Controversial death

What we now know about the death of Special CBI judge Brijgopal Loya

Additional reporting and new developments have taken the story forward, though there are still gaps to be filled.

Two weeks after Caravan magazine published a report about allegations made by the family of Central Bureau of Investigation judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya regarding his death in 2014, fresh reporting has filled in a number of the blanks in the story.

Loya was presiding over a Special CBI court in Mumbai, where the only case he was hearing was the alleged extra-judicial murder by Gujarat police of alleged extortionist Sohrabuddin Sheikh, in which Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was one of the accused. Shah was minister of state for home in Gujarat when the fake encounter allegedly took place. Loya’s family told the Caravan that the judge had gone to Nagpur for a colleague’s daughter’s wedding on November 30, 2014, when he apparently fell ill suddenly and died of a heart attack.

The Supreme Court had originally said that just one judge should hear the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case from start to finish. But soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, the judge hearing the case was transferred and replaced by Loya. After Loya’s death, he was replaced by Judge MB Gosavi. By the end of December, Gosavi had dropped all charges against Amit Shah.

Loya’s family told the Caravan that there were a number of inconsistencies in the story they were told about the judge’s demise that gave them cause for suspicion – from the recorded time of death and the condition in which his body was returned to them to the way it was handled, as well as other circumstances. The Caravan followed up its story with a piece quoting Loya’s sister, Anuradha Biyani, alleging that her brother said he had been offered a Rs 100-crore bribe by Mohit Shah, who was then chief justice of the Bombay High Court, to deliver for a favourable judgment in the case.

Since then, many more reports have added to the picture of Loya’s death. Scroll.in spoke to nearly 20 people in Nagpur and Latur, eight of whom gave first-hand accounts of what happened with the judge’s body the morning after his death. The full report is here, but below is a quick summary of what we now know.

Loya was in Nagpur

The judge was in the city to attend a colleague’s daughter’s wedding. The Caravan report says that he initially had not intended to go, but two of his fellow judges persuaded him to accompany them. Justice Bhushan Gavai, a judge of the Bombay High Court who was in 2014 the administrative head of the Nagpur bench, told the Indian Express Loya was staying in a state government guest house with fellow judges Shridhar Kulkarni (though hospital records refer to him as Shrikant Kulkarni) and Shriram Madhusudhan Modak. Scroll.in was unable to contact either Modak or Kulkarni, and both have yet to speak to the press.

How Loya died

Per police records, Loya developed a chest pain at 4 am on the morning of December 1. According to Gavai, Kulkarni and Modak then phoned local judge Vijay Kumar Barde and deputy court registrar Rupesh Rathi, asking them to take Loya to a hospital. According to Dr Pinak Dande, who runs Dande Hospital, an electrocardiogram report showed cardiac issues, so Loya was referred to the more specialist Meditrina Hospital three kilometres away. By the time he was taken there, he had no pulse. Dr Pankaj Harkut, the cardiologist who was summoned, said that by the time he arrived at the hospital, attempts to revive Loya had failed and an ECG report showed a terminal agonal rhythm, meaning the last rhythm of the heart.

What time did Loya die?

The Caravan report quotes two unnamed sources in Nagpur’s Government Medical College and Sitabuldi police station saying that they had been informed about Loya’s death by midnight, and that they had personally seen the dead body during the night. They also claimed that the post-mortem was done soon after midnight, with the medical college source saying there had been instructions from superiors to “cut up the body as if the [post-mortem] was done”.

But Dr Pankaj Harkut at Meditrina said he attended to Loya in the morning while he was on the verge of dying. He said the hospital has an ECG report showing terminal agonal rhythm or the last rhythm of the heart. Scroll.in was not allowed to review the report. Other hospital documents that are part of the police records that Scroll.in was allowed to access show Loya was admitted to Meditrina hospital in the morning. The death report prepared by the hospital cites the time of Loya’s death as 6.15 am.

