Death of Judge Loya: Two judges associated with Loya’s stay at Ravi Bhawan proposed to be elevated to Bombay HC

Two of four judges recommended by the Supreme Court collegium for elevation to the Bombay High Court, SM Modak and VG Joshi, were involved in different capacities with the circumstances surrounding the death of the judge BH Loya. Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
19 September, 2018

On 11 September, the Supreme Court collegium passed a resolution recommending the names of four judges—SM Modak, VG Joshi, NJ Jamadar, and RG Avachat—for elevation to the Bombay High Court. Two of these judges, Modak and Joshi, were involved in different capacities with the circumstances surrounding the death of the judge BH Loya.

Modak has claimed he was staying with Loya at Ravi Bhawan—the government guest house in Nagpur where Loya is said to have been staying at the time of his death, on the intervening night between 30 November and 1 December 2014. The official account of Loya’s death stated that the late judge was in Nagpur to attend the wedding of a fellow judge’s son. But according to a government letter issued on 27 November 2014 by the Nagpur office of Maharashtra’s law department, Joshi and Loya were to stay at Ravi Bhawan “from early morning of 30.11.2014 till 7 am of 1.12.2014 for government work.”

The collegium’s decision follows the recommendation of Manjula Chellur, a former chief justice of the Bombay High Court who proposed the names of Modak, Joshi and four other judges, in consultation with her two senior-most colleagues, for elevation on 28 November 2017. Interestingly, the Maharashtra State Intelligence Department had submitted a “discreet inquiry” report to the state government, which is also dated 28 November, concluding that Loya’s death was natural. Among other documents, the SID relied on a statement submitted by Modak to arrive at that conclusion.

A week before the SID submitted its report, The Caravan broke two stories concerning the suspicions raised by Loya’s family about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, and their allegation that Mohit Shah, another former chief justice of the Bombay High Court, had offered Loya Rs 100 crore for a favourable judgment in the Sohrabuddin case. Loya had been presiding over the case, in which the BJP national president Amit Shah was among the main accused, since June 2014. Modak submitted his statement to the SID on 24 November 2017—four days before both the date of the report, and Chellur’s recommendation.

On 17 September, six days after the collegium passed its resolution, RP Joshi, a Nagpur-based advocate, submitted a written complaint to Ranjan Gogoi, who will be sworn in as the next chief justice of India on 3 October, requesting the judge to reconsider the decision. The advocate told us that he had filed multiple complaints against Modak earlier that month and in July as well—to Dipak Misra, to the Bombay High Court, and to the union law minister—but did not receive a response to any of them.

Three judges have signed the collegium’s resolution: Misra, Gogoi, and Madan Lokur. It states that the Supreme Court judges took “note of the complaints placed in the file as also received in the office of Chief Justice of India” against some of the judges recommended. But the collegium concluded that they did not “find any prima facie substance in these complaints, which deserve to be ignored.” In his complaint to Gogoi, however, the advocate Joshi states that Modak’s proposed elevation “gives a feeling as if he is being rewarded for giving some statements in the ‘Judge Loya Sudden Death Episode.’”

Modak’s statement to the SID contained glaring omissions about the events immediately preceding Loya’s death. He claimed that Shrikant Kulkarni, another judge who submitted his statement to the SID, and he had travelled with Loya from Mumbai to Nagpur on the night on 29 November 2014, and that the three of them stayed in the same room at Ravi Bhawan the following day. According to his statement, Loya woke up at around 4 am because “he was not feeling comfort”—Modak’s statement does not describe the nature of this discomfort. Modak states that he and Kulkarni then called “local judges probably Judge Barde and Judge Rathi”—he did not remember whether they called both of them or just one—and that the four judges then took Loya to Dande Hospital. After an “initial checkup” and on the advice of the doctor at Dande, Modak noted, “we shifted judge Loya to another hospital”—he did not remember the name of the hospital. He did not state when the doctors declared Loya dead, and he did not remember who informed the late judge’s family.

Modak’s statement avoids key questions raised by Loya’s family about the circumstances of his death. For instance, why did the records at Meditrina Hospital—the second hospital, after Dande, to which Loya was taken—state his time of death to be 6.15 am, while the family members said they began receiving calls about his death from 5 am onwards? Additionally, a key piece of evidence supporting the official claim that Loya died of a heart attack is the chart of an ECG, which was purportedly conducted at Dande Hospital and heavily relied on by the Supreme Court in dismissing the petitions seeking an inquiry into his death. Modak’s statement makes no reference to an ECG or a heart attack.

