Key witness in Sohrabuddin case, Azam Khan, moved from Udaipur to Ajmer jail

DG Vanzara (left), a former Gujarat police official and prime accused in the the alleged extrajudicial killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Kauserbi and Tulsiram Prajapati. Azam Khan (centre), a crucial witness in the high-profile case concerning the killings. Haren Pandya (right), a former home minister of Gujarat, who was found dead in his car on the morning of 26 March 2003. Khan made a startling assertion in a testimony: Sheikh had told Khan that he had killed Haren Pandya and “that this contract of killing was given by Shri. Vanzara.” LEFT: SAM PANTHAKY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES; RIGHT: AFP / GETTY IMAGES
22 May, 2023

On 17 May, Azam Khan—a crucial witness in the high-profile case relating to the alleged extrajudicial killings of the gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh; his wife, Kauserbi; and his associate Tulsiram Prajapati—was moved from Udaipur Central Jail to a high-security prison in Ghooghra, in Ajmer district. A relative of Khan’s told me that they spoke to him while he was still in Udaipur, through a phone that prisoners are allowed to access, around 10.30 am that day. They recalled that Khan told them that police officials had notified him about the decision approximately half an hour earlier. “It was all very sudden,” the relative said.

Khan, who knew Sheikh, Kauserbi and Prajapati, made several explosive claims while testifying before a special Central Bureau of Investigation court hearing the case in Mumbai, on 3 November 2018. Later that month, his wife, Rizwana Khan, filed a petition at the Rajasthan High Court seeking protection for her husband, asking that he not be transferred and that he and his family be provided security. The petition alleged that Khan and his family had “been facing a growing number of threats,” and that police officials had warned him that he would be “killed en route like Tulsiram Prajapati was.” This petition is pending before the court.

In a December petition to the Bombay High Court, Rizwana noted that such threats had been issued to her husband many times since October, specifically that he would be transferred to the high-security prison in Ajmer, “and thereafter, whenever he was brought from Ajmer to Udaipur for court appearances, any adverse incident could happen … be it through unknown perpetrators or under the guise of a gang war.”

I reached out to multiple Rajasthan police officials to confirm Khan’s transfer and to seek details on the underlying reasoning. “Actually, this is not our concern, and I am not the appropriate person to speak about it,” Ajay Pal Lamba, the inspector general for the Udaipur range, told me. Vikas Sharma, the police superintendent of Udaipur, said, “I don’t think this is a right question to ask. First you should tell me why you are asking me about this person … These are administrative issues, ma’am, they don’t need any reasoning … This is a very routine process, ma’am.” Bhupendra Kumar Dak, Rajasthan’s director general of police for prisons, replied, “Who told you, who told you … tell me, where did you get this information from.” He said, “Why is Caravan magazine so interested in this, in Azam Khan?”

Sheikh, Prajapati and Khan were associates and had known each other, according to Khan’s testimony before the CBI special court, since about 2002. In the testimony, Khan recalled that he had helped them find housing in Udaipur and also made arrangements for Sheikh and Kauserbi’s wedding, because of which Sheikh and he became close.

In his testimony, Khan made a startling assertion: Sheikh had told him that he, along with two other people, Shahid Rampuri and Naeem Khan, had killed Haren Pandya, a former home minister of Gujarat. “I felt sad and told Sohrabuddin that they have killed a good person,” Khan said. “Thereafter Sohrabuddin told me that this contract of killing was given by Shri. Vanzara.”

In the initial months following Pandya’s assassination, DG Vanzara, a senior Gujarat Police official, headed the crime branch’s investigation. The case was later transferred to the CBI. The agency’s subsequent probe into the alleged extrajudicial killings of Sheikh, Kauserbi and Prajapati prominently featured Vanzara as one of the prime accused in the case. Khan’s testimony raised troubling questions about the veracity of the official account of Pandya’s death—upheld by the Supreme Court in July 2019—according to which the murder was “part of an international conspiracy” to “spread terror among Hindus.”

A Bharatiya Janata Party leader and member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Pandya was found dead in his car on the morning of 26 March 2003. Pandya’s father was vocal about his belief that the assassination was a “political murder” and wanted Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, Narendra Modi, to be investigated in the case. He even filed a petition to this effect with the Supreme Court, which the court dismissed.

