Controversial death

Seven obvious reasons for any crime pulp reader to pick holes in the Sunanda Pushkar case

The FIR filed this week by the police raises several questions.

On Tuesday, a year after businesswoman Sunanda Pushkar was found dead in mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in the Capital, the Delhi Police registered a case of murder "against unknown persons" after a medical report said her death was unnatural and was caused by poisoning. But the cases has many unresolved questions.

Here are some.

1. Sunanda Pushkar’s beleaguered husband, the former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, has been shouting from the rooftops that he wanted a speedy police investigation into the circumstances that led to her death. But what stopped him and his government from pulling out all stops to begin a criminal inquiry when she died last January?  It was established within weeks that it was poison that had killed the businesswoman, so what prevented the Delhi police from initiating a preliminary inquiry into the case? That would have put an end to all the speculation that has now come to muddy the case.

Instead, the police inquiries had stopped with the medical reports (autopsy, visceral and inquest), with no further examination of circumstantial evidence like photographs of the scene of the incident, evidence in the hotel suite where Pushkar was found dead, or taking the statements of those interrogated. None of these had been submitted by the investigating officer to the doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who were preparing the postmortem report. There was no attempt to begin a serious investigation, leave alone file a First Information Report to at least start proceedings to get to the bottom of the case.

2. Filing a FIR under Section 302 of the IPC (relating to murder) does not mean that Pukshar was murdered: it only means that investigations will begin to look into the circumstances that led to the causes for Pushkar’s “unnatural” death “due to poisoning”, which has been established beyond doubt. Investigations will reveal if the causes are homicidal, suicidal or accidental. The FIR, which has been registered against unknown persons, allows the police to interrogate Pushkar’s family, most notably, Congressman and MP Shashi Tharoor. If criminal proceedings are initiated against him, this will be a political embarrassment for him and could also lead to his expulsion from Parliament.

But it still isn’t clear on what grounds Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi said the poison was “either injected or fed orally”.  Though Bassi says he has concluded this on the medical report which was submitted on December 29 by a panel at AIIMS, nowhere have they established it was homicide, suicide or accident. Tharoor and family have been demanding to see the autopsy and visceral reports in the last year, but they have been denied this information. As one of those who can be questioned now, Tharoor can be denied access to police reports.

 3. Bassi’s claims of poison being “injected or fed orally” is based on the word “homicidal” that is said to have been used in the report submitted by the AIIMS panel. However, when the head of the medical panel, Dr Sudhir Gupta, was asked by a news channel whether he had used the word in the latest report, Gupta said his panel had only said it was “death due to poisoning” and that it was for the “police to decide [whether homicidal or not]… how can I say it?”

It must be remembered it was Dr Gupta, head of the Forensic Department at AIIMS, who had created a storm when he had said that he had been forced by a former ministerial colleague of Tharoor to show in the autopsy report that that Pushkar had died of “natural circumstances” . The allegation was denied by AIIMS, but Dr Gupta had clearly revealed he was no friend of the UPA government.

 4. To confound matters, the AIIMS panel report does not name the specific poison or chemical that killed Sunanda Pushkar. Instead it lists the number of poisons that cannot be detected in Indian labs. So, the media had a field day discussing the various chemicals and poisons that could have killed Pushkar – from polonium 210, a fatally lethal radioactive substance that killed Yasser Arafat, thallium, snake venom and heroin, apart from the conspiracy theories about the motives for her murder. Why is the AIIMS panel deliberately causing this confusion?

However, the panel’s report does say there were no traces of the anti-anxiety drug Alprax in her stomach, thus debunking the initial medical report which had said there were traces of the drug. In fact, two strips of Alprax were found near her body at the time of her death.

5. The FIR on murder is also based on the 15 injuries on Pushkar’s body noted by the various medical and forensic teams, most significantly,  “injury number 10” that is a mark caused by a syringe needle. Neither the police or the AIIMS panel have been able to say if the needle mark was made on the day of her death or it is an old mark, leading Tharoor sympathisers to accuse his opponents of cherry-picking facts. They insist that Pushkar got the injection a week before her death, in a hospital in Kerala, where she had been admitted for a few days. Also, the postmortem report had stated that the injuries on her body were superficial and not the cause of her death. So, why is Bassi basing his murder FIR on facts that have already been dispensed with?

 6. Twenty four hours after the Delhi Police registered an FIR on murder, Shashi Tharoor released a two-month old letter (dated November 13, 2014) ih which he had alleged that the investigating officer had threatened and assaulted his domestic help to force him to name the politician as his wife’s killer. Within hours, the Delhi Police announced the formation of a Special Investigation Team to inquire into the murder. Is Tharoor convinced today the investigating authorities are out to frame him, which is why he belatedly released the letter?

 7.  It took Police Commissioner Bassi more than six months to initiate a criminal investigation when most of the facts that he quoted this week had already been established as early as April 2014. Dr Gupta’s AIIMS panel report only reaffirms that Sunanda’s death was caused by “poisoning”, a fact that was re-confirmed yet again in early October, in the final postmortem report.

So, why did Delhi Police take six months after the Modi regime came to power to start investigations? The last few months had seen pitched speculation that the Modi regime was desperately wooing Tharoor to join the Bharatiya Janata Party – after all, the popularly perceived suave and Nehruvian Tharoor would be a prize catch, not only to snub the Nehru-Gandhi family but also give the BJP a desperately needed leader in the south. It was an offer to Tharoor that was too good to refuse. But after the love-fest between Tharoor and Modi, it seems the Congress MP has come to stay where he is. Is the timing of the FIR on murder linked to this fact?

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