India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing its second legal hurdle: The party’s chief Amit Shah has been implicated over the death of B.H. Loya, the judge who was investigating an alleged extra-judicial killing in Gujarat.
BJP crossed the first one with relative ease: The Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) inquiry into the Gujarat riots of 2002. But it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to tide over this one easily.
The SIT, headed by a former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director R.K. Raghavan and acting under the Supreme Court’s supervision, exonerated Narendra Modi, who was the state’s chief minister at the time of the mob violence.
However, a Vadodara resident, Professor J.S. 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 had exonerated Shah. But the case hasn’t been closed like the earlier one because of the doubts expressed about the factors that may have been responsible for the judge’s death from a heart attack. One of them is said to be 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 accusation, 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.
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 one billion rupees (Dh57.5 billion) to him. None of this will amuse the BJP. There will be relentless attention on its president, reputedly the second-most powerful man in the country, and at least two deaths will be scrutinised, especially by the prosecuting lawyers — those of Judge Loya in 2014 and of Sohrabuddin Shaikh, who died in the fake shootout nine years earlier. His wife and a companion also died unnatural deaths.
Shah was also an accused in the case on Shaikh’s death, but he was cleared by the then Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, who is now the Governor of Kerala. It is a messy situation that will be grist to the mills of both the media and of the BJP’s political opponents. The conditions in Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots will return to the limelight along with questions about the pressure which Justice Loya may have faced since 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 this 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.
The party is heavily dependent on the prime minister to draw crowds, and on the party president to keep the organisational machine well-oiled. If Shah’s reputation comes under a cloud, his clout is likely to be diminished.
The Congress saw this as an opportunity to gain political mileage as was evident from party president Rahul Gandhi’s call for a high-level probe into Judge Loya’s death within hours of the press conference by the four judges.
The BJP seemed to have sensed the potential harm from the developing situation and has been moderate in its responses. But the party’s myriad trolls have shown no such restraint, describing the dissenting judges as the “Gang of Four” and demanding their impeachment.
A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary has echoed the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) 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 country’s ruling party wants the judiciary to be deaf and dumb. The scene could not be murkier.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.