There seems no light at the end of the tunnel for Sanjiv Bhatt | Comment

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]N the 150th birth anniversary year of Mahatma Gandhi, those convicted of mass murder of Muslims, including a former minister, or accused of fake encounter killings are either out on bail or acquitted by courts because of witnesses turning hostile. They are occupying high position of power, while a whistleblower IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt who had testified against the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for tacitly allowing genocide in 2002 has been rotting in jail since last one year in Gujarat, Gandhiji’s home state.

Gujarat-cadre IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, was first removed from service on the ground of ‘unauthorized leave’ he had taken to present himself before the Nanavati commission inquiring into the 2002 anti-Muslim violence and then was arrested on September 5, 2018 in a 23-year-old case. Even while he was in jail, a fast-track court of the Jamnagar district sessions court sentenced him to life sentence in a 30-year-old case of custodial death of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist he had not even arrested when he was an assistant superintendent of police.

Ironically, it was the state government which had defended Sanjiv Bhatt before the Supreme Court in 2000 in the same 23-year-old case for which he was arrested last year. The case against Sanjiv Bhatt was that as the district superintendent of police at Palanpur he had allegedly implicated a Rajasthan-based lawyer in drug-peddling to settle a property dispute in favour of a Gujarat High Court judge. The drug-peddling case against the Rajasthan lawyer, however, was withdrawn immediately when it was found that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Sanjiv Bhatt’s appeal for bail in the case got lingered for six months – three months before the district court and three more before the Gujarat High Court – because of filibustering tactics of the government prosecutor while making his submission and also because a high court judge recused himself half-way through the hearing.

The High Court, while turning down the bail application, ordered that the district sessions court should complete the hearing of the case within six months failing which Sanjiv Bhatt can approach the High Court for bail.

The six month deadline expires on September 6 (today).

Even while Sanjiv Bhatt was persuading his bail application, the Jamnagar district sessions court, like a fast-track court, found him guilty of murder in the custodial death of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist in 1990 and sentenced him to life imprisonment on June 20.

Sanjiv Bhatt was posted as the Assistant Superintendent of Police in Jamnagar and was asked by his superior to rush to Jamjodhpur town where rioting had erupted following a bandh call given by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad against the arrest of BJP leader L K Advani in Bihar. Before he reached the town, the local police had taken 133 people into custody.  The detainees included a man named Prabhudas Madhavji Vaishnani who was kept in custody for nine days. Ten days after being released on bail, Vaishnani died. The cause of death was given as renal failure.

But Vaishnani’s brother alleged custodial torture following which an FIR was filed. A magistrate took cognisance of the case in 1995, but trial was stayed by the Gujarat High Court. The trial remained stayed till 2011 after which the stay was vacated and the trial commenced.

Sanjiv Bhatt had demanded that additional witnesses be examined in the case. Of the 300 witnesses listed, only 32 were examined. Bhatt had filed an application under Section 311 of the CrPC, but the magistrate dismissed it. Bhatt challenged it in the High Court which permitted the examination of three investigating officers.

Now that the Jamnagar district court convicted him for murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment, Sanjiv Bhatt filed appeal in the Gujarat High Court on July 25 against his conviction.

However, in the High Court too Sanjiv Bhatt’s matter appears to be proceeding at its own leisurely pace.

A division bench of the High Court comprising Justice Harshaben Devani and Justice Viresh B Mayani issued notices to the state government and the first hearing was scheduled for the August 26.

On the first day, after hearing the matter for nearly 3 hours, Justice Mayani suggested in open court that he may have presided on this matter earlier. Justice Dayani granted 10 minutes to confirm her brother judge’s contention. However, after cross checking with the records it was confirmed that Justice Mayani had never presided on any matter pertaining to this case.

But the prosecution still requested for more time to confirm, on which Justice Mayani granted one more day, rescheduling the hearing to the August 27.

On convening again on August 27, the prosecution sought for two more days to confirm, even though the matter in question was already confirmed. Justice Mayani granted the prosecution two more days.

Considering Justice Mayani only hears civil matters on Thursday and Friday and with the weekend approaching, followed by national holiday (Ganesh Chaturthi ,  the matter was postponed till the September 3.

On September 3, the bail hearing was adjourned. Despite Justice Dayani wanting to start the proceedings, Justice Mayani insisted on not hearing the matter. When Justice Dayani tried to reason with Justice Mayani the latter declared “not before me”.

Sanjiv Bhatt’s appeal against the life sentence ordered by the Jamnagar district court will now be heard by a new division bench of the High court.

While Sanjiv Bhatt is in jail since September 5, 2018, Babu Bajrangi convicted in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riots case, most accused of mass murders in the 2002 Gujarat post-Godhra carnage, including former state minister Maya Kodnani are out of jail.

Babu Bajrangi, a Bajrang Dal activist, was sentenced to 21 years in jail for the killing of 97 Muslims in Ahmedabad’s Naroda Patiya area on February 28, 2002. The Supreme Court had earlier sought a response from the Gujarat Police on Bajrangi’s bail plea after he had told the court he was in “unsound physical condition” and had undergone a bypass surgery.

Earlier last year, the Gujarat High Court had acquitted Maya Kodnani, who too had been convicted and sentenced to 28 years in jail by the trial court in the Naroda Patiya massacre case. A special SIT court, which is hearing another mass murder case of Naroda Gam, separate from the Naroda Patiya case, has allowed Maya Kodnani to travel out of Gujarat for six months. Eleven persons belonging to the Muslim community were killed in the Naroda Gam area on February 28, 2002.

Out on bail, Kodnani has become politically active having been seen last sharing the podium with Union Textile Minister Smriti Irani on December 22, last year.

While all key accused in the 2002 Gujarat massacre of members of the minority community have either been acquitted by court or are out on bail, all the Gujarat police officers arrested for their involvement in the killing of teenaged girl Ishrat Jahan, her friend Pranesh Pillai and two others, and gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh too are not only out of jail but some of them even reinstated and promoted in the service.

The most prominent among the tainted Gujarat-cadre IPS officers who were promoted after their release from jail included PP Pandey, promoted as the state’s director general of police, G L Singhal promoted to the rank of inspector general of police from DIG, Vipul Agrawala as the joint commissioner of police and Abhay Chudasama as the managing director of Gujarat Police Housing Corporation.

Another IPS officer Rajnish Rai, who had dared to arrest BJP leader Amit Shah and DIG D G Vanjara for their role in fake encounters was transferred first to the Northeast and then to Chittoor to head the para military units there

In sharp contrast, All the Gujarat cadre IPS officers who had exposed the involvement of BJP leaders in post-Godhra massacre and the subsequent killings of Muslims in fake encounters have been victimized.

The most glaring example is that of Sanjiv Bhatt who is in jail since September 5. The other officer who submitted a damning CD of call records to the commission of inquiry set up into the post-Godhra violence was Rahul Sharma who was harassed to such an extent that he resigned from the service.

Another IPS officer Rajnish Rai, who had dared to arrest BJP leader Amit Shah and DIG D G Vanjara for their role in fake encounters was transferred first to the Northeast and then to Chittoor to head the para military units there. He has resigned but the government, while refusing to accept the resignation, has charged him with remaining absent without permission.

Then there is Satish Verma, who as a member of the Special Investigation Team, found evidence of fake encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan and her friend. Verma was transferred to Guwahati, Nagaland and then to Coimbatore.

The message from Gandhi’s Gujarat in his 150th birth anniversary seems ominous: If you speak the Truth, you shall be banished!

Nachiketa Desai is an Ahmedabad based senior journalist and tweets at @nachiketadesai. Views are personal.

The Leaflet