The case relating to the death of BH Loya, the judge who was investigating an alleged extra-judicial killing in Gujarat in which Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah was implicated, is the second legal hurdle which the party is facing. It crossed the first one with relative ease, but it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to do so this time. The first hurdle was posed by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) inquiry into the incidents of mob violence during the Gujarat riots of 2002. The SIT, headed by a former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director, RK Raghavan, and acting under the Supreme Court’s supervision, exonerated Narendra Modi, who was the state’s Chief Minister at the time of the outbreak. However, a Vadodara resident, Prof. JS Bandukwala, a Muslim human rights activist, who was nearly killed in the riots, expressed doubts about the fairness of the acquittal while the court’s amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, said that several “offences” could have been made out against Modi. Raghavan has recently been appointed High Commissioner to Cyprus.
In the latest case, too, Loya’s successor as a CBI judge exonerated Amit Shah. But the case hasn’t been closed like the earlier one because of the doubts that have been expressed about the factors that may have been responsible for the judge’s death of a heart attack. One of the factors is said to be the considerable stress which the judge was experiencing while handling the high-profile lawsuit. It is not surprising, therefore, that Judge Loya’s death was one of the reasons behind the decision of four senior Supreme Court judges to go public with their various complaints against Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, including one about the allocation of this particular litigation to a “junior” judge.
Dismayed over the imputation, the judge in question has now requested the Chief Justice to let another judge handle the case. But whoever hears it from now on, it will not only be a long-drawn process but also carried out in the full glare of publicity because of the huge public and media interest that has been aroused about it. Judge Loya’s death had remained mostly in the background till a reference was made to it by one of the four dissenting judges and a report in a magazine a few days ago quoted one of the late judge’s relatives to suggest foul play in his sudden death at the relatively early age of 48. There was also talk about an offer of Rs 100 crore to him.
None of this is likely to be relished by the BJP. The reason is that, for one, the focus will continue to be relentlessly on its president, reputedly the second-most powerful man in the country, and, for another, at least two deaths will be closely scrutinised, especially by the prosecuting lawyers — those of Judge Loya in 2014 and of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who died in the fake shootout nine years earlier. His wife and a companion also died unnatural deaths.
In the case about the latter’s death, Amit Shah was also an accused but was given a clean chit by then Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, who is now the Governor of Kerala.
Clearly, it is a messy situation which will be grist to the mills of both the media and of the BJP’s political opponents if only because, suddenly, out of the blue, the conditions in Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots will once again come into the limelight along with questions about the kind of pressure which Justice Loya may have faced since the staged shootouts, though not uncommon in India, are not a natural event.
For the BJP, the reopening of the case hasn’t come at a convenient time. The party is facing a series of elections during the year, including in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the anti-incumbency factor is likely to undermine its prospects. Having narrowly escaped defeat in Gujarat, the party will be nervous about the possibility of suffering further setbacks in the three states.
As is known, the party is heavily dependent on the Prime Minister to draw the crowds and on the party President to keep the organisational machine well oiled. If the latter’s reputation comes under a cloud, his clout is bound to be diminished.
That the Congress saw the opportunity to use the situation to gain political mileage was evident from Rahul Gandhi’s call for a high-level probe into Judge Loya’s death within hours of the press conference by the four judges.
While the BJP’s awareness of the damaging potential for the party of the developing situation has made it generally moderate its responses, the party’s myriad trolls have shown no such restraint, describing the dissenting judges as the “Gang of Four” and demanding their impeachment.
Surprisingly, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary has echoed the Hindutva netizens by describing what the judges did as a political conspiracy while the BJP’s uneasy ally, the Shiv Sena, has taken the opposite view by saying that the ruling party at the Centre wants the judiciary to be deaf and dumb. The scene could not be murkier.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal.)