sohrabuddin’s killing and Kausar Bi’s disappearance.
Tasked with this investigation was Inspector General (IG) at the CID (crime) of the Gujarat Police, Geeta Johri, Gujarat’s first woman police officer. She submitted her interim report to the Supreme Court in September 2006. According to this report, accessed by The Hindu, Geetha Johri recommended that “the entire enquiry should at once be entrusted to the CBI.”
But that’s not all.
In her preliminary report, IG, CID (crime) Geetha Johri also spoke of “the collusion of the state government in the form of Shri Amit Shah, MoS for Home” and said that “the episode made a mockery of the rule of the law and is perhaps an example of the involvement of the State government in a major crime.”
And there was more.
Mr. Shah called a meeting of senior police officers, including the DGP, at Circuit House, Gandhinagar on 30 January 2006. In that meeting, he attempted to influence the Investigating Agency into believing that Smt. Kausar Bi was not a lawfully married wife of Sohrabuddin and that she might have run away somewhere. It is reliably learnt that the Minister in [the] course of [the] conversation with the senior officers had admitted in a cavalier manner that Smt. Kausar Bi had been killed as well.Geetha Johri’s preliminary reported as quoted in The Hindu
In November 2006, nearly a year after the encounter, the story of the fake encounter hit the news stands. Senior crime journalist Prashant Dayal, who first broke the story of the Sohrabuddin encounter being fake, in a Gujarati daily called Divya Bhaskar, acknowledges his methods of extracting information from cops is somewhat unusual. “I drink within limit, so that I can listen and grasp what the officers say when they open up after a few pegs,” he told Rediff.com in an April 2007 interview.
Prashant revealed that on one such evening, officers involved in the Sohrabuddin encounter case boasted before him how they had “punished” and eliminated some anti-national elements. With this clue, the next morning Dayal cross-checked the details of the case. “I got confirmation from the farmhouse in Ahmedabad that three persons were kept there. Then, from my sources in Vanzara’s native village, I confirmed that Vanzara was there with his team during the period. At the farmhouse, the servants confirmed that a lady in burkha was kept there. I suspect she must be Kausar Bi,” he added. All these facts matched what he was told by the drunken police official, Dayal claimed.As reported on Rediff.com
The case was unravelling, not just before the Supreme Court, but before the public at large.
Two main developments in the case were made possible due to IG, CID (crime) Geetha Johri’s September 2006 report.
1. The state government was forced to admit in the apex court that the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter was staged.
2. It led to the arrest of three IPS officers – DG Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian and Dinesh Kumar of the Rajasthan Police in April 2007.
The arrests, made by Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of CID (crime) Rajnish Rai who had taken over the investigation just a month earlier, created a flutter in government and police circles. But within three months of taking charge (9 March 2007) he was removed (5 May 2007). His decision to collect call records of the senior IPS officers, and the intent to subject them to narco-analysis tests and make more arrests was enough to make senior officials, both in the police and in the Gujarat home department, very jittery.
Subsequently, Geetha Johri was reinstated as the lead investigator in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. In September 2008, she submitted her second report. Except this time, her report seemed to suit the police/government version of events.
Among the glaring loopholes was the attempt to de-link the Sohrabuddin encounter and the Tulsiram Prajapati case. This was done by falsely stating that the third person who was taken off the bus on the night of 22-23 November 2005 was not Prajapati, but a history-sheeter from Andhra Pradesh named Kalimuddin. Fact is, Tulsiram Prajapati, an associate of Sohrabuddin was travelling with him and Kausar Bi and was witness to their kidnapping and disappearance.
However, he was not eliminated immediately. Perhaps as he was an informer for DG Vanzara, who allegedly orchestrated Sohrabuddin’s encounter, he was thought to be a safe bet. But after Kausar Bi went missing and was assumed dead, he started writing letters to the authorities asking for police protection which he never got. He was killed in a police encounter in Gujarat’s Chhapri village in 2006 when he was “trying to escape”. It was crucial to link the Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati murders to nail the Gujarat state police in the extra-judicial killings.
The two were clubbed together primarily thanks to the first investigating officer under Geetha Johri, VL Solanki, who would later reveal to the CBI how Geetha Johri asked him to alter his report saying Shah was livid that a mere police inspector had “dared” to point fingers at top officers.
The Telegraph quoted Solanki’s version to the CBI as: Solanki refused Johri’s instructions to alter the report — prepared after the preliminary inquiry — but the final report and the chargesheet were later watered down anyway.
In January 2010, on the petition filed by Sohrabuddin’s brother Rababuddin Sheikh, the Supreme Court finally handed over the investigation to the CBI.
Although the CBI questioned Geeta Johri for botching up the Sohrabuddin investigation, she was given a clean chit in 2010. More recently, in April 2017, Geetha Johri was appointed as Gujarat’s Director General of Police. The state’s first woman police officer is currently serving as its top most cop.
What Happened to Kausar Bi?
His wife, we were initially told, had disappeared. But later, the Gujarat government revealed to the Supreme Court in 2007 that Kausar Bi was held in custody in two different farm houses, and eventually strangled to death and cremated on 28 November 2005. She was also allegedly raped by a sub-inspector before being killed.
Ravindra Makwana, who was posted on duty at the ATS as Police Station Officer (PSO) on the morning of Sohrabuddin Sheikh’s killing, testified about the rape in a statement to the CBI. A copy of this statement was accessed by the The Indian Express. As per Makwana’s statement, “Balkrishan Chaubey, then a sub-inspector with the Gujarat ATS had been assigned the task of guarding Kausar Bi after she was picked up, and had raped her.”
