Death of Judge Loya: Were pages concerning Loya’s stay removed from Ravi Bhawan’s bookings register?

New documents obtained during Right to Information proceedings reveal that the bookings register of Ravi Bhawan—the government guest house in Nagpur where the judge BH Loya is said to have been staying at the time of his death—contains no entries for the dates surrounding his stay. Copies of the register, which were submitted by the Nagpur Public Works Department of the Maharashtra government, contain no record of any suite booked for Loya or several other judges, who are said to have stayed at Ravi Bhawan in late November 2014. The judges are believed to have travelled to Nagpur to attend the wedding of a colleague’s family member. Between 28 November and 6 December 2014, the Ravi Bhawan bookings register records only one entry, on 30 November. It does not contain any entry for any judge. For the last six days of this period, the pages are missing altogether.

In June this year, The Caravan reported that according to documents released in response to RTI applications, Maharashtra’s law and judiciary department had sent a letter to the Nagpur Public Works Department Division Number 1 on 27 November 2014, requesting that a suite be reserved in Ravi Bhawan for Loya and another judge, Vinay Joshi. The letter stated that the judges “will be staying from early morning of 30.11.2014 till 7 am of 1.12.2014 for government work.” Additional records made available in response to an RTI application also revealed that earlier that month, another letter issued to the Nagpur PWD sought to reserve eight suites on behalf of seven judges, who were travelling to Nagpur “for some urgent work … from 29.11.2014 (7.00 a.m.) to 01.12.2014.” But the bookings register at Ravi Bhawan does not contain an entry for any of these nine names—neither the seven judges, nor Loya and Joshi.

Six current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan told us that all reservations submitted in writing are recorded in the bookings register. The current and former employees managed the day-to-day affairs of the guest house and have been involved with the booking of rooms. Four of them said that even an oral booking over the phone would be recorded with a corresponding entry in the bookings register. While giving examples of the nature of entries that would be recorded in the register, one employee told us that the “correct protocol” was for reservations to come via the “PWD Division Number 1 of Nagpur.” The employee added, “A notification would then be written in the bookings register.” Both letters reserving the suites in Ravi Bhawan for the judges were addressed to the Nagpur PWD Division Number 1, under the local Public Works Department.

The absence of entries in the register on the dates surrounding Loya’s stay at the guest house is particularly suspicious in view of the chain of letters issued by Maharashtra government bodies, including the law department, reserving nine suites on behalf of nine different judges during this period.

The Caravan first reported on the mysterious circumstances surrounding Loya’s death in November 2017, after the late judge’s family members came forward with their suspicions. Soon after, Maharashtra’s State Intelligence Department conducted a “discreet inquiry” and concluded that the late judge died a natural death. But The Caravan’s subsequent investigation into Loya’s death revealed numerous troubling details about the circumstances surrounding it, including grave questions raised by testimonies of 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan, and the possible tampering of its occupancy register.

The lack of entries in the copies of the bookings register is conspicuous, suggesting that pages from it may have been tampered with—even destroyed. The implications of this would be grave—in April this year, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions seeking an investigation into Loya’s death, relying primarily on the SID report submitted by the Maharashtra government. But the state government did not submit the law department’s letter requesting a suite for Loya or the Ravi Bhawan bookings register before the Supreme Court. The destruction of any page containing information about Loya’s stay at Ravi Bhawan would amount to a destruction of evidence that ought to have been placed before the court.

On 6 June, Satish Uke, a lawyer and an activist, filed a right-to-information application before the public-works department at Nagpur, seeking copies of all applications received for booking suites at Ravi Bhawan between 28 November 2014 and 2 December 2014. In response, the PWD released copies of the register from 27 to 30 November, each of which were entirely empty except one entry on the last day, which did not pertain to any judge. It also released copies of the pages for 7 and 8 December 2014. Uke appealed the PWD’s decision, seeking the copies of the pages for 1 and 2 December, and alleging that the original record of 30 November had been “manipulated and removed to hide the criminal offences related to the death of Judge Loya.”

During the appeal proceedings, Chandrashekhar Ishwar Giri, the Nagpur PWD’s public information officer and an assistant engineer, submitted that “after 30.11.2014, the concerned original register has the records from 7.12.2014 onwards.” Accordingly, Janardhan Bhanuse, an executive engineer who is the first appellate authority, held, “Since there are no records for the dates from 1.12.2014 to 6.12.2014 in the said register, the question of providing the information sought by the appellant for the duration of 1.12.2014 to 2.12.2014 does not arise.”

The law department’s letter requesting a suite for Loya and Joshi, dated 27 November 2014, stated that the judges were travelling to Nagpur “for government work”—contradicting the Maharashtra SID’s assertion that “Judge Loya was in Nagpur to attend the wedding in the family of a colleague.” The letter also contains a note by an additional engineer at the Nagpur PWD, directing a booking clerk at Ravi Bhawan to “Give 1 suit in Building No.1.” The Nagpur District Legal Services Authority issued the letter reserving suites for the seven judges, on 19 November 2014, on behalf of the judge Swapna Joshi, whose family member was getting married on 30 November. The letter stated that seven judges—Swapna Joshi, Shrikant Kulkarni, RG Avchat, RN Ladda, SM Modak, SB Bahalkar and LD Bile—were travelling to Nagpur “for some urgent work.” Eight days later, the Nagpur PWD issued the letter seeking a reservation for Loya. But despite government reservations for the judges, and instructions to a booking clerk to allot a suite in a particular building to Loya and Joshi, none of these names are mentioned in the bookings register.

