Death of Judge Loya: Testimonies of 17 current and former Ravi Bhawan employees raise troubling questions about statements of four judges

29 March 2018
The accounts of 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan call into question numerous details described by four judges in their statements to the Maharashtra's State Intelligence Department, or SID.
ILLUSTRATION BY ANJALI NAIR

Further investigation by The Caravan into the events that transpired on the final night of the judge BH Loya’s life has raised troubling concerns regarding statements submitted by four judges who claim to have been with him in the hours before he died, on the night intervening 30 November and 1 December 2014. The Caravan spoke to 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan, the government-run VIP guest house where Loya is said to have stayed in Nagpur. None of these employees—all of whom save one were working at Ravi Bhawan in November 2014—had any inkling at that time that a guest staying at the guest house had, as the judges stated, become grievously unwell, been taken to a hospital early in the morning, and subsequently died. Most of these employees learnt of Loya’s death three years later, in November 2017, when The Caravan’s story regarding the suspicious circumstances surrounding Loya’s death broke, leading to news coverage of his demise and, consequently, an inquiry by Maharashtra’s State Intelligence Department, or SID.

Soon after The Caravan broke the story of Loya’s mysterious death, the four judges—Shrikant Kulkarni and SM Modak, who said they travelled to Nagpur from Mumbai with Loya, and VC Barde and Roopesh Rathi, who were serving in Nagpur at the time—submitted signed statements to Sanjay Barve, the commissioner of Maharashtra’s SID. These statements formed the primary lines of defence for the state of Maharashtra in the Supreme Court, where it argued that Loya’s death was natural. Mukul Rohatgi, the former attorney general of India, who is representing the state of Maharashtra in the matter, declared that he was “saddened and shocked” that the counsel for petitioners seeking an independent inquiry into Loya’s death had raised doubts about these testimonies. Dushyant Dave, a lawyer for one of the petitioners, insisted before the court that the four judges were mere witnesses in this matter, and should file their submissions as affidavits and be cross-examined, under Supreme Court Rules.

According to the statements the judges submitted to the SID, Loya first started complaining of chest pain to Modak and Kulkarni, both of whom said they were with him at Ravi Bhawan, at around 4 am. Barde stated that Kulkarni called him, informed him of Loya’s condition, and asked him to come to Ravi Bhawan along with Rathi. According to Rathi, Barde arrived in his car to pick Rathi up from his quarters. Both judges then went to Ravi Bhawan in Barde’s car. When they arrived, “Judge Loya was attending natures call,” Rathi wrote in his statement. “There after he came down and told that he is having heartburn & having ache in his heart and requested for help.” Subsequently, the judges stated, they accompanied Loya to Dande Hospital, and then further to Meditrina hospital, where he is said to have been declared dead.

I tracked down 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan who managed the day-to-day affairs of the guest house—everything from administration, reception and room service, to engineering work and miscellaneous other duties—to their current locations in different parts of Maharashtra. I met 15 of the 17 individually the first time I interviewed them. I went back several times to many of them with additional queries. To protect the identities of these individuals, The Caravan has chosen to identify them by their place in the order in which the first meetings with them took place. These employees’ accounts call into question numerous details described in the judges’ statements.

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It is unlikely that the frenzied activity the judges described in their statements was a quiet affair. The deterioration of Loya’s health, the call Kulkarni placed to Barde, the subsequent arrival of Barde and Rathi in the car, the conversation between the judges when Loya came “down,” and the eventual departure of the judges with the ailing Loya for Dande hospital—all would have likely caused a significant amount of noise, if not a downright commotion.

The closest exit from Suite 10 to the ground floor is a staircase to the left when exiting the room, at one end of the corridor.
SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Yet, according to the 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan, none of the staff members who were on duty that night—from reception, to room service and miscellaneous duties—realised that a guest had been taken to the hospital early in the morning on 1 December 2014. “We didn’t even know that one of the judges staying at our premises at that time had died. We only found out when the papers started writing about it [in 2017] and the inquiry began,” the third employee I met told me. Fifteen of the 17 current and former employees told me that they learned of Loya’s death the same way. The remaining two were not even aware that a guest had died until I interviewed them.

“Normally, if there is an incident as big as this, the people on the night shift would talk about it with the people who come in the morning, but none of us had any idea that this had happened,” the second employee I met said. The first employee I met said, “He had a heart attack in Ravi Bhawan? This is the first time I am hearing about it.” He added that he was in the habit of maintaining a diary, in which he would note down almost every minor occurrence that took place at the guest house during his tenure. The first employee said that if a judge suffered a heart attack at Ravi Bhawan, was taken to a hospital in the early hours of the morning, and then died, he would have remembered.

“These things can’t remain hidden,” the second employee said. “Even when high-profile people staying at the guest house got drunk and got girls into Ravi Bhawan late at night, we would hear through the grapevine what had happened … how can it be that we would not know if a judge had been rushed to the hospital at four in the morning and then died?”

