When it comes to the investigation into Sunanda Pushkar’s death, the Delhi police is still groping in the dark. This is clear from the police’s status report submitted to the Delhi High Court on Monday.

Although the report, for once, summarises all the contradictory medical opinions on the cause of death – apparently the biggest hurdle in solving the case – it remains inconclusive. It states that the investigation is in an “advance state” and the police are waiting for a medical board to provide them inputs leading to “substantive outcome”.

Pushkar, wife of senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, was found dead in her room in Delhi’s Leela Palace hotel on January 17, 2014.

Last Thursday, the Delhi High Court had directed the police to submit a report on the status of the investigation into the death within three days. The order came on a petition by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, who has been asking for a court-monitored probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Senior officials who were part of the Special Investigation Team set up by former Delhi Police chief BS Bassi to monitor the probe have maintained that confusion over the case started with the autopsy report contradicting the findings of the viscera examination. This contradiction finds place in the status report as well.

The first autopsy report from a medical board at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi cited “Alprazolam poisoning” as the cause of Pushkar’s death. But the viscera examination conducted by the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, which is housed in the CBI headquarters in Delhi, found no trace of Alprazolam, a tranquiliser used mostly for treating anxiety disorders. The viscera exam did find other chemicals in Pushkar’s body, though.

Toxic legacy

“The case got more confusing when we received the AIIMS medical board’s final opinion on the matter,” said a senior police official who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “The board mentioned poisoning as the cause of death but gave no opinion on what kind of poisoning it could be. It also mentioned a list of poisons that cannot be detected in Indian forensic laboratories but did not specify whether they suspected any such poison could have been the cause of the victim’s death.”

The poisons listed by the AIIMS borad include Thallium, Polonium-210, Nerium oleander and certain snake venoms. “By the time we could seek any clarification from the medical board, all sorts of news articles started emerging in the media,” said the official.

Of the poisons mentioned, Polonium-210, a rare radioactive metal, grabbed the media’s attention the most. At a stage when even the police were baffled by the medical board’s unexpected disclosure, some media reports had already started claiming that Pushkar was killed by Polonium-210.

“The matter was taken up with the commissioner and such contradictions compelled us to approach the FBI,” said the senior official, referring to the national investigation agency of the United States.

On January 1, 2015, according to the latest status report, the Delhi police filed a case of murder against unidentified suspects. Over the next few weeks, they questioned as many as 97 people, including Tharoor. On February 10 that year, Pushkar’s viscera samples were sent to an FBI laboratory in the US.

“In about seven months, the FBI sent us two reports,” the senior official said. “One on chemical analysis of the viscera and the other on the radio-chemistry examination of the same. They detected Alprazolam in the viscera but ruled out death from any radioactive element in the body.”

“But we still could not make out much from the report,” the official added, “so we sought the opinion of the AIIMS autopsy board.”

Confusion reigns

The AIIMS board’s opinion – technically, its third on the case – was received on January 12, 2016. It was supposed to clear the air, but ended up muddling the case further.

The board opined that the death was caused by “excessive ingestion” of Alprazolam, but proceeded to put this conclusion in doubt by specifically stating that it still did not rule out the possibility of an “injected route” for poisoning in view of a particular injury (suspected to have been caused by a needle) on Pushkar’s body.

The confusion did not end there. The board cited Lidocaine – whose traces were found on Pushkar’s clothing and bed sheet – as another probable cause of her death. Lidocaine numbs tissues in specific body parts and is used to treat excessive beating of the heart.

The board also asked the police to check if any person around Pushkar had been in possession of insulin, the status report states.

“The opinions were clearly contradictory,” the official said.

The police were thus compelled to approach the medical board again on January 23, 2016, for clarifications. For instance, Pushkar’s lungs were reported to be congested but no medical opinion was given about this. Consumption of what quantity of Alprazolam may amount to “excessive ingestion”? The police also asked about the nature of the injection mark and changes in the underlying tissue.

“No specific reply to the same has been received so far,” the status report states.

On February 29, 2016, the police requested the Directorate General of Health Services, which is under the central government, to set up an independent medical board to settle the questions.

According to the status report, the police sent 25 exhibits, including cell phones, hard drives and laptops belonging to people close to Pushkar and Tharoor, for examination to the Central Forensic Science laboratory. They also requested the FBI to help extract messages exchanged through six Blackberry phones, eight Gmail accounts, four Twitter accounts, four Facebook accounts and a Yahoo mail account.

While the forensic lab’s report is yet to be received, the FBI has provided only meta data without any textual content, that too of just two Gmail accounts and one Blackberry phone. The police have now sent a supplementary request to the agency, under the India-US mutual legal assistance treaty, for full data of the accounts.

The status report concludes:

“The investigation is in an advance state and the second meeting of the medical board duly constituted by the DGHS along with CFSL [Central Forensic Science Laboratory] and FSL [Forensic Science Laboratory under the Delhi government] experts is expected to be convened soon wherein the additional information provided by the FBI during the visits of the officers to the USA shall be discussed for a substantive outcome.”  

The police have not filed a charge sheet in the case yet.