Video Editor: Mohd Irshad
The death of a judge, several versions of the truth, and then, an abrupt end.
Three years after it was reported that special CBI judge Brijgopal Harkrishan Loya had died of a “cardiac arrest” in 2014, The Caravan magazine published an article quoting family members of the judge as alleging foul play in his death. The magazine went on to publish 22 more articles alleging that the judge did not die a natural death. Subsequent reports and follow ups by other media organisations raised further questions over his death, adding to a growing chorus demanding justice for the judge – until the Supreme Court, on 19 April, put an end to it all by dismissing petitions seeking an independent probe into the death.
“Caravan magazine stands by each of its 22 stories. The stories speak for itself,” Executive Editor Vinod K Jose tweeted after the Supreme Court verdict. The Quint spoke to Niranjan Takle, Anosh Malekar, Atul Dev and Nikita Saxena – the reporters who have been on the case. All four reiterated that they stood by their stories no matter the verdict.
The Sohrabuddin Sheikh Case Connect
The air of mystery over Loya stems from the fact that shortly before his death, he was assigned the controversial Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. Loya was the second judge in the case, having replaced judge JT Utpat – despite the Supreme Court’s orders against replacing the presiding judge.
Judge Utpat was replaced a day before BJP chief Amit Shah – then a prime accused in the case – was scheduled to appear in court upon his instructions. Like his predecessor, Loya too had expressed displeasure at Shah’s failure to appear in court and had summoned him to be physically present in the court on 15 December.
After Judge Loya’s death on 1 December, his successor, Judge MB Gosavi discharged Amit Shah saying he need not stand trial.
The Caravan Opens a Pandora’s Box
On 20 November, 2017, The Caravan magazine published an article by Niranjan Takle, quoting the judge’s family members as alleging inconsistencies in the precise time of death and conditions in which he was taken to the hospital. The report also spoke of blood stains that were spotted on the judge’s shirt probable injury marks – none of which found mention in the post-mortem report.
Subsequent reports shed light on alleged overwriting and misinformation in Loya's post-mortem report and ECG report. As more media houses joined the attempt to investigate the case other facts came to light. It was revealed that the data on the judge’s phone had been wiped out when it was returned to his family by a man called Ishwar Bhati, believed to be an RSS activist. It was also revealed that Loya had been offered a bribe when he was hearing the case.
In its follow-up reports, The Caravan also unearthed possible manipulation in occupancy record at Ravi Bhawan; A top forensic expert ruled out heart attack as the cause of death; Employees at Ravi Bhawan denied any memory of the incidents on 1 December; Another report highlighted possible manipulation on the post-mortem report by a doctor.
The Caravan alone published 22 articles raising serious discrepancies in the death of the judge and amid growing cry for an independent probe into the matter. On 19 April, the Supreme Court stated: “The documentary material on the record indicates that the death of Judge Loya was due to natural causes.” The apex court judgment further observed that the petitions were “frivolous” and “motivated”.
The judgment has been heavily criticised for being heavily based on the testimonies of the four judges who had said that they were with Loya on the night he died. During a "discreet inquiry" conducted by Maharashtra's State Intelligence Department or SID, judges – Shrikant Kulkarni and SM Modak said they had travelled with Loya from Mumbai to Nagpur. Judges VC Barde and Roopesh Rathi, who were serving in Nagpur at the time, submitted their accounts detailing the events of the night.
Their accounts were presented to the Supreme Court by the state and the judgment disregarded the petitions seeking a probe saying that there is "no reason to doubt the statements of sitting judges".
"What Happened to Loya's Phone?"
Both Anosh Malekar and Atul Dev pointed out the mysterious circumstances in which Loya's phone was returned to Loya's family. The RSS worker, Ishwar Baheti, was the person who involved in arranging for Loya's body to be transferred from Nagpur to his hometown, Latur. “Nobody knows why, how and when he (Baheti) came to know about the death of Brij Loya,” the judge’s family had told the magazine.
“Why was no enquiry conducted into whatever happened to Loya’s phone? The police did not have the phone in their possession neither did the family have it .The phone suddenly lands in the hands of Ishwar Baheti,” Malekar told The Quint in a telephonic conversation.
Malekar also spoke about a man named Rukmesh Pannalal Jakotia – who was allegedly informed about Loya's death on 1 December. Nobody knows who informed him, Malekar says, adding that there are several discrepancies surrounding the role of Baheti and Jakotia.
No Clarity on Post-Mortem Report, ECG or Time of Death
The reporters also told The Quint that the judgment does not clarify the doubts raised on the time of death or the mismatch in the post-mortem report and incongruity in the ECG report published in an article by The Indian Express.
The judgment noted: “A considerable degree of emphasis has been placed on the statement of Judge Rathi that the nodes of the ECG machine at Dande hospital were not working. Based on this, it has been seriously urged that in fact no ECG was done at Dande hospital. Judge Shrikant Kulkarni in his statement dated 24 November 2017 has stated that “emergency treatment” was given to Judge Loya at Dande hospital. Judge SM Modak states that after an initial check-up, the doctors at Dande hospital advised shifting the patient to another hospital. Judge Vijay Barde who was present at Dande hospital specifically stated that the medical officer on duty there examined (“checked-up”) Judge Loya “by ECG, blood pressure etc. as per their procedure”. Judge Rathi has stated that at Dande hospital, time was wasted because the nodes of the ECG machine were broken and the machine was not working. This statement of Judge Rathi must, however, be weighed with the doctor’s progress notes at Meditrina hospital. The death summary… specifically adverts to the fact that the patient was taken to Dande hospital earlier where an ECG was done. Dr Dande has made the same statement. The progress notes also note a “tall ‘T’” in the anterior lead which indicates that the ECG was seen by the doctors attending to Judge Loya at Meditrina hospital. These progress notes are contemporaneous, since they also form part of the communication addressed by Dr NB Gawande at Meditrina to the PSI at Sitabardi on the same day after the judge had been brought dead to the hospital. As a matter of fact, it is this very ECG which forms the subject matter of the submissions which have been urged by one of the intervenors, for whom Mr Prashant Bhushan appears. Having regard to the fact that the ECG has been specifically mentioned in the progress notes of the doctor at Meditrina hospital, we find no reasonable basis to infer that no ECG was done at Dande hospital.”
It is interesting to note that though Mukul Rohatgi, the counsel for the state of Maharashtra repeatedly referred to the ECG report conducted at Dande hospital, where Loya was first taken to, while arguing in the Suprem Court, the only ECG copy available publicly is the one published by The Indian Express.
“There was a lot of overwriting in the post-mortem report with respect to the name and date,” Atul Dev told The Quint.
But when the state of Maharashtra put out their 60-page dossier infront of the Supreme Court, the first page of the post-mortem was missing. Mukul Rohatgi said it will be provided through the course of the day. To my knowledge, it wasn’t provided that day. Not all petitioners have got it till today.Atul Dev, The Caravan Reporter
As per standard procedure, the medico-legal certificate, or MLC, is prepared after receiving the doctor’s progress report, which also has a death summary. The MLC is then sent to the police.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, wrote: “Subjcted to critical examination, neither the ECG record nor the post-mortem report support the judgment’s conclusion that Loya died a natural death.”
But with the Supreme Court cancelling the possibilities of any independent probe, is this the end of the rigorous investigation by the Caravan journalists? No says the magazine’s Executive Editor, Vinod K Jose. “We will follow journalistically the qns that continue to puzzle the circumstances of Judge Loya’s death.”