The fifth employee I met said that the secrecy that appears to have surrounded Loya’s alleged departure from Ravi Bhawan that morning is “not normal.” “But what can we do—we don’t know what happened only. Then again, this case itself does not seem to be normal.”

ANAND FOR THE CARAVAN

The Caravan noted in an earlier story that though the judges told Loya’s family members after this death that he stayed with them in Ravi Bhawan, the occupancy register at the guest house does not contain Loya’s name in entries from the time he is said to have stayed there. According to the occupancy register for the days in question, Suite 10 of the guest house was occupied by Kulkarni. In his statement, Modak, referring to Kulkarni, Loya and himself, notes that they “slept in one room.” This would mean that Loya, along with Modak and Kulkarni, was staying in Suite 10.

Suite 10 is located in Building Number 1 of the Ravi Bhawan compound, as is the reception. The reception is situated on the ground floor of the building, while Suite 10 is on the first. To the left of the reception, at the end of a corridor about 40 steps long, is a staircase that leads to Suite 10 on the first floor. This staircase, which is 20 steps high, is the closest exit from Suite 10 onto the ground floor.

Given how close the suite is to the reception, it is highly unlikely that any activity within or around it would go unnoticed by those serving on night duty. According to the employees, with the possible exception of the night guard and the phone operator, most of the staff members serving on night duty—from 10 pm to 6 am, as per the duty chart for November 2014—collect at the reception during their shift. The staff members often rest for a while towards the end of the shift. Some sleep on a mattress under the reception counter, some in the adjoining room—where, in 2014, the phone operator used to sit—and some on the sofas or on the floor in the reception area.

Though the doors to the Ravi Bhawan reception area are usually shut at night according to most employees, these have large glass panels. The room also has four large sets of windows directly above the sofas, overlooking the road from the main entry gate to the reception, which any vehicle entering or exiting the guest house would likely take.

“There is no question of sleeping too heavily, [when most of us are on the night shift] we are barely able to get sleep,” said the twelfth employee. The fifth employee said, “Lete rehte hai, neend toh aati nahi, kyunki duty rehti hai toh pressure rehta hai.” (We just lie down, we can hardly fall asleep, since there is the constant pressure of being on duty.)

Further, according to the third employee, even slight disturbances were enough to jolt those resting awake. “Even if there was a spark because of faulty wires, we would come to know,” he said. He recalled an incident in which a few guests at Ravi Bhawan had gotten stuck in the elevator in a building located behind the one housing the reception, at around 1 am. The guests set off the alarm in the elevator, which the employees heard. “We immediately went and got an electrician and got them out,” the third employee said. Late one night in 2017, he added, a cow became entangled with a few wires in the adjoining compound and was consequently killed. The employees learnt of this incident early next morning. “Guest house mein kuch bhi hota hai—aag lagti hai, koi bimaar hota hai—sabse pehle toh humein hi khabar lagti hai na.” (Whatever happens in the guest house, whether it’s a fire or someone falling ill, we are the first ones to know.)

The third employee said that he could not believe that any staff members who were asleep in the reception area would not have stirred awake when the judges were departing. “Gaadi aate hue dikh hi jaati hai tab.” (You end up seeing a car when it is coming at that time.)

“It is absolutely quiet [that late at night], even if there is the slightest commotion, the person at the counter is going to go forward to see what is happening, why are people rushing, where are they going,” the thirteenth employee I met said. “Ajeeb baat hai, gaadi aati hai, upar se bande ko leke jaa rahi hai, aur kisi ko pata hi nahi chalta hai. Bohot hi ajeeb baat hai.” (It is strange, a car comes, takes a person from a room upstairs, and no one gets to know. It is very strange.)

The closest exit from Suite 10 to the ground floor is a staircase to the left when exiting the room, at one end of the corridor.

On an evening earlier this month, at about 7.30 pm, when I was sitting on a sofa on the left side of the reception, a bus arrived and stopped on the road in front of the staircase leading to Suite 10. Despite the darkness, every member of the group that alighted from the vehicle was clearly visible. It became particularly hard, then, to imagine a cluster of judges moving about in far quieter circumstances—Barde and Rathi arriving in the car, the judges waiting while Loya attended “nature’s call” and “came down,” proceeding to converse with their ailing colleague as Rathi described, and leaving the premises—all having gone unnoticed.

Seeking a response to what the testimonies of the 17 employees had revealed, I spoke to Ulhas Debadwar, the chief engineer of the Public Works Department in Nagpur—the highest ranking official in Nagpur responsible for the management of Ravi Bhawan. Debadwar said he could not comment on the issue as he had “no idea” what happened at the guest house. He recommended that I speak to a junior official. PD Naoghare, the superintending engineer of the Public Works Department in Nagpur, who reports to Debadwar, told me that he did not know anything about the matter either. He requested that I speak to those at the guest house for the details that I wanted.