Human Rights lawyer Mukul Sinha pieced together the events that led to Kausar Bi’s murder, based on witness statements included in the CBI’s supplementary chargesheet.
The last journey of Kauser Bi was the most brutal. On 29th November around 12:30 pm, 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, DySP 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. As per the statement of PI Rathod, Vanzara called him to fetch a tempo to transport firewood around 5 pm. Kauser Bi’s dead body was taken in a police jeep to Illol village from the ATS office around 6 pm, and later cremated.Mukul Sinha in the Truth of Gujarat
When the Gujarat ATS stopped the luxury bus at Sangli, Maharashtra, on the night of 22-23 December 2005, Sohrabuddin and Tulsiram Prajapati were the only persons of interest. Kausar Bi simply refused to let go of her husband and as a result, the police were forced to take her along. And while there have been many theories around the criminal, conspiratorial pasts of those killed in the alleged fake encounters in Gujarat, no such allegation has been made against Kausar Bi. She was eliminated, simply because she refused to remain quiet.
Why was Sohrabuddin Targeted?
According to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Sohrabuddin’s gang had demanded Rs 25 crore in protection money from the owner of Rajasmand-based RK Marbles Pvt Ltd. To drive home the seriousness of their demand, the gang shot dead one Hameed Lala, who was known to be close to the businessman. In its 500-page supplementary chargesheet, the CBI stated that this extortion attempt was the trigger for the encounter.
The businessman, according to the CBI’s witness, approached the then home minister of Rajasthan Gulab Chand Kataria, who was offered Rs 10 crore bribe to get rid of Sohrabuddin. Kataria, as per the CBI, leaned on his Bharatiya Janata Party colleague in Gujarat, Amit Shah, to stage the encounter in Gujarat.
However, Amit Shah was discharged in the case in December 2014 while Kataria was discharged in the case in February 2015. The courts said the CBI did not have sufficient evidence against the two politicians.
As per Prashant Dayal, who wrote in a Gujarati daily called Divya Bhaskar:
The police version and reality are completely different. There is much more to the story than meets the eye. It is alleged that Sohrabuddin was a big goon in Rajasthan, involved in extorting ransom from big marble merchants and rich builders. My sources in Gujarat Police claimed that some Rajasthan-based people arranged for Rs 2 crore supari (contract killing) for killing Sohrabuddin. But the stage was set in Gujarat, instead of Rajasthan.As quoted in Rediff.com
The Case Against Amit Shah
The CID, under Rajnish Rai, had collected phone call records between the police officers who were involved in the Sohrabuddin encounter. Detailed call records between September 2006 to January 2007 revealed frequent phone calls between DG Vanzara, Dinesh MN, superintendents of police Rajkumar Pandian, Vipul Kumar and Amit Shah. The number of calls, as reported by Rana Ayyub in Tehelka, increased every time there were developments in the case.
The Gujarat CID pointed out that the frequency of the calls was “unnatural and uncommon” in nature because they were not part of the minister’s official protocol, i.e.., a Minister of State does not usually talk directly to SP-level officers. His point of contact, as per norm, would be the home secretary, chief secretary or the Anti-Terrorist Squad.
Faced with charges of murder and imminent arrest, Amit Shah resigned as Gujarat’s Minister of State for Home on 24 July 2010.
Backing him completely, the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi claimed the Congress was using the CBI to take revenge for its loss in the 2007 Assembly polls when it had made Sohrabuddin a ‘hero’. “This was a politically motivated action against Amit Shah and the BJP government in Gujarat to corner it and to put obstacles in development work it was carrying out". He said, "Shah is completely innocent and the charges against him are fabricated. The CBI is being misused by the Congress against its political rival.”
The CBI charged Amit Shah with destruction of evidence and booked him under the Ams Act. He got bail three months later.
In 2012, the case was transferred out of Gujarat, to Mumbai.
On 30 December 2014, CBI court Judge MB Gosavi gave a clean chit to Amit Shah, saying that the call records provided by the CBI as evidence were insufficient and that it was natural for the Home Minister of a state to be in touch with senior police officials.
Link between Judge Loya's Mysterious Death and the Sohrabuddin Case
The case was first assigned to Judge JT Utpat who was transferred a day before Amit Shah was to appear in court. Judge Utpat had, during an earlier hearing, reprimanded Amit Shah for not being personally present in court. His transfer was processed despite a 2012 SC order specifying that the same judge should hear the case from start to finish.
The second judge to be assigned the case was Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya.
On 30 November 2014, Judge BH 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 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.”
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.”
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. Loya’s sister and father are also quoted as having said that multiple offers were made to the judge at different points in time, which put him under considerable pressure.
However, on 14 January 2018, Judge Loya’s son Anuj convened a press conference and in sharp contrast to his aunt and grandfather’s stance, said that he was convinced his father died of a heart attack and that he had full faith in the country’s investigating agencies.
The Revolt in the Judiciary
Following The Caravan magazine’s expose, on 12 January 2018, 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 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 the BJP and top politicians… Justice Arun Mishra should not hear the case.”
The same day, four dissenting Supreme Court judges, Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph, and Madan Lokur convened a first-of-its kind press conference to bring into the public eye the incongruity in the administration of the Indian judiciary. In the letter made public by them, they noted:
There have been instances where cases 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 at 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.
Following the revolt, Justice Dipak Misra on 20 January re-assigned the case to a bench headed by himself, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice AM Khanwilkar.
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