Should there be an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya? Yes. Will that put to rest the doubts and questions raised over the last two months? Unlikely.
If anything, the controversy over the judge’s death shows our public sphere is saturated with bad faith and biases, which run so deep that we are no longer able to weigh facts judiciously. We believe what we want to. We pick facts selectively. We label others. We reduce everything to binaries.
To broadly recap the events, on November 20, the Caravan magazine published a shocking report – the family of judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, who was hearing a case involving Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, alleged that he died in a suspicious manner, leaving them with many unanswered questions. The next day, the magazine followed up with another explosive report in which Loya’s sister alleged that the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court had offered him a bribe of Rs 100 crore to deliver a verdict favourable to Shah.
Loya was the second judge assigned to hear the Sohrabuddin case, in which the Central Bureau of Investigation had accused Shah of instructing police officials to carry out a fake encounter while he was the home minister of Gujarat. The Supreme Court had transferred the case to Maharashtra after the CBI had raised doubts over the impartiality of the justice system in Gujarat. In Mumbai, the first judge, who had summoned Shah to the court, sought a transfer one day before the BJP president was scheduled to appear before him. Loya had similarly expressed his displeasure at Shah not appearing in court. He died suddenly in Nagpur, where he had travelled from Mumbai to attend a wedding at the end of November 2014. The third judge gave Amit Shah a clean chit weeks later.
In the light of the family’s allegations, made on camera to reporter Niranjan Takle, this sequence of events acquired a sinister edge. Could a judge have been killed because he had refused to fall in line?
Given the seriousness of the matter, within hours of Caravan publishing its first report, Scroll.in carried a news report summarising the family’s allegations. Over the next few days, the silence in the mainstream media led us to publish an editorial comment asking for the story to be followed up by journalists and an analysis asking the Supreme Court to take note of the questions raised by the Caravan report. Simultaneously, we attempted to contact the family to take the story forward, but did not get very far.
By the end of the week, two news outlets – NDTV and the Indian Express – had published follow-up stories. These stories partly echoed the Caravan’s reports – Loya’s uncle reiterated that the family was under pressure – but contradicted some details. For instance, Loya’s uncle clarified that Ishwar Baheti, a man described as an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker in the Caravan’s report, who had presumably stopped the family from travelling to Nagpur after the judge died, was a family friend. Subsequently, when a Scroll.in reporter travelled to Latur, we found that Baheti’s family was perceived as close to the Congress.
Controversy over coverage
Finding contradictions while following up a story is not unusual. No single report can encompass all the facts pertaining to a case. In the normal course, a story is advanced when reporters speak to more people, gather more facts, ask more questions. It is this journalistic process that helps us get closer to the truth. It is this process that sets us apart from politicians: we look for facts, they look for motives.
But, unfortunately, the coverage of the Loya case seems to have generated as much controversy as the case itself. The Indian Express framed its follow-up as a debunking of the Caravan report. In its subsequent stories, Caravan chose to question the Indian Express and NDTV, focusing on the gaps in the reporting of these outlets, without acknowledging the gaps in its own.
To take one instance: after reporting that Loya last spoke to his wife on the phone at 11 pm on November 30 with the conversation lasting 40 minutes, the Caravan report quoted two unnamed sources as saying they had been informed of Loya’s death by midnight, and the postmortem was done shortly after midnight. This means Loya died within 20 minutes of the phone conversation with his wife. However, eight people in Nagpur spoke on record, giving Scroll.in detailed accounts of the morning of December 1 that contradicted this version of events. Among them were the cardiologist at Meditrina Hospital, who said the hospital had recorded the terminal rhythm of Loya’s heart before declaring him dead at 6.15 am on December 1, and a man who is Loya’s distant relative who said the postmortem took place after 10 am. Admittedly, these eyewitness accounts are open to question. But it would take a great deal of effort to enroll eight people – including a relative – to be part of a cover-up operation.
As this piece summing up our reportage explained, questions still remain because the four judges who are the main eyewitnesses to Loya’s final moments are yet to speak publicly. Two of them had reportedly travelled with Loya from Mumbai to Nagpur and two other local judges had reportedly driven them to the hospital in the morning when Loya had taken ill. Scroll.in visited the offices of two of these four judges in Pune and Baramati but they refused to speak to our reporter, citing judicial protocol that requires them to obtain the permission of the Chief Justice of the High Court for any interaction with the media. Scroll.in wrote to the Chief Justice seeking permission but did not get a reply.
Scroll.in also made several attempts to contact Loya’s wife and children but we were unsuccessful. As part of its original reports, Caravan had published a letter written by Loya’s son Anuj, asking for an investigation in his father’s death. On Sunday, Anuj Loya appeared before the media in Mumbai and said he no longer harboured any suspicions about his father’s death. But the lawyer accompanying Anuj Loya did not allow reporters to ask questions. No one could ask: what had made him change his mind?
The manner in which Anuj Loya’s press conference was held has raised more questions, but that does not mean there are clear answers to discern from it. Was the 21-year-old nervous because he is under pressure from the present political regime? Even if there was a way to establish that – seemingly impossible in the absence of Anuj Loya speaking up again – that still does not reveal what happened on the night of November 30, 2014 and the next morning.
Will the statements of the four judges settle the matter? Unlikely. If they were to give accounts that discounted any foul play in Loya’s death, many will see the hand of the present regime.
Even if an investigation is announced, it will be done by officers reporting to BJP governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra state. Public faith in the police and investigative agencies is low.
Now, thanks to the controversy generated by the coverage of this story, public faith in the media has also been dented. Over the last couple of weeks, a WhatsApp forward has circulated widely, peddling the view that the government, in a bid to counter the Caravan report, had planted stories in other news outlets known for adversarial journalism, handing out a dossier with damaging documents. At any other time, this would be laughable. But in the current atmosphere of conspiracy-mongering, this feeds mistrust without proving anything. In some ways, this ambiguity serves the aims of politics. But it takes us further from finding the truth.
Last week, four Supreme Court judges called a press conference after they reportedly met the Chief Justice of India to express their disagreement over the assignment of a petition asking for an investigation in the Loya case. By all accounts, the assignment of the Loya case was just the trigger – the judges had been unhappy over the assignment of several important cases for over two months. But many people assumed this constituted further evidence of foul play in Loya’s death.
There is no easy way to prove or disprove the suspicions raised about judge Loya’s death. But if we are to get closer to the truth, we must approach it with more open minds and fewer certitudes.