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.’”