The police records seen by Scroll.in did not feature the second ECG but had copies of the death report and the final bill amounting to Rs 5,540. A sticker on the documents mentioned the time of admission as 6.27 am. Harkut explained this: “When a patient comes in emergency, we don’t do admission formalities before the CPR.”

Seven other people Scroll.in spoke to also gave first-hand accounts of the handling of Loya’s body after he had died in the morning. Even the Caravan story cites a 40-minute phone conversation between Loya and his wife at 11 pm on November 30, even as unnamed sources in the magazine article insisted that they had already been told of his death by midnight.

What Loya’s health indicated

Loya’s sister Anuradha Biyani, who is a government doctor, told the Caravan that the judge was healthy. “He had no cardiac history and no one from our family has it.” Dr VN Ambade, who had recently been posted to the government medical college where the postmortem took place, said that the report suggested Loya’s heart was in a serious condition. Ambade told Scroll.in that if Loya had got a check up, doctors would have recommended an angiography and a bypass surgery to unblock his coronary artery, the vessels that supply blood to the heart. Another doctor, unconnected with the case, from the forensic department of Mumbai’s KEM hospital, arrived at the same conclusion from looking at the postmortem report, telling Scroll.in the findings signify what is commonly known as coronary artery disease.

What the ECG report said

Biyani, Loya’s sister, told the Caravan she was informed that the first hospital he was sent to was an “obscure place” with no working ECG. According to her, later, by the time he reached Meditrina, he had no pulse. But Dr Pinak Dande of Dande Hospital, the facility to which Loya was first sent, said it has at least one ECG machine on each of its floors. After the Indian Express got access to the ECG that was apparently done by Dande Hospital, questions were raised about how it showed the wrong date – recording the test as taking place on the morning of November 30 not December 1, and with the name “Brijmohan Loya”, not Brijgopal Loya.

Dande claimed to Scroll.in that any device that records time and date in a digital format could show an error. As for the name, on December 10, less than a fortnight after the death, Assistant Police Inspector Shrishail Gaja, who had taken charge as investigating officer, wrote to the medical college asking them to note the correct first name of Loya as Brijgopal.

At Meditrina, Dr Harkut said he did another ECG which showed the terminal agonal rhythm or the last rhythm of the heart. He added that it was only subsequent to doing this that “some relatives” brought the ECG from the previous hospital to Meditrina, which showed the early signs of a heart attack.

The mystery relative

The original report said that every page of the post-mortem report was signed with a Marathi phrase meaning paternal cousin brother of the deceased. This relative is supposed to have received the body after the post-mortem. But Loya’s father told the Caravan that he does not have any paternal or cousin brother in Nagpur. The person named as being Loya’s relative was Dr Prashant Rathi, a 46-year-old orthopaedic doctor.

Rathi told Scroll.in that he had never met Loya but was related to him distantly through his uncle, Rukmesh Pannalal Jakhotia, who lives in Aurangabad. Jakhotia’s mother, according to Rathi, is a sister of Loya’s mother. Jakhotia asked Rathi to go to Meditrina. When he reached there, he discovered that the judge was dead. Rathi said his uncle asked him to make arrangements to send the body to their ancestral village in Latur.

How Loya’s body was sent to Latur

When Loya’s body arrived in Latur by 11.30 pm, Biyani told the Caravan, none of his colleagues had accompanied it, other than the ambulance driver. But, according to a judicial officer who asked to remain anonymous because of rules under judicial protocol, two judicial officers, Yogesh Rahangdale and Swayam Chopda, had volunteered to travel with the body. The two officers and a policeman followed the ambulance in another car and fell back briefly while reaching Nanded, where they had a minor accident. The judicial officer however insisted that the ambulance driver was asked to stop and the car entered Latur with the ambulance where they were joined by other judges who had traveled from Mumbai for the funeral.

Bloodstains on Loya’s clothes

In the Caravan report, it was unclear if Loya’s body was received by the family clothed or with his clothes in an accompanying bag. In follow-ups, however, it became clear that, according to the Caravan, the family says it received the clothes in a separate bag.