The former and current employees of Ravi Bhawan explained that the guest house maintains two registers—a bookings register, which contains reservations made in advance, and an occupancy register, which records the stay of all the visiting guests. Six current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan confirmed that all written reservations made ahead of a visit are recorded in the bookings register. “The letters that come, or the reservations that are made on the phone, those are entered in the bookings register,” a second employee said. According to the first employee, “If some secretary is coming, or a justice of high court is coming, or if any government-gazetted persons are coming, their names were first written in the bookings register.” The employees’ description of the booking register and its use is not reflected in the copies provided by the Nagpur PWD. For the pages dated 27 to 29 November 2014, the register contains no entries, while the occupancy register records six entries for the same three-day period.

Among the nine judges for whom reservations were requested, Kulkarni is the only one whose name recorded in Ravi Bhawan’s occupancy register—he is one of the seven judges named in the 19 November letter from the District Legal Services Authority. His name does not have a corresponding entry in the bookings register.

For 30 November 2014, the copy of the bookings register received by Uke records only one entry—of one “Nitin Raut,” A Nitin Raut is today the chief of the All Indian Congress Committee’s Scheduled Caste department, and is based in Nagpur. When contacted, Raut said that he did not recall whether he had made a reservation at Ravi Bhawan for that date. But the occupancy register records five entries for 30 November, including one for “Registrar S Kulkarni.” In December last year, The Caravan reported that the entry before Kulkarni’s appears to have been tampered—it shows the guest, under the name Babasaheb Ambedkar Milind Pakhale, checking in to Ravi Bhawan on “30-11-17,” or 30 November 2017, even though the page records entries from 2014. The entry on the occupancy register from November 2014 shows the guest checking out three years into the future, at an unspecified time on the same date, “30/11/17.” On 20 December 2017, the lawyer Milind Pakhale registered a complaint at Sadar police station in Nagpur, alleging that the entry he made in the Ravi Bhawan register had been manipulated.

The bookings register seems to show signs of manipulation for the same time period. The RTI appellate authority claimed that “after 30.11.2014, the concerned original register has the records from 7.12.2014 onwards” and that “there are no records for the dates from 1.12.2014 to 6.12.2014 in the said register.” The occupancy register records at least seven entries on these dates—two on 2 December, two on 3 December, one on 5 December, and two on 6 December. For the dates surrounding Loya’s stay, not a single entry in the occupancy register is reflected in the bookings register. Given the complaint of manipulation of the occupancy register, and its numerous entries and lack of corresponding entries in the bookings register, it appears plausible that the bookings register had also been tampered with for the dates surrounding Loya’s death.

The absence of any written record of a room being booked for Loya at Ravi Bhawan becomes even more concerning in view of other correspondence that Uke has had with RTI authorities. The Maharashtra law department, in an RTI response dated 2 June 2018, had said that the letter reserving the suite for Loya had been “destroyed” because it was over one year old. IM Bhargav, who issued this response, is the law department’s public-information officer. She also serves as the department’s desk officer. Incidentally, Bhargav had signed the November 2014 letter issued to the Nagpur PWD to reserve a suite for Loya at Ravi Bhawan.

In the RTI application seeking a copy of the letter, Uke had also asked for any associated “office notes and complete documents.” Bhargav responded:

Since the said document was issued on the oral instruction of the then Deputy Secretary, no remarks have been made about it. Similarly, even if any document has been released by this office for the purpose of reserving a suite in Ravi Bhavan, the suite was not reserved based on a document of this office.

Bhargav’s unprompted and unsolicited statement that Loya’s “suite was not reserved based on a document of this office” is conspicuous. Thereafter, in two RTI applications dated 15 and 19 September 2018 respectively, Uke questioned Bhargav about this response. She replied on 21 September: “This office has not obtained any documents concerning the reservation of the suite. Therefore a personal opinion was given.” The Right to Information Act does not contain any provision about public-information officers providing their “personal opinions” under any circumstance.

Bhargav’s personal opinion, as stated in the RTI response, would be absurd if it were true. The copy of the letter received from the Nagpur’s PWD confirms that Ravi Bhawan had received two letters from the state government bodies, including the law department, booking several suites on the dates surrounding Loya’s stay at the guest house. The letter reserving the suite for Loya and Joshi, which she signed, was marked to the “Manager, Ravi Bhawan, Nagpur for necessary action” and contained the directions from an additional engineer to a booking clerk—one “Shri Sawant”—to allot one suite in “Building No. 1.” Given this clear chain of correspondence to different members within Ravi Bhawan, it is difficult to understand how Bhargav was so certain that the suite was not “not reserved based on a document of this office.”

Her responses raise several questions. If the suite was not booked based on a document of the law department, then why did it issue a letter reserving a suite at all? Was Bhargav, in her personal opinion, aware that the bookings register at Ravi Bhawan would not have a record of any reservation under Loya or Joshi’s names? Moreover, what circumstances prompted Bhargav, a public-information office, to offer personal opinion in an RTI response? When called by The Caravan, Bhargav said that she would only respond to queries over email. At the time this story was published, she had not responded to emailed questions.

Despite written and advanced reservation for sitting judges made by the Maharashtra government’s law department, there is no entry in their names. According to the procedure described by the current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan, these reservations ought to have been recorded in the bookings register. It is difficult to believe that this is a coincidence. But the alternative could imply that these pages were deliberately removed from the register. If so, that would not only amount to a destruction of evidence, but possibly even to contempt of court.