“No matter who you ask in Ravi Bhawan, no one will be able to tell you what happened … I don’t think this incident happened here at all,” the tenth employee I met told me. The thirteenth employee said, “Golmaal hi hai poora, direct kuch bhi nahi bata paa rahe.” (It is all very convoluted, we are not able to ascertain anything directly.) The ninth employee I met said, “All of Ravi Bhawan didn’t even know that something like this had taken place here till a few months ago, it’s just that now you people [from the media] are coming and asking so we are finding out what is being said about what supposedly happened here.” He continued, “I don’t even know for sure that Loya stayed here, it is you who are saying that he stayed here.”

Only one of the 17 employees recalled seeing Loya at all in Ravi Bhawan. The second employee said that during the day on 30 November, he saw Loya in one of the rooms while he was there as part of his duties at the guest house. No other employee recalled seeing Loya at any other time of the day or the night at Ravi Bhawan.

Several Ravi Bhawan employees I spoke to seemed perplexed by the fact that, despite the clear urgency of the situation Loya, Modak and Kulkarni found themselves in, not a single call appeared to have been made to the reception. “Helping the guest, at whatever time of the day or night, is our duty,” the seventh employee said. “But how will we know if they don’t reach out to us for help?”

The secrecy with which the judges apparently managed to take Loya to the hospital is made even more alarming when one stops to consider Kulkarni’s decision to call Barde and Rathi from some other part of the city and to wait for their arrival, instead of seeking immediate help either via the reception or by calling for an ambulance directly.

“Basically, what happens here is that, even for the slightest thing, the first call usually goes to the counter … Every room has an intercom,” the thirteenth employee told me. “But nothing like that happened in this case.”

The thirteenth employee explained what he expected would happen in the situation of a medical emergency. If a guest at Ravi Bhawan were to fall ill, he said, they could call the reception. The staff members would contact the person in-charge of the guest house. This person would make the necessary arrangements for either an ambulance or medical help to reach Ravi Bhawan. “Everything can be managed in 10-15 minutes,” thirteenth employee told me. “But here, he [Loya] was in a position of a heart attack, and still they did not call to inform or seek help … How do I believe this?”

Most employees I spoke to said that they had never witnessed a medical emergency similar to the one described by the judges during their tenures at Ravi Bhawan. When I pressed them on what they expected the hypothetical course of action in a situation such as this would be, they echoed the thirteenth employee: there was no procedure set in stone to their knowledge, but they said that their first recourse, if they were contacted, would be to reach out to the higher-ups or to call a hospital.

During our conversation, the fifth employee remarked that it was very abnormal for three people to be staying in a single suite at Ravi Bhawan, when empty suites were available in the guest house on 30 November 2014. He explained that all the suites in the guest house have two beds, and 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), the fifth employee told me. “They have to arrange for it personally if they really want to.” Why the three judges would have gone to such lengths as to arrange a mattress personally is not clear.

None of the staff members I spoke to who were working at Ravi Bhawan in November 2014, to whom I went back again with the specific questions regarding the mattresses, reported any request for additional mattresses. In response to a query about whether any requests for extra mattresses were made, the fifth employee said “nothing like this ever happened” during that period. According to most of them, had any Ravi Bhawan employee received such a request, they would ordinarily direct the guest to contact Seva Kunj, a store that offers goods on hire in Nagpur. The store has had a long-standing association with the guest house—a calendar on which the store’s name is printed greets every guest at the Ravi Bhawan reception. When the state assembly is in session, Seva Kunj’s owner said, the store usually wins the tender for supplying Ravi Bhawan with the necessary extra materials—crockery and mattresses, among other things. It is most often the shop of choice for when the guest house needs something during the other months as well, the owner told me. However, according to the store’s written records for November 2014, which I accessed, no mattress had been requested for or supplied to Ravi Bhawan on either 29 or 30 November that year.

Modak’s description of the three judges’ stay raises other questions as well. If, as Modak submitted to the SID, they all stayed in one room, and if, as the employees told me, a mattress would have to have been moved in, logic dictates that the mattress would also have to be moved out. Further, Loya’s luggage and personal effects may still have been present in the room. According to all the employees I spoke to, none of those who were on duty on 1 December had heard about the death, nor did they have any details regarding Loya’s luggage and personal effects.

The question of Loya’s personal belongings is key: The Caravan reported earlier that according to Loya’s sister, Anuradha Biyani, the family was handed the judge’s phone three days after his death. Who took out Loya’s personal belongings from Ravi Bhawan—and whether he was in fact staying there—remains unclear. That 17 current and former employees of Ravi Bhawan had no knowledge of his death until three years later, and could not recall any details regarding the chain of events the judges described, reiterates the troubling nature of the circumstances surrounding Loya’s death.

Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: crime Supreme Court death judiciary judges BH Loya judge Nagpur PIL Ravi Bhawan Maharshtra VC Barde Roopesh Rathi Shrikant Kulkarni SM Modak
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