In November 2005, Sheikh, Kauserbi, and Prajapati, were travelling from Hyderabad to Sangli, in Maharashtra, by bus. According to the CBI’s charge sheet, police officials intercepted them en route. Sheikh and Kauserbi were eventually taken to a farm house near Gandhinagar, where they were killed, within days of each other. The CBI accused police personnel from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh of being involved in and executing the conspiracy. Soon after news of Sheikh’s murder broke, the Gujarat Police reportedly claimed that he had been associated with the Pakistani terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and was supposedly plotting to assassinate Modi. The police also claimed that officials killed Sheikh because he fired at them when they tried to apprehend him.

Prajapati, who alighted from the bus with Sheikh and Kauserbi, was a witness to their abduction, according to one of the CBI’s charge sheets in the case. Less than a month after the killings, he was imprisoned in the Udaipur Central Jail for a separate murder case. Through the following year, Prajapati was vocal about the threat to his life and even wrote to the National Human Rights Commission, seeking help. His mother reportedly recalled him telling her multiple times, “mera counter ho jaegaI will be killed in an encounter. In December 2006, Prajapati’s fear came true. He was returning to Udaipur from a court hearing in Ahmedabad when, according to the police officials accompanying him, he supposedly escaped from their custody, forcing them to take lethal action.

In its investigation, the CBI alleged a chilling conspiracy, which traced its roots to an extortion racket enabled by a “criminal-politician-police nexus,” of which Sheikh and Prajapati had been part. Eventually, the bureau named Amit Shah, then Gujarat’s minister of state for home affairs, as one of the chief conspirators behind the racket and subsequent killings. Its charge sheets in the case also included the names of Vanzara, Gulab Chand Kataria, Rajasthan’s junior home minister at the time, and Dinesh MN, the then police superintendent for Udaipur, among several other police officials.

By the time that Prajapati was taken to Udaipur Central Jail, Khan—who had been arrested months earlier, in relation to the same murder case as Prajapati—was imprisoned there as well. (Everyone accused in the murder case, including Sheikh, Khan and Prajapati, were subsequently acquitted.) “Tulsiram met me and started weeping by saying that Sohrabuddin and Kausarbi have been killed because of his mistake,” Khan said in his testimony. He recalled Prajapati telling him that Vanzara and other Gujarat police officials had obtained Prajapati’s cooperation in apprehending Sheikh under false pretences. They had assured Prajapati that Sheikh would only be arrested for a few months at most, as there was “political pressure,” and then released.

In the months leading up to Prajapati’s murder, according to the CBI, Rajasthan and Gujarat police officials likely made multiple attempts to target him and, by extension, Khan, when they travelled to Gujarat for court appearances in relation to one of the cases in which they were accused. Several among these police officers, including Dinesh MN, were accused in the alleged extrajudicial killings of Sheikh and Kauserbi. In one of its charge sheets, the CBI surmised that some of these efforts were thwarted because Khan and Prajapati’s relatives, whom the two had alerted about the danger they sensed to their lives, accompanied them along with the police escorts when they travelled.

During one such court visit, Khan recalled in his testimony, officials from Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad took over their custody from Rajasthan police officials once they reached Ahmedabad. Khan noted that it was customary for them to be taken to the Sabarmati Jail before being produced in court but, this time, the officials took them to the ATS office instead. “Myself and Tulsiram were under fear,” Khan said. “We both started shouting by saying that we will be killed by police.” They were eventually taken to a judge. The ATS claimed that it was protecting Khan and Prajapati, since their lives were in danger because of gangsters. “I told the judge that I fear [for] my life at the hands of the police,” Khan added. He recalled that he also told the judge that they should be taken back to Udaipur handcuffed, so that the police could not later claim “that we attempted to run away and that time were killed in encounter.”

On 25 December 2006, Prajapati travelled for another court appearance along with a team of escorting police officials, which, the CBI alleged, had been “handpicked” by Dinesh MN. Khan did not go with Prajapati for this hearing; he had been taken into police custody in another case. The CBI alleged that, although Dinesh could have interrogated Khan in relation to this case a few days earlier, he told his colleague that he wanted to see Khan on 25 December. He did this to ensure “that Tulsiram Prajapati has to travel alone to Ahmedabad,” a CBI charge sheet noted. It added that Dinesh had told his subordinates that he would interrogate Khan in person, but he never interrogated Khan during the time he was in police custody. The charge sheet stated that “this only proves that his only purpose in all this was that he was acting in furtherance of the criminal conspiracy … to ensure that Mohd. Azam is separated from Tulsiram Prajapati during the transportation of the latter.”

