A court in Jamnagar, Gujarat, has sentenced the former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjiv Bhatt to life imprisonment after finding him guilty in a 1990 custodial death case. Bhatt has been in custody since September 2018 for an alleged drug planting incident. He has been at the receiving end of the State government’s wrath since 2009 when he deposed before the Special Investigation Team (SIT) against Narendra Modi, who was then Chief Minister of Gujarat. Several cases dating back to the 1990s have been dug up and various charges, including adultery, have been slapped on him. He was suspended from service and eventually sacked in 2015.
Given that he had taken on Modi and Amit Shah, now Union Home Minister, no one expected Bhatt to walk free. However, life imprisonment is a severe punishment and among the harder judgments to appeal against.
The custodial death incident happened in Jamnagar where Bhatt had been posted as Additional Superindendent of Police. He had detained 150 people for causing a riot, and one of them, Prabhudas Vaishnani, died in hospital after his release. Vaishnani’s brother filed a complaint against Bhatt and six other policemen at the time. The brother alleged that Vaishnani had been tortured by officials and that it resulted in damage to his kidneys and eventually led to renal failure.
Bhatt moved the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat High Court order that had denied his request to summon additional witnesses for examination during the trial. In response, the Supreme Court only directed the lower court to conclude the trial by June 20.
Activists who have worked closely with Sanjiv Bhatt say he has been persecuted only because he took on Modi. It is well documented that police officers who fell in step with Modi’s agenda were let off the hook. Although they were eventually charged for their various crimes, most were acquitted, reinstated and some even promoted. Bhatt did not toe the line, so he had to face the consequences, the activists claimed.
Bhatt charged the former Chief Minister with complicity in orchestrating the 2002 Gujarat riots. In 2009, Bhatt told the SIT in his testimony in the Zakia Jafri riot case (one of the nine cases the SIT investigated) that Modi had been alerted about the communal violence but he deliberately ignored intelligence information. At the time Bhatt was with the State’s Intelligence Bureau. Bhatt claimed he was present at a meeting on February 27, 2002, where Modi told top bureaucrats and police officials that they should be “indifferent” and let Hindus “vent their anger”. The next day, Gujarat witnessed the most horrific communal violence the country has seen in recent times.
Since then Bhatt faced harassment from the State apparatus, but that did not deter him from continuing to deliver testimonies and evidence against the perpetrators of the riots.
Bhatt was arrested in September 2018 in a case relating to 1996 in which he was accused of planting drugs on the premises of a lawyer’s office. The lawyer alleged that Bhatt, who was Superintendent of Police in Banaskantha district then, had planned the drug plot to find an excuse to evict him. The lawyer accused him of working for some agents.