Even as the death of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s wife Sunanda Pushkar is being dubbed a murder by newly launched TV news channel Republic, the two most critical elements that are being completely ignored are motive and intent.
It is well within the rights of Republic, which has been floated by Arnab Goswami, to pursue “old” stories or unsolved murder cases if they are of public interest. But to describe Tharoor as a “murderer” is not just shocking, but violates all norms and established principles of journalism, especially when such accusations are not supported by an iota of evidence that could be reasonably defensible in a court of law.
Tapes Don’t Constitute Evidence
The 19 audio tapes that Republic claims to have relied on are conversations between Pushkar and the news channel’s reporter Prema Sridevi and between two of Tharoor’s aides and the reporter. At that time, Sridevi worked for Times Now and purportedly undertook the so-called investigative story,
The tapes, however, do not constitute any evidence that the police dug on their own. (Besides, I will not go into the fact that the report is being trumpeted as a Republic "super exclusive" even though the conversations were recorded by the reporter at a much earlier time when the news channel had not even been conceived of.)
Slightly over a year after Pushkar was found dead in a New Delhi five-star hotel, the Delhi Police changed its case of suicide to murder. Today, over three years after her death, the police have not been able to gather any evidence – scientific and circumstantial – that could establish that a murder most foul was committed.
Suspecting Murder Without Establishing Intent
After registering a case for murder, the police sent Pushkar’s viscera samples to an American forensics laboratory to ascertain whether Pushkar had been poisoned to death. That exercise produced no evidence to even indicate that Pushkar was killed. On its part, the police failed to successfully probe the mystery surrounding the death.
Once an autopsy was performed on Pushkar’s body, a team of forensic experts from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) came up with a medical report that led the police to 'upgrade' the case as one of murder.
Had all the principles of criminal investigations and medico-legal jurisprudence been followed, the police should have taken a 'complete view' of the controversial case, including not just the medical report but also 'direct' and/or 'trace evidence' before concluding that Pushkar’s had been murdered.
Forensics experts say that the results of a viscera examination are a “necessary but not sufficient reason” to change a suicide to a murder case.
There is no doubt that Pushkar’s death took place under suspicious circumstances. However, the police must satisfy itself of all other possible reasons for death before suspecting murder, especially after it is able to fix intent and motive and "something more" than just the contents of a medical report.
Poison Yet to be Identified
It is the establishment of intent and motive that distinguishes a case from being one of homicide. A case is one of homicide till the police is not able to identify motive and intent. A murder on the other hand involves deliberation and premeditation.
In Pushkar’s case, Delhi Police has so far not been able to establish either the motive or premeditation. Therefore, merely screaming “murder” only reflects poor professionalism and reckless character assassination.
Forensics experts The Quint spoke to say that a case for murder is testable on another plane. The police cannot register a case of murder when the poison has neither been traced nor identified by the AIIMS medical board, which performed the autopsy and examined Pushkar’s viscera report (prepared by the Hyderabad-based Central Forensic Science Laboratory).
The American laboratory too could not arrive at any conclusion. Besides, the failure to pinpoint, with a degree of certainty, whether the poison was administered orally or injected into Pushkar’s bloodstream or she was made to inhale it should have come in the way of the police registering a murder case.
AIIMS Report Based on Flawed Assumptions
According to initial reports after Pushkar’s body was found, it was suggested that the CCTV footage of that particular floor was missing. This suggestion was subsequently quashed by the police when they finally did recover the CCTV footage which did not reveal anything suspicious.
I have previously questioned the AIIMS medical team’s basis for claiming that the six poisonous substances – thallium (deadly, causes failure of multiple organs), polonium 201, nerium oleander (muscular twitching, abrasion, irregularity of heart beat and finally cardiac arrest), photolabile poisons and heroin (twice as deadly as morphine and 20 times deadlier than opium) – cannot be detected in Indian laboratories.
Instead of precisely identifying a poison, the AIIMS medical board took an unusually broad range of poisonous substances and drugs to buttress its claim that Pushkar may have died under suspicious circumstances. Besides, snake venom and opium (which is a drug) can be easily detected by Indian laboratories.