Loya’s sister, Biyani, said that there were bloodstains on the neck at the back of the judge’s shirt. Another sister, Savita Mandhane, told the Caravan that his shirt had blood spots, and she even noticed an injury on the back of his head. Both sisters said that the spectacles were stuck under his body. Loya’s father said he too saw blood stains on his shirt, “from his left shoulder to his waist”. But the post-mortem recorded the status of Loya’s clothes as “dry”, which the family found to be odd. Loya’s family members say they were also suspicious when they saw his belt twisted and the pant clip broken. Biyani, who is a doctor herself, said she found the blood stains on the clothes unusual, claiming blood doesn’t leak after death.

Other reports attempted to explain the stains by pointing out that it is possible for blood to ooze out of a body after a postmortem, especially since Loya’s body was taken on a 10-hour drive from Nagpur to Latur. Some have said the blood stains might be the result of that, but that would mean Loya was either dressed again after the post-mortem, or the clothes were kept immediately alongside his body.

No other account suggests that Loya was re-dressed after the postmortem. Doctors in the government college’s forensic department said that clothes are usually only draped on special request from relatives. Prashant Rathi, the man who coordinated matters regarding the body in Nagpur and signed as the judge’s cousin on the post-mortem, said he does not recall asking for the clothes to be draped on Loya’s body.

What happened to Loya’s phone

The Caravan report quoted Loya’s sister Biyani saying that their father found out about his son’s death from Ishwar Baheti, whom Biyani described as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker. Another of Loya’s sisters, Savita Mandhane, said Baheti somehow knew that she was in another hospital in Latur, and came there to tell her about the judge’s death. Biyani also said that the family got Loya’s phone back only two or three days after his death, and that it was returned not by the police or even Prashant Rathi, the man who signed the post-mortem report on behalf of the family, but by Baheti. Biyani said that all data on the phone had been deleted, including an SMS telling him to “stay safe from these people”.

Scroll.in found that, according to the judge’s uncle Shrinivas Loya, Baheti, who runs a medical shop in Latur, was well known to Brijgopal Loya. He also did not seem to be an RSS worker, and those who know his family said they are known to be close to the Congress.

Despite those contradictions from the original story, it is still unclear how Baheti knew where Mandhane was, how he got Loya’s phone and why all the data on it was wiped when he handed it to the family. According to Shrishail Gaja, the investigating officer, the police did not take any of Loya’s possessions into custody. Rathi, the distant relative who coordinated matters, also said he did not handle any of Loya’s possessions. Scroll.in was unable to speak to Baheti despite several visits to his shop and multiple calls to his phone, which had been switched off.

What questions remain?

Additional reporting over the past week has filled in many of the gaps in the story, but there are still several loose ends.

  • Four judges saw Loya in his final moments: Shridhar Kulkarni and Shriram Madhusudhan Modak with whom he was staying and Vijay Kumar Barde and Rupesh Rathi, who drove him to the hospital. Why have they not spoken up yet?
  • What explains the discrepancy between the two unnamed sources who told the Caravan that Loya died before midnight and that the postmortem took place soon after, and the many other witnesses and documents that say the judge died in the morning?
  • How did Ishwar Baheti get Loya’s phone and what did he do with it?
  • What about the allegation against former Bombay High Court chief justice Mohit Shah, where he is accused of offering to bribe Loya?
  • The Supreme Court had ordered the Sohrabuddin case to be concluded under just one judge. Yet, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, the previous judge JT Utpat is reported to have sought a transfer and was replaced by Loya. Friends and family of Loya have said he was under tremendous pressure. Could that have had a toll on his health?
  • What explains the change in mind of Anuj Loya, the judge’s son, who wrote a letter in 2015 saying anything that happened to his family would be Mohit Shah’s fault? Anuj Loya, according to The Times of India, told the current Bombay High Court chief justice that he and his family do not have suspicions about his father’s death, and apparently sent a letter to the Caravan saying the same.
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