The Case of Judge Loya

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Gleaner column, Nov 30, 2017

In India, a case with potentially sinister undertones has divided media. The death of High Court Judge BH Loya in December 2014 is raising questions about the integrity of the judiciary and the political machinery of the country. If what is suspected is found to be true it implicates the Chief of the ruling party, BJP President, Amit Shah.

On November 26, 2005, a man in his thirties named Sohrabuddin Sheikh was gunned down by a team of police in Gujarat in what is known in India as an ‘encounter’ killing. Essentially a form of extra-judicial killing of people in their custody, Indian police are known to eliminate suspected criminals and gangsters in fake encounters, where they claim the suspect was shooting at the police while attempting to escape and “the gunfire is returned” killing them. Sound familiar?

It later emerged that contrary to the police version of events, Sheikh was travelling in a luxury bus with his wife, along with a friend when all three were abducted from the bus by Gujarat Police, who killed Sheikh on November 26, and his wife on November 29. According to an article in Scroll.In the police would later claim, as they are wont to do, that the individuals killed were dreaded terrorists, with plans to assassinate Modi and other senior leaders, or launch terror strikes, but rarely would there be any convincing evidence to confirm such allegations. No postmortem or statutory magisterial inquiry followed the killings.

The truth was much simpler. After pressure from Sheikh’s brother prompted a court case and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry it emerged that Sohrabuddin Sheikh was a member of a criminal gang that had been in cahoots with some Gujarat police officers and political leaders, operating an extortion racket in neighbouring Rajasthan. After Sheikh’s gang threatened highly-connected marble businessmen in Udaipur his political and police bosses felt that Sheikh was getting beyond their control, and needed to be eliminated. They could not, however, risk charging him formally, for fear he would expose his powerful partners in crime.

The investigation that followed allegedly pointed at none other than Amit Shah, then Home Minister of Gujarat, as having given the orders to eliminate Sheikh. “According to the CBI charge-sheet, the killing was orchestrated by senior police officers on the orders of Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah and former Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who was also a senior BJP leader.” A supplementary charge-sheet filed by CBI on May 6, 2013, alleged that the owner of RK Marbles and the Rajasthan Home Minister conspired to kill Sheikh as he was allegedly trying to extort money from RK Marbles. According to the article “The CBI further charged that the killing was outsourced to the Gujarat Police in consultation with Amit Shah, the Minister of State for Home of Gujarat.”

In May 2013 Amit Shah along with 10 or more other police officers was charged and jailed for the extra-judicial murders and involvement in criminal extortion activities. A year later, however, there was a change of government with Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, sweeping to power. Suddenly everything changed. The trial continued but Amit Shah now refused to appear in court. The trial judge, JT Utpat, reprimanded Amit Shah on June 6, 2014, for failing to appear in person, ordering him to present himself in court on June 26, 2014.

Mysteriously on June 25, 2014, only a day before this scheduled hearing, Judge Utpat was transferred to a different court, and replaced by Judge BH Loya. When Amit Shah again failed to appear in person at the trial Judge Loya also expressed disapproval, ordering him to appear in court on December 15. In the early hours of December 1, 2014, in circumstances that his family claims were suspicious, Judge Loya, with no history of cardiac problems, suffered a sudden heart attack and died. Among other things, his sister claimed that Mohit Shah, then chief justice of the Bombay high court, had offered her brother Rs 100 crore (approx. US$15 million) to give a “favourable” judgment in the case.

“Within weeks of Judge Loya’s death, on December 30, 2014, the third judge to hear the case, MB Gosavi, discharged Amit Shah from the Sohrabudin Sheikh fake encounter case. Gosavi said he saw no evidence against Shah, and instead said he “found substance” in his main defence that the CBI had framed him “for political reasons”. In so doing, Gosavi ignored crucial pieces of evidence such as police officer Raiger’s categorical statement that Amit Shah had instructed obstruction of the investigation, and his phone records.”

Amit Shah was soon elevated to the post of President of the BJP. Perhaps because of this, despite the sensational nature of these events and their importance to the nation, mainstream media in India steered clear of reporting on or investigating Judge Loya’s untimely passing until a magazine called Caravan undertook to do so two weeks ago. Since then the Indian Express and certain key newspapers have published articles insisting there was nothing suspicious about Judge Loya’s death.

Influential journalists such as Arun Shourie, a former member of the BJP, disagree. “Every media house should have been running to develop that story,” he said a few days after the Caravan story emerged. “It is the end for conventional media—not only because it is being overtaken as a source of news by the new media, but because of its cowardice and greed…There is a Zulu proverb—a dog with a bone in its mouth can’t bark. That is the condition of the mainstream media today.”

