A sordid affair

Print edition : August 31, 2002

The developments in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case add to the mortification of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

IN July, three and a half years after Shivani Bhatnagar, principal correspondent with The Indian Express, was done to death by two men in her rented east Delhi apartment on January 23, 1999, the Delhi Police made the first arrest in the case, generating much controversy. The prime accused in the case is Inspector-General (Prisons) Haryana, since suspended R.K. Sharma, who has been "absconding". A reward of Rs.50,000 has been announced for information leading to the Indian Police Service officer's arrest.

After an initial flurry of reports in the media, interest in the case had died down as the Delhi Police failed to provide any answers to the killing. According to information available then, two men posing as acquaintances had let themselves into the apartment with a box of sweets. Shivani had even prepared tea for the two assailants. Robbery was ruled out as the motive, as only a camera, a chain and a cellular phone were found missing.

Shivani Bhatnagar.-

The first arrest, that of a Gurgaon-based restaurant owner, Sri Bhagwan, was made on July 23, 2002. That would have remained a secret had it not been for a habeas corpus petition filed by Sri Bhagwan's family. Then, on August 2, a computer engineer, Pradeep, was picked up. A third suspect, Satyaprakash, was apprehended on August 17 and was kept in the anti-robbery cell in a South Delhi police station. Now the hunt is on for R.K. Sharma. According to police sources, the murder part of the case has been solved while the conspiracy aspect is yet to be worked out. They said that Sri Bhagwan had revealed that R.K. Sharma had hatched a plan to eliminate Shivani when she started pressuring him to marry her.

Despite the case being a relatively high-profile one, involving as it does the murder of a woman journalist of a national daily, who also happened to be the wife of a senior journalist, investigations remained rather tardy. Shivani's family also did not have political or financial clout. Initially sections of the Delhi Police believed that it was a "crime of passion", implying that the journalist had it coming. In such an atmosphere, where issues of character and moral judgments seemed to outweigh the gravity and brutality of the crime, it was evident that there was a long way to go before the murderers were brought to book. However, speculation and pressure on the investigators never abated. Several people were questioned, including Shivani's family members, her husband, and R.K. Sharma. It is also not untrue that the police dragged their feet in view of some political interference following rumours of the involvement of a senior Bharatiya Janata Party politician.

The delay in nabbing the murderers, the apparent absence of a clear motive in the crime and the lack of transparency in the case raised several questions. Why was the case "reopened"? What new evidence has suddenly been unearthed? Apart from the details of the alleged telephone calls between Shivani and Sharma, the police have not been able to come up with any material evidence. Moreover, there was the nagging doubt as to why the police would go after one of its senior officers, who was also well connected. The only plausible conclusion drawn was that the police were in a moral dilemma. U.K. Katna, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch), said the case had never been closed. Another officer explained that the police had a system of reviewing unsolved cases and that the Shivani murder case had come up again as part of such a review. Katna denied that there was any political interference, at least not after he had taken charge in January.

Information Technology and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

WHAT initially appeared to be a case in which the accused was on the run, took a surprise turn when Madhu Sharma, wife of R.K. Sharma, charged that Information Technology and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani were framing her husband. She singled out Mahajan and demanded that all details of telephonic conversations between Shivani and the Minister be disclosed. She claimed that her husband was hiding in the same place where the slain reporter and Mahajan used to meet. She alleged that Mahajan had spoken to Shivani for 45 minutes on the day of the murder. Her husband had, according to Madhu Sharma, told the police three months after the murder that a high-ranking politician was involved but the police had expressed their helplessness in pursuing that line of inquiry.

In his bail application before the Delhi High Court, R.K. Sharma alleged that he was "being falsely implicated and made a scapegoat of those who belong to the higher echelons of society and are the real culprits". The police, Madhu Sharma added, had a "one-line" directive not to question any politician. She made all these revelations on prime-time television, with her statements aired on almost all major television channels.

Matters had indeed got out of hand as far as the Delhi Police were concerned. It appeared that more than one person had a motive to murder the reporter and all kinds of insinuations about the character of the deceased began to circulate in sections of the media. So much so that one leading periodical even suggested that even before the murder, rumours were rife in police and media circles in Delhi of an extra-marital relationship between Sharma and Shivani. The Sharmas, meanwhile, began insisting on a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) test on Shivani's four-year-old son to ascertain his paternity. Mahajan retorted that he was prepared to take any test and, quite laudably, spoke about the rights of the child. Matters could not have got more unsavoury.

AS far as the BJP was concerned, the case was a body blow, coming as it did in the wake of the petrol pump and land allotment scandals. After Madhu Sharma publicly named Mahajan and Advani, the BJP got into the damage control mode. Almost immediately Advani came to the rescue of his beleaguered colleague, dismissing the charges against him as utterly baseless. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is also said to have reassured Mahajan. The Congress(I) demanded Mahajan's resignation, which was promptly overruled by the BJP, which claimed that the question did not arise as there was not an iota of evidence in support of Madhu Sharma's charge. On his part, Mahajan who looked as though he was facing the worst moment of his career, said that he had never met Sharma and that such allegations would not affect his political career. He stated that he had merely a "professional relationship" with journalist Shivani Bhatnagar.

The police have dismissed Madhu Sharma's statement as an "emotional" outburst. Joint Commis-sioner Katna told Frontline that he was concerned more about the murder and the conspiracy to murder and was not investigating probable affairs between individuals. He said that the police were not dealing with the value systems of society. So far there was nothing to suggest such an involvement, and the issue would have been relevant had the accusations emanated from persons other than R.K. Sharma and the people around him, Katna said. According to him, the current line of investigation is not faulty and "things are falling into place". There was reasonable evidence, he said, to suggest the complicity of the accused persons in the crime, those who have been arrested and those (read R.K. Sharma) against whom a non-bailable warrant had been issued by a Delhi court.

R.K. Sharma, his wife says, is in hiding, and not "absconding", as he fears torture and the forcible extraction of a confession. Police sources maintain that it is unlikely that R.K. Sharma, he being a police officer, would be subjected to harsh treatment.

Satyaprakash, one of the accused, in police custody.-M. LAKSHMAN

The police hope that R.K. Sharma will surrender once his bail application is rejected by the High Court. His bail pleas have been rejected twice, once in Chandigarh and the second time in East Delhi. The Additional District and Sessions Judge dismissed the anticipatory bail application on August 13 on the grounds that "the evidence collected so far shows that it was a well planned and brutal murder and points an accusing finger at the applicant, who allegedly wanted to eliminate the deceased."

The heat is still on Mahajan. The lawyers of at least two of the suspects, Pradeep and Satyaprakash, have alleged that the police have doctored tapes to create evidence. Madhu Sharma and her daughters too have renewed their attack on the political establishment by demanding that Mahajan take a lie-detector test. The family members have alleged harassment by the police. They approached the National Human Rights Commission, but it turned them away. They have now approached it once again alleging specific cases of harassment.

Meanwhile, R.K. Sharma was allegedly present in the farmhouse of a prominent criminal lawyer recently even as he continued to evade the police.

Madhu Sharma, wife of R.K. Sharma, the main accused in the Shivani Bhatnagar case, on her way, along with her daughters, to file a petition before the National Human Rights Commission.-M. LAKSHMAN

The police may be frustrated at the moment as they feel that R.K.Sharma's high connections - he had in the past held postings as Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister's Office, in France, and then in Air-India as Vigilance Officer - may protect him for the time being, but he cannot remain on the run for long. A police source said that if Sharma failed to turn up, he would be declared a proclaimed offender and steps would be initiated to attach his property.

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