On 28 December, Prajapati was killed.

In his testimony, Khan recalled his final meeting with Prajapati in jail, on 23 or 24 December. “The last talk between us was that either I will not come back or he will not come back to jail.”

On 19 December 2018, over a month after Khan’s testimony in front of the CBI court and only a few days before the court reached its verdict, he sought to be re-examined. In an application to the court, Khan wrote that his testimony was incomplete because he had faced “almost twenty days of unrelenting torture at the hands of Udaipur Police personnel” in the days preceding the testimony and that, “even on the morning of the deposition [Khan] was threatened by one of the accused.” As a result, the application noted, although Khan “was able name one retired IPS officer”—Vanzara—he was scared to name other police officers and politicians.

Khan claimed that his statement recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code was not exhibited as evidence by the public prosecutor. Unlike statements to the police, those given under Section 164 are admissible as evidence.

According to the application, the details which were left out of his deposition included the fact that, in 2010, he had been threatened by Gujarat Police officials and was taken into illegal custody to give a false affidavit that stated that the CBI had coerced him into giving false statements. Khan said that he was forced to go to a hotel in Ahmedabad, and that one of the people who took him there told him, “What you did by giving a statement against our Abhay Chudasma sir in court wasn’t right. You can’t even imagine what we will do to you now.” Chudasama was a deputy commissioner of the Gujarat Police at the time of the alleged extrajudicial killings of Sheikh and Kauserbi, and an accused in the CBI case. Khan said in his statement that he was also told, “Amit Shahji is getting bail by 27 September 2010, we have had the whole conversation with him, we will get you a flat here, and whatever business you say, we’ll help you set it up here.”

A CBI charge sheet, which made note of the incident, stated that its investigation had disclosed that Shah and Chudasama, “while in judicial custody, conspired with some Gujarat police officers to destroy the crucial evidence, and to shield accused from the law.” Khan’s abduction, it alleged, was in “furtherance of the said conspiracy.” The bureau also found that by filing the false affidavit, Khan was “forced to retract from his statement with the view to help accused Shri Amit Shah to obtain bail.”

In his December 2018 application, Khan alleged that he and his family were harassed, intimidated and threatened in a sustained manner during the six months preceding his testimony. On 7 June that year, the application claimed, two of his brothers and his uncle were picked up by the Udaipur police. The officials allegedly threatened Khan’s mother, telling her that they would not let her relatives go unless Khan “testified as per their wishes.” The application stated that Khan’s relatives were released seven days after being picked up—but were made to sign statements that claimed that they had been taken for questioning only for a couple of hours and had immediately left for the Ajmer Sharif Dargah without telling their family.

The application added that, when Rizwana Khan went to the CBI court on 26 September, she was threatened by an unknown person inside the court room who told her that Khan needed to give his witness statement “as we have told him to.” Rizwana submitted a written request from her husband to the court, asking that he be allowed to testify on a date of his choosing to ensure his safety. The court agreed to this.

Five days later, the application went on, three men on motorcycles without number plates accosted Rizwana as she was leaving her home. They forced her to go with them to a location nearby, where a white luxury car was parked. A person sitting in the back seat of the car allegedly threatened Rizwana and told her that, if Khan did not give a favourable statement, “what had happened to Kausarbi … would happen to her” and that her husband “would meet a fate worse than that of Sohrabuddin and Tulsiram.”

On 6 October, Rizwana detailed her experience in a letter to the then chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, which was copied to the chief justice of the Rajasthan High Court, Pradeep Nandrajog, and the chief justice of the Bombay High Court, Naresh Harishchandra Patil. In this letter, Rizwana also alleged that the person in the car told her to give Azam the “example of Justice Loya, in which he did not follow one instruction and what we did with him.” BH Loya, who had been presiding over the special CBI court hearing the matter related to the extrajudicial killings, died under mysterious circumstances on the intervening night between 30 November and 1 December 2014. Rizwana also sent letters to the NHRC and the National Commission for Women, flagging the intimidation.

