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Print edition : Oct 25, 2002 T+T-

The surrender of R.K. Sharma, who had been evading arrest in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case, has brought some relief to the Delhi Police.

THE three-and-a-half-year-old Shivani Bhatnagar murder case took a crucial turn on September 27 when the prime accused, Inspector-General of Police R.K. Sharma, now under suspension, surrendered before a court in Haryana. Sharma, who has been declared a proclaimed offender, appeared before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Ambala, in which district he had served as the Superintendent of Police. The Delhi Police, who are investigating the case, learnt about the surrender only later, although they had anticipated such a move. The senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer went on 10 days' leave after the Delhi Police arrested Sri Bhagwan, another accused, on July 30. While the Delhi Police did not receive any plaudits for Sharma's surrender as they had failed to arrest him for almost two months, their indirect pressure tactics seem to have worked.

In another interesting development, on October 3, the Delhi Police ruled out the involvement of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan in the case. In a long statement, the Delhi Police said that misreporting in the media had affected the investigative process adversely and wanted the media to show "a bit of understanding". The statement held that a few prominent newspapers had tried to make it appear as though a Union Minister was involved in the case, and said that "such reports have no authentic basis'.' The case, it was pointed out, was at a crucial stage. It is significant that the police gave no clean chit to Shivani Bhatnagar's husband Rakesh Bhatnagar, a senior journalist.

There were allegations that the Haryana Police had been protecting Sharma all along. After his surrender, the Haryana Police seemed reluctant to treat him like any other accused person. The flagging image of the police was referred to by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani in his speech at the conference of Directors-General of Police on September 29. Advani expressed concern about the functioning of the criminal justice system in the context of the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case. In a veiled criticism of the Haryana Police, especially with reference to the one-upmanship that it had shown vis-a-vis the Delhi Police, Advani said that media reports did not reflect well on the police department as a whole.

The Delhi Police too appeared to be a little diffident about treating Sharma like any another accused in a criminal case. He was brought to Delhi in an air-conditioned vehicle, which was accompanied by a cavalcade of cars carrying personnel of both the Haryana Police and the Delhi Police and Sharma's family members. Apparently, he was even saluted by Haryana Police personnel. According to a spokesperson for the Delhi Police, Sharma was not given special treatment at any point of time. However, some of the officials admitted that although mediapersons were not normally allowed to talk to the accused in similar circumstances, an exception had been made in Sharma's case. An ambulance too accompanied Sharma as "all precautions needed to be taken". In the normal situation, the accused would have been brought in a police vehicle and taken to a doctor.

In an east Delhi court, where Sharma was produced, Special Public Prosecutor S.K. Saxena argued for custodial interrogation and submitted that the accused was the architect of Shivani's murder. He also told the court that Sharma had paid for the contract killing of the journalist. So far, the only material evidence that the police seemed to possess was the record of certain cellular phone calls made by Sharma and the others in custody.

Despite having a top-notch lawyer to defend him, Sharma told Metropolitan Magistrate J.P. Narain that he had never absconded. He said that he had been subjected to a polygraph test and that he was only trying to seek judicial remedy. "Why should he be afraid of the Delhi Police? As Superintendent of Police in three districts in Haryana, he must have given third-degree treatment to several people. His family is using all kinds of pressure tactics," a senior police official said.

Since August, the Delhi Police had been looking desperately for Sharma in order to question him about his alleged role in the murder of Shivani Bhatnagar, The Indian Express journalist who was found strangled and stabbed to death in her east Delhi apartment on January 23, 1999. The case kept surfacing from time to time with no definite leads and arrests. It was only in July this year, after R.S. Gupta took over as Delhi's Police Commissioner, that three persons, including a Gurgaon-based property dealer, were arrested in connection with the murder.

It is a mystery as to why the Delhi Police did not initiate any meaningful steps towards solving the case in the past three years. All that the official grapevine said was that it had taken a lot of time for the Crime Branch to produce vital evidence against the accused and the conspirators.

According to available information and submissions made by the Public Prosecutor, the plan to murder Shivani was hatched in New Delhi's Ashok Hotel and, apart from Sharma, there were five others involved. On December 24, 1998, Sharma arranged a meeting with the five persons at the hotel, the prosecution case says. On January 14, 1999, Sharma and his co-conspirators met in the same hotel, but this time he had asked Shivani to come over. The purpose of this second meeting was to enable the five men, who were present in the lobby, to see her so that they could recognise her later.

SHARMA'S re-appearance was as mysterious as his disappearance. For nearly two months, his whereabouts remained a mystery to the Delhi Police, who despatched teams to neighbouring States such as Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Speculation was rife that sections within the police were protecting Sharma. All attempts to locate him proved unsuccessful and the Delhi Police stood badly discredited.

The Haryana Police also did not seem to cooperate with the Delhi Police. In the meantime, Sharma's counsel kept on moving the courts for anticipatory bail. The reason for seeking bail was that Sharma was apprehensive that the Delhi Police would torture him. There were also rumours that he would surrender before a court. His anticipatory bail pleas were rejected, twice by lower courts in Panchkula and Delhi and a third time by the Delhi High Court. Meanwhile, the Haryana government suspended Sharma from his post as Inspector-General (Prisons).

Even as Sharma continued to evade arrest, his family members protested loudly against what they claimed was a frame-up. They demanded that Pramod Mahajan's role in the affair be examined by the Delhi Police. Sharma's wife Madhu Sharma's accusations against Mahajan were televised widely. Although she did not have anything substantial to back her charge, the case was becoming murkier by the day with all kinds of insinuations being made about the murdered journalist.

On his part, Public Prosecutor Saxena submitted in court after court that there was a relationship between Sharma and Shivani, one that soured subsequently. Amidst all this, the Delhi Police appeared to be at their wits end. They played down the controversy over Pramod Mahajan, especially after Advani came to the rescue of his beleaguered colleague in the Bharatiya Janata Party and in the Cabinet.

However, the Delhi Police, who were getting growingly discredited with every passing day, pursued various indirect means to pressure Sharma into surrendering. They declared him a proclaimed offender, announced a reward of Rs.50,000 for anyone giving information about his whereabouts, and even proceeded to attach his properties in Delhi and Mussourie.

On October 3, the Delhi Police claimed to have made yet another breakthrough with the arrest of Ved Prakash, taking the total number of accused persons to six. He was charged with conspiracy and helping Sharma. Apart from Sharma, the other four persons who were arrested between the months of July and September include the Gurgaon property dealer Sri Bhagwan, Pradeep, Satya Prakash and Ved Sharma.

Sharma has been remanded to police custody for 10 days, until October 8. It may be only a matter of time before all the details leading to the murder are revealed. But in the interest of transparency, the Delhi Police will have to offer a credible explanation of the entire sequence of events.