Narendra Modi’s shadow lies all over the Haren Pandya case

Narendra Modi at the funeral of Haren Pandya, a Modi detractor who was mysteriously murdered in March 2003. SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP PHOTO
Elections 2024
06 July, 2019

On 5 July, the Supreme Court upheld a Gujarat trial court’s verdict convicting 12 people accused of the murder of Haren Pandya, a former Gujarat home minister. Pandya, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was killed in Ahmedabad on 26 March 2003. The trial court’s conviction, on 25 June 2007, had been reversed by the Gujarat high court on 29 August 2011. In a scathing indictment of the investigation, the agencies responsible and the lower court, the high court had acquitted all the accused of the murder charges and termed the trial court’s verdict as “perverse and illegal.” The high court’s judgement noted that the investigation had been “botched up and blinkered” and “misdirected.” It also came down heavily on the investigating officers and recommended that the “concerned ought to be held accountable for their inaptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the courts.”

Following the high court’s acquittals, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the state government—then led by Narendra Modi—challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court. Notably, the CBI investigation was helmed by YC Modi, an Indian Police Services officer, who was appointed as the head of the National Investigation Agency in September 2017 by the Modi government at the centre. Along with the appeals, the Supreme Court bench comprising Arun Mishra and Vineet Saran also heard a public-interest litigation filed by the non-profit Centre for Public Interest Litigation, which sought a fresh court-monitored probe in the Pandya murder case.

The CPIL’s petition stated that “new pieces of information that have come to light regarding the possibility of IPS officers, including DG Vanzara, being involved in the conspiracy to kill Pandya.” This new information was the testimony of Azam Khan in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case on 3 November last year. Khan was an associate of Sheikh and a key witness in the case, in which Vanzara was among the prime accused. Vanzara is a former deputy inspector-general of Gujarat Police and has been implicated in multiple cases of extra-judicial killings in Gujarat, under Modi’s watch, between September 2002 and December 2006. In his testimony before a Mumbai court, Khan claimed that “during discussion with Sohrabuddin, he told me that he, along with Naeem Khan and Shahid Rampuri, got the contract to kill … Haren Pandya of Gujarat.” According to Khan, Sohrabuddin told him that “the contract was given to him by Vanzara.” Khan’s testimony led to speculation that Pandya’s murder and Shiekh’s encounter killing in 2005 could be related.

In the following extract from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” a profile of Narendra Modi in The Caravan’s March 2012 issue, Vinod K Jose, the executive editor of the publication, charts the complex dynamics of Pandya’s relationship with Modi—first, as a senior leader who refused to accommodate Modi’s ambitions, and then, as a rebel minister who spoke against Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state.

A tall and handsome Brahmin with a fine RSS pedigree and excellent connections in the media, Pandya was a formidable political rival for Modi within the state BJP. The two clashed publicly for the first time in 2001, when Modi was in search of a safe assembly seat to contest after his appointment as CM. He wanted to run from Pandya’s constituency, Ellisbridge in Ahmedabad—a very safe seat for the BJP. But Pandya refused to yield to Modi’s wishes. As a state BJP functionary recalled, “Haren said, ‘Ask me to vacate my seat for a young man in the BJP—I’ll do it. But not for that fellow.’”

In May 2002, three months after the start of the riots, Pandya secretly gave a deposition to an independent fact-finding panel led by Justice VR Krishna Iyer. Modi could not have known what Pandya said, but written records show that Modi’s principal secretary, PK Mishra, instructed the director-general of state intelligence to track Pandya’s movements, and in particular those related to the fact-finding panel. The intelligence director took down the instructions in a register—the entry for 7 June 2002 reads as follows: “Dr PK Mishra added that Shri Harenbhai Pandya, minister for revenue is suspected to be the minister involved in the matter. Thereafter, he gave one mobile number 9824030629 and asked for getting call details.”

Five days later, on 12 June 2002, there is another entry in the register: “Informed Dr PK Mishra that the minister who is suspected to have met the private inquiry commission (Justice VR Krishna Iyer) is known to be Mr Haren Pandya. I also informed that the matter cannot be given in writing as this issue is quite sensitive and not connected with the charter of duties given to State intelligence Bureau vide Bombay Police Manual. It is learnt that the telephone number 9824030629 is the mobile phone of Shri Harenbhai Pandya.”

