A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had, in Tehseen Poonawalla versus Union of India, on April 19, 2018, refused to order an inquiry into the circumstances of the death of 48-year old Brijgopal Harikishan Loya, a district Judge in Maharashtra, who died on December 1, 2014. Judge Loya was presiding over the Central Bureau of Investigation special court in Mumbai, and had travelled to Nagpur for a colleague’s daughter’s wedding, where he suffered a mysterious death. He was hearing the most high-profile case in the country, involving the allegedly staged encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in 2005. The prime accused in the case was the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, who was then the president of the ruling BJP.
The Supreme Court, through its judgment authored by the present CJI, D.Y.Chandrachud (who was then the third judge on the bench, after the then Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M.Khanwilkar), had concluded that the documentary material on the record indicated that the death of Judge Loya was due to natural causes, and that there was no ground to hold that there was a reasonable suspicion about the cause or circumstances of death which would merit a further inquiry.
Four years after the pronouncement of the judgment, the book under review- authored by the journalist who broke the story in the Caravan magazine in 2017 – aims to revive public interest in the case through a riveting account of the journalistic investigation of the case. Much of what Niranjan Takle has written in the book is already known, but the reader will still benefit from reading the book, which is lucidly written, giving the whole episode a coherent narrative, filling in the dots where required.
As an investigative journalist, Takle’s accomplishment is impressive, as his courage against all odds comes alive in this book. Takle admires Judge Loya’s close relatives who showed tremendous courage when the time came, as recorded faithfully by the book.
Takle quotes the former Chief Justice of India, N.V.Ramana, who had on December 16, 2021, lamented about the death of investigative journalism in India. “In the past, we have witnessed newspaper reports on scandals and misconduct creating waves, leading to serious consequences”, Justice Ramana had said. Justice Ramana continued: “[But] barring one or two, I don’t recall any story of such magnitude in recent years. The concept of investigative journalism is unfortunately vanishing from the media canvas. It is true at least in the Indian context”.
Takle asks in his Prologue: “This parody of an elegy is not supported by the Supreme Court’s own actions. Where were they when investigative journalism leaked the Panama Papers, Jay Amit Shah’s financials, the fallout of CAA and NRC, Kashmir, Rafael, or the protests over farm laws? Did they even take a suo moto cognizance of these incidents, or was the sand around their heads way too warm and comfortable?”
Takle had the privilege of being a broadcast journalist with media agencies like CNN-IBN, and a Special Correspondent for The Week, which refused to publish his story on Judge Loya’s mysterious death, forcing him to leave the magazine, and get his stories published in The Caravan. As he puts it: “From the kumbh mela to the onion mafia, from the cattle extortion trade to the plight of Mahararashtra’s farmers, from a deconstruction of Savarkar’s myths to a lament of the Malegaon blasts, I think I have invested my soul into exposing several untold realities and murky underbellies of India.”
Takle continues his disappointment with the former CJI, Ramana thus: “This is when throwaway comments from the Chief Justice begin to feel like personal attacks. Justice Ramana is perfectly free to take, for hearing, the few investigative reports that slipped through the current regime’s surveying eyes. But he won’t. His job, and the Supreme Court’s job, is no longer to stand at the altar of justice.”
The Supreme Court’s judgment reposed its trust in the official records which claimed that Judge Loya passed away from coronary artery insufficiency. But Takle’s investigation claims to have uncovered facts which point to much more sinister conclusions. The obstacles he faced, according to him, reflect politicians who have broken the judiciary to suit their whims, institutions that would rather preserve the status quo and individuals who champion apathy over action. “It is a substantiated, realistic recounting of the broken bodies which govern our country” as he puts it.
Takle alleges that in the time between investigating the story in 2016 and the publishing of this book, he had been trolled, harassed, surveyed and intimidated. He also claims to have lost friends, family and colleagues whom he respected and loved.
Above all, Takle is right in suggesting that the book is a sobering reminder of the professional hazards involved in claiming oneself a true member of the Indian press. “Investigative journalism is not about photoshoots, by-lines on newspapers and glossy business cards. It is, especially in India, a dangerous undertaking….It is about accepting that the more important the story, the lesser its likelihood of publication”, he writes.