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How the Tandoor Murder Case Tested the Mettle of Delhi Police

Delhi High Court has ordered immediate release of Sushil Sharma convicted in the 1995 Tandoor murder case.

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On 21 November 2018, the Delhi High Court ordered the immediate release of 1995 Tandoor murder case convict Sushil Sharma. The Quint had interviewed former Delhi Police Joint Commissioner Maxwell Pereira who had led the probe in this case. We are re-publishing this interview from our archives. It had first appeared on 30 April 2018.

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Cameras flashed, and I was bombarded with questions – each journalist wanting to get his question heard as the tapes and film rolled. ‘Mr Pereira, Sushil Sharma claims he has been framed, falsely accused, with not an iota of evidence against him. Tell us what evidence you have against him. Do you have any?’ Without hesitation came my blunt reply: ‘There is enough evidence to hang him; however, every soul is innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.
Excerpt from The Tandoor Murder
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Twenty-three years later as former Delhi Police Joint Commissioner Maxwell Pereira recalled his experience of leading the probe into the murder of Naina Sahni, a case that shocked the entire country, he didn’t seem to have any regret for his strong comments.

On 3 July 1995, Delhi woke up to a crime that was less gruesome in execution but was brutal enough when it came to removing evidence, including the victim’s body. In the post-liberalisation era, even as blaring 24*7 news channels were yet to arrive on the scene, few newspapers made sure that the readers had every salacious bit on their platter daily.

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Hurdles Faced During Investigation

The accused Sushil Sharma, a former Youth Congress leader, someone who was known for his proximity to senior leaders, had shot his wife dead and then tried to burn her body.  It was perhaps the sheer grit and dogged effort by Pereira and his team which ensured that Sharma was behind bars.

But it wasn’t so easy for the Delhi Police that faced many challenges during investigation, as explained vividly by Pereira in his book, ‘The Tandoor Murder: The Crime that shook the nation and brought a government to its knees’.

One such hurdle was the damning revelation by a doctor of the Lady Hardinge Medical College, who had performed the first autopsy, and concluded that the body was chopped before being disposed of in the tandoor. The concerned doctor had rejected the premise by the police that death was caused due to injury by a bullet.

This observation was contrary to the claim by the police that Naina Sahni's death was caused due to injury caused by a bullet wound with the shot being fired from a very close range. The police had retrieved bullets and empty cartridges from Sushil Sharma's flat at Mandir Marg where traces of blood were found on the mattress in the bedroom. Just because the X-ray machine at the Lady Hardinge Medical College was non-functional and the body was burnt beyond recognition, the first autopsy report had overlooked the injury mark in the corpse caused by the bullets.

It was the second autopsy report that favoured the sequence of events as was established by the Delhi Police in its probe.

Pereira feels that such procedural hassles are part of the job for investigating officers:

I won’t say it was one report, an investigating officer will often tell you that in most cases, one comes across these kind of hurdles or abnormalities, and we try to plug these loopholes.

Speaking to The Quint, Pereira also shared how important it was for the police force then in 1995 to win back the confidence of people.

Whenever there is a sensational and gruesome crime, it is a tendency of the media to project it as if a sense of insecurity is taking over people. On the contrary, such incidents should give a sense of security as there was a street-level constable responding out of his initiative and intervening in something that was not normal.
Maxwell Pereira, Former Joint Delhi Police Commissioner
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Should Sushil Sharma be Released?

Sharma was sentenced to death by a trial court in 2003, which was upheld by the Delhi High Court in 2007. On 8 October 2013, the Supreme Court commuted Sushil Sharma’s death sentence to life imprisonment. In its judgment, the bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam had said:

Brutality alone would not be a ground for judging whether the case is one of the rarest of rare cases. The court must consider whether the accused has a criminal history; whether he is a criminal or a professional killer and whether he will be an ardent criminal and a menace to the society.
Former Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam

The Court was of the view that chances of reformation of Sharma can’t be ruled out. Sushil Sharma has already served 23 years behind bars. So should he now be allowed to live a normal life outside jail on grounds of good behaviour? It was this question that resulted in a fierce debate between the author and audience at the book launch. A counselor at the Tihar Jail, who was present at the book launch, shared her experience of interacting with Sharma, as she claimed, “he regrets his action”.

In 2016, the Supreme Court said that “a sentence of imprisonment for life does not automatically expire at the end of 20 years”. Which means that the release of Sushil Sharma would be tough “unless the appropriate Government chooses to exercise its discretion to remit either the whole or a part of the sentence”.

According to Maxwell Pereira, “the police had done its job and now it’s up to the institutions who take decisions on such matters”.

The police has done their job. Whether he has paid his debt or not, it’s up to the society to decide. As far as I’m concerned, Sushil Sharma has not accepted his guilt to anyone except a semblance of hint when he told a reporter of the Hindustan Times that ‘a moment cost me 20 years’, that’s all he has said.
Former Delhi JCP Maxwell Pereira
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Disillusionment Among Police Personnel

What happened to Constable Abdul Nazeer Kunju, the man, who was on night duty at the Connaught Place police station on 2 July 1995? It was Kunju who had rushed inside the Bagiya restaurant after a woman came out shouting, “Hotel me aag lag gayi, aag lag gayi!”

It was Kunju who first spotted Sushil along with his friend Keshav as both were busy throwing pamphlets and posters into the fire.

Kunju’s time in the Additional Sessions Court was to be a marathon – and he did not just face pressure from the counsel. Shockingly, Sushil attempted to bribe him at his first court appearance. Kunju had already withstood a great deal of pressure from Sushil – indirectly, at least. He had shrugged off a number of death threats and ignored the shady-looking characters who got on the bus with him when he was on his way to work.
Excerpt from The Tandoor Murder

‘He left the police service’, Pereira told the audience, when he was asked about Kunju. After his stint as the hero, who had helped in unravelling a gruesome crime, it was the slow pace of promotion in the hierarchical setup of the police that led to Kunju calling it quits.

While Kunju was able to resist all the efforts of Sushil Sharma to intimidate him, the poor guy found it difficult to overcome disillusionment that dawned after years of performing his duties with utmost sincerity. Lack of motivation is perhaps among the many ills ailing the police force.

Pereira still reminisces the ability of Kunju to react fast to an unwarranted situation, which in this case, led to the discovery of a charred body:

He had intervened out of sheer curiosity and investigative acumen as he wouldn’t let something abnormal or unnatural to just pass by. So, he questioned it, intervened, and discovered a charred body. This should confirm the people’s sense of security since the lowest level of constabulary had risen to the occasion.
Maxwell Pereira, former Joint Delhi Police Commissioner
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