News reports soon revealed that an unnamed minister in Modi’s cabinet had deposed before the Iyer commission, and described for the first time the meeting at Modi’s residence on the night of the train burning, at which Modi allegedly told his top police and intelligence officers that there would be justice for Godhra the next day, and ordered the police not to stand in the way of the “Hindu backlash”.

The leak provided sufficient evidence for Modi to press a case of indiscipline against Pandya within the BJP, and two months later Pandya was forced to resign from the cabinet. But Modi was not finished. The state elections were due in December 2002, and Modi saw an opportunity to deny Pandya the Ellisbridge seat that he had refused to vacate a year earlier. “Modi never forgets, and never forgives,” the BJP insider close to the chief minister told me. “It doesn’t help a politician to have such longterm vengeance.”

And so Modi denied Pandya the constituency he had represented for 15 years. The leadership of both the RSS and the BJP objected and asked Modi to relent, but he refused. Near the end of November, RSS leader Madan Das Devi went to meet Modi at his residence, carrying a message from the RSS supremo KS Sudarshan, his deputy Mohan Bhagawat, LK Advani and AB Vajpayee: Stop arguing, don’t create division before the elections, and give Pandya his seat. Devi stayed late into the night, but Modi held his ground, the state party functionary said: “He knew he would start getting phone calls from [RSS headquarters] Nagpur and Delhi, since he did not listen to Devi. So that night, by 3 am, he got himself admitted into the Gandhinagar Civil Hospital for exhaustion and fatigue.”

Pandya, according to the party functionary, charged to the hospital to confront Modi. “Haren told him, ‘Don’t sleep like a coward. Have the guts to say no to me.’” Modi refused to budge, and the RSS and BJP leaders finally gave in. Modi left the hospital after two days, and handed Pandya’s seat to a newcomer. And in December, he came back to power riding the post-Godhra wave of communal polarisation.

Pandya, for his part, started to meet with every top leader in the BJP and RSS—in Delhi and in Nagpur—telling them that Modi would destroy the party and the Sangh for his own personal gain. Senior BJP figures, who still regarded Pandya as a valuable asset to the party, decided to transfer him to headquarters in Delhi as a member of the national executive or a party spokesman. “Modi even tried to scuttle that,” Zadaphia told me. “Pandya going to Delhi was going to be harmful for Modi in the long run.”

Three months later, in March 2003, on the day after Pandya received a fax from the party president ordering his shift to Delhi, he was murdered in Ahmedabad. The Gujarat police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) announced that Pandya had been assassinated in a joint operation between Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Dubai-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Twelve men were arrested and charged with Pandya’s murder, but eight years later, in September 2011, the Gujarat High Court acquitted every single one and rubbished the entire case. “The investigation has all throughout been botched up and blinkered,” the judge said. “The investigating officers concerned ought to be held accountable for their ineptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the courts.”

Pandya’s father, Vithalbhai, has publicly accused Modi of ordering his son’s killing, and moved a petition in the Supreme Court calling for the chief minister to be investigated, though the court dismissed it, citing a lack of evidence.

RB Sreekumar, who headed the state intelligence for a year soon after the riot, told me that he had been asked by the chief minister’s office to regularly give details about the movements and activities of Haren Pandya.

“I’m not saying Modi got Haren Pandya killed. I have no evidence. But the fact remains—anyone who speaks against Modi from inside the BJP gets finished either physically or politically,” Zadaphia told me. For the first few months after Pandya’s murder, the investigation was handled by the Gujarat police crime branch. The officer in charge was DG Vanzara, who is now in jail for the “fake encounter” of a gangster, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his wife; Vanzara is also under investigation for his role in another half-dozen extra-judicial assassinations. When the Pandya case was transferred to the CBI, one of Vanzara’s colleagues, Abhay Chudasama—now also jailed in the Sohrabuddin killing—was sent on deputation to the bureau to help manage the investigation.

This is an extract from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” the cover story of The Caravan’s March 2012 issue by the publication’s executive editor Vinod K Jose. It has been edited and condensed.