In fact, Modak’s statement raised further questions about the events leading up to Loya’s death, and later investigations by The Caravan revealed these circumstances to be murkier than they first appeared. Perhaps the starkest among these are the issues arising from Modak’s claim that the three judges stayed in the same room in Ravi Bhawan. The occupancy register at the guest house does not record Loya’s stay, but notes that Suite 10 was occupied by Kulkarni. This would mean that Loya, Modak and Kulkarni stayed together in Suite 10, and left Ravi Bhawan together after 4 am on 1 December 2014. Yet, as a subsequent investigation revealed, 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan—who were responsible for everything from administration, reception and room service, to engineering work and miscellaneous other duties—did not know that a judge had developed a serious medical problem during their stay at the guest house, been taken to hospital, and subsequently died.

The claim that the three judges stayed in one room is also curious considering the fact that, as one of the employees explained, all suites in the guest house have only two beds. The employee also noted that, under ordinary circumstances, Ravi Bhawan itself does not offer any provisions for guests to request an extra mattress. “Zyaada se zyaada, itne senior hai, bade log hai, toh kya hota hai ki ek room mein nahi rehna chahte hai”—Most often, if the guests are so senior and high-up, then they prefer not to stay in the same room. None of the 17 current and former employees, who were all working at Ravi Bhawan in November 2014, recalled any request for an additional mattress. The store that usually provides mattresses to Ravi Bhawan also had no written records of requests for additional mattresses on either 29 or 30 November that year.

Chellur, the former chief of the Bombay High Court who recommended Modak’s name for elevation, had also come to be affiliated with the Loya case after the family spoke out about their suspicions. According to a Times of India report of 29 November 2017, the late judge’s son, Anuj Loya, had approached Chellur, who was then chief justice of the Bombay High Court, “to convey that the family had no complaints or suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s death.” The report stated that Anuj handed her a letter in which he wrote: “We have full faith in the members of the judiciary who were with him on the night of 30 November.” During the Supreme Court hearing about the judge’s death, the senior advocate Dushyant Dave, arguing on behalf of one of the petitioners, had questioned Chellur’s conduct in this regard. “Why would a chief justice of the high court call the boy and issue a statement, just days before retirement?” Dave asked the bench. Chellur retired on 4 December, five days after Anuj’s visit was reported, and six days after she recommended the judges’ names for elevation. Dave added, “Who was she trying to satisfy?”

Dave’s comments are not the first time Chellur has come under criticism for her conduct as a high court judge. In 2014, when Chellur was the chief justice of the Kerala High Court, she had reserved her judgment for eight months on a case concerning a 2007 eviction drive by the state government in Munnar district. Four days after the president of India signed a warrant for her transfer to become the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, Chellur pronounced the verdict in the case, declaring the eviction drive illegal—effectively awarding the land to owners of a resort in the area. The decision invited criticism from political and legal quarters.

In August last year, the Bombay Bar Association passed a resolution condemning Chellur for withdrawing a petition from a division bench headed by the judge AS Oka—on a transfer application by the state government, which claimed he was biased—and assigning it to another bench. The case concerned the Noise Pollution Rules of 2000, and Oka had pulled up the state government for its failure to implement them. Three days after passing the order, following protests from the legal fraternity against her decision, Chellur recalled it and assigned the case to a three-judge bench headed by Oka. On 31 July this year, Chellur was appointed as the next chairperson of the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity, or APTEL. Pertinently, the Electricity Act of 2003 mandates that the central government must make the appointment of the APTEL chairperson in consultation with the chief justice of India—in Chellur’s case, Dipak Misra. She will hold the post for a period of at least three years.

During the Supreme Court hearing into the petitions seeking an inquiry into Loya’s death, Dushyant Dave had insisted on cross-examining the judges who had submitted statements to the SID, including Modak, and had questioned the court’s reliance on these statements. “In any case this Honourable Court is concerned with truth and truth cannot come to light in an ex parte manner in this fashion relying upon the Report prepared by the state.”