Khan, who had reportedly been out on bail, was arrested in Delhi on 12 October by a special branch of the Udaipur police. Khan’s application alleged that he was brought to the Bhupalpura police station in Udaipur. Rizwana only found out the next day, when she went looking for him. According to the application, when she reached the police station, she was not allowed to speak to Khan. Instead, the in-charge of the station, Harinder Singh Soda, allegedly assaulted Rizwana and put her in a lock up. “Her phone was also taken from her and she was detained there for four-five hours, from about 11 am to 4 pm,” the application alleged.

The application alleged that, between 13 October and 18 October, Khan was repeatedly assaulted in custody. On 17 October, the application stated, Soda forced Khan to sit in front of a Hanuman temple on the premises of the police station and directed over fifty police personnel to beat him. By 23 October, the application added, Khan was taken to a Mahila Police Station, on the outskirts of Udaipur city, where Bhagwat Singh Hingad, the deputy superintendent at the time, tortured him, and “he was repeatedly told not to implicate police officers from Gujarat and Rajasthan.” Khan “was also threatened that he would, like Tulsiram Prajapati, be killed while being transferred between cities.”

According to the application, on the morning of 3 November—the day on which Khan was to testify—the police officials accompanying him took him to a black car parked near his hotel. Abdul Rehman was sitting inside. Rehman, a police inspector from Rajasthan at the time of the alleged extrajudicial killings, was one of the officials accused by the CBI in its investigation. Khan alleged that the police team left him for around half an hour with Rehman, who told him to not mention any police personnel from Rajasthan in his statement or else “more cases would be concocted against him.” In the application, Khan also alleged that Rehman threatened him again at a police station when he returned to Udaipur the next day.

Given the prevailing circumstances, by 15 November, Rizwana filed the petition with the Rajasthan High Court, asking for protection as well as requesting an order to prevent Khan’s transfer from Udaipur. Two days later, Khan, then in judicial custody, was taken to the Udaipur Central Jail where, according to his application, the jail superintendent told him that he was being transferred to the high-security prison in Ajmer. On 30 November, the application alleged, an attempt was made to move him even though Rizwana’s petition was pending. The transfer was stopped at that time after Khan’s mother went to the Udaipur Central Jail and submitted an application stating that his life would be in “grave danger” if he were to be moved, and Rizwana filed an email complaint with multiple authorities, including the NHRC and Rajasthan’s director general of police for prisons. 

Khan’s application to be re-examined by the CBI special court, as well as a similar application filed by another witness in the case—Mahender Zala, a Gujarat-based petrol pump owner—were rejected on 21 December, the same day that the court passed its verdict, acquitting all 22 accused due to lack of evidence. The CBI had originally named 38 people, of which the special court had already discharged 16, including politicians and senior police officers. By the time the court passed its verdict, 92 out of the 210 witnesses in the case had turned hostile.

Dinesh MN, who was arrested in relation to the case in 2007 and suspended from service, was released on bail on 9 May 2014. He was reportedly reinstated by the Rajasthan Police four days later. In August 2017, he was discharged from the case by the CBI special court. In February 2023, he was posted as Rajasthan’s additional director general for crime.

On the day of Khan’s transfer, while I was reaching out to Rajasthan police officials with queries, I got a call from Manjeet Singh, who identified himself as an additional police superintendent of Udaipur.  “This is just a routine process, the police does these things from time to time,” he said, when I asked him about the reason for Khan’s transfer. That night, I reached out to Paras Jangid, the superintendent of prisons in Ajmer, for details. He said, Ho gaya, woh aa gayaIt’s done, he has come. According to Jangid, Khan reached the prison “around 3–4 pm.”

On the afternoon of 20 May, Khan’s lawyer, Akhilesh Mogra, met Khan at the Ajmer prison. “He was quite scared and nervous,” Mogra told me. “He said he is not able to understand why he was suddenly transferred.” According to Mogra, while Khan was in a cell with other prisoners at the Udaipur Central Jail, he was alone in his cell at the high-security prison in Ajmer. “Neither is he being allowed to meet anyone, nor is he being allowed to speak with anyone,” Mogra said, adding that, when Khan enquired about this, he was told, “It will be like this till there are further instructions from higher authorities.”

I reached out to Jangid again on the night of 21 May. He denied that Khan was the solitary occupant of his cell, claiming that one more person was lodged there. “I saw this myself when I had visited the prison,” he said. I asked him when he had made the visit, to ascertain whether it was before or after Mogra met Khan. “I can’t tell you that,” Jangid replied. “I have already told you quite a bit, and these are matters of security.”