How are we going to repair Indian culture?

So much has been said, so much written, emoted, protested, pronounced and declaimed that you wonder if you should even venture to add anything to the maelstrom surrounding the young woman so brutally violated in Delhi who has now succumbed to her fearsome injuries. Yet not to mark her death with a post would be to disregard her life, to avert my gaze from this youngster who paid so dearly for having been out with her male friend in Delhi on December 16.

Image from Bangalore NH7 Weekender
Image from Bangalore NH7 Weekender

On that same evening I was in Bangalore, with Achal and Rita, enjoying the stupendous NH7 Weekender music festival. Somewhere in a field near the Yelehanka Airforce Base this superbly organized event featured seven stages or music stations facing different directions each one with a roster of acts simultaneously pumping out a particular genre of music: rock, soul, folk, punk, electronica and of course the Pepsi Dub Station with Reggae-inspired music. In fact i had organized this outing so i could hear the Reggae Rajahs live at the Pepsi Dub Station.

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We watched Indian Reggae fans skanking and vybsing to the Reggae Rajahs who put on a great performance. We had barely arrived in time to catch them and missed all the earlier acts but it was wicked to be in Bangalore listening to live Reggae and so much else. The whole event had a mela-like atmosphere, thousands of youngsters, i mean probably 20 thousand young men and women, many of them out with each other and enjoying themselves. There was food, drink, other stuff to buy and the music crashing all around us, what an awesome moment, especially catching just before we left, the amazing Indian Ocean, one of the oldest pop bands in India.

Achal vouchsafed that the experience had restored his faith in Bangalore which in recent years with the explosion of tech industries had become unrecognizable from the gentle, civilized city it used to be. But seeing all these young men and women out having clean, good fun said something for the kind of space still available for non-religious, communal, Western-inflected, almost cosmopolitan recreation. Mind you you had to well-heeled, the tickets weren’t cheap but it wasn’t by any means exclusively an upper-class, English-speaking crowd.

In the aftermath of what took place in Delhi that same night, originating in a part of Delhi i know so well–Munirka–having studied at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), i was haunted by the thought of what a hostile space that city i love so much represented for a young man and woman who had only aspired to see The Life of Pi that evening. Early reports suggested that the rapists had taunted the young woman for being out alone with a man at 10 pm, as if to say she was now fair game for rape. They then had their way with her, expressing on her body and that of her companion, but particularly hers, all the repressed desire and rage engendered by a society that refuses to acknowledge the sexuality of its young, that keeps it pent up beyond all reasonable limits, allowing no space for young women and men to be with each other and enjoy their youth.

Who were these men? How old were they? I bet they didn’t have girlfriends or wives yet…where was their sexual energy supposed to be spent? This isn’t to justify their bestiality…personally i think they should be castrated as an example…but these are questions we need to ask and find answers for.

Ironically the long term cure for the rape culture so cozily nourished by draconian Indian kinship and marriage practices is the very thing this unnamed young woman and her friend were doing that evening. The practice of young men and women going out together before marriage has to be encouraged, cultivated and normalized before there’ll be any reduction in rapes. Look within India at cultures that have space for mating rituals before marriage and see what the correlation with rape is.

Gujarat may feature very high on the rape radar because of the systematic, premeditated rape that accompanied religious and ethnic riots there but if you look at regular, everyday rape statistics there i wonder what it would show. Because Gujaratis are generally very permissive towards their young and have space in their culture for widespread pre-marital mixing. Their garbas and other communal dances are designed i think to engage the sexual energy of young Gujaratis legitimately, within the culture, respecting cultural codes. As long back as the 60s and 70s the prevalence of courting couples had changed the name of Law Gardens in Ahmedabad to Love Gardens.

Look at Bangalore and the NH7 weekender event i described earlier and the vibrant pub culture long associated with this city. In recent years religious fundamentalists have decreed that pubs and other places be closed earlier and earlier, that spaces where the young could dance be shut down, all in the name of some sinister vernacular morality that ultimately begets, actually propagates, widespread rape, much of which takes place within families, with underage children, with the helpless and the most vulnerable in our societies. I haven’t even touched on the dread subject of Dalits all over India and the routine violation and terrorism they face at the hands of ‘moral’, ‘upright’, ‘chaste’ Hindus.

So rage against the government all you want, the problem is really with Indian culture, broadly speaking, despite the preponderance of female gods. Goddesses notwithstanding, as constituted now its a culture that incubates rapists, then trains them and arms them. How are we going to repair that?

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Nirbhaya image via Deepak’s Lore