Thursday, September 28, 2023

How did she die?

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By Vishwas Kumar

oon after news of the sudden death of Sunanda Tharoor, wife of Minister of State for Human Resource Develop-ment Shashi Tharoor, spread on January 17, questions began to be raised about the cause of the death. Her body was found in Suite 345 at the capital’s Leela Palace Hotel that winter evening just a day after she had put to rest speculations about her marriage to Tharoor having gone wrong.

Did she die because of a drug overdose? Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? Was there an underworld and Indian Premier League (IPL) link? Was she killed because she threatened to spill the beans about the wrongdoings in the league, which is now plagued with charges of illegal betting by the underworld and spot- and match-fixing against franchise owners, players, and umpires? (see accompanying story)

Days after her death, Sudhir Kumar Gupta, head of forensic medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), who was part of the three- member team that conducted the autopsy, said, “After post-mortem examination, we found it was a case of sudden unnatural death.” While he agreed there were bruises on her body, he said he could not reveal the details as the case was under investigation. While she was cremated within 24 hours, the Delhi police still awaits the visceral report. A month later BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy raked up the issue again. He categorically said she was murdered.

Tharoor says Sunanda’s father, brother and son stand by him in this hour of grief

In an interview to a TV news channel, Headlines Today, he maintained that “credible sources” told him that there were bruises on the body “from belly up”, and “it seemed that someone had held her nostrils so that her mouth was open”. He added there was evidence that her blood stream had traces of lethal poison of Russian origin. He claimed that all the photographs of Sunanda’s body, which were taken by the police, were destroyed.

Going a step further, Swamy added that it was rare in criminal jurisprudence that the body of a person, who died in ‘mysterious’ circumstances, was cremated within 24 hours. He wanted the doctors who had performed the post mortem to be made witnesses
by the police.

Tharoor made headlines, and brought his 52-year-old wife’s death back on to the front pages of newspapers, when he reacted to Swamy’s allegations. He said that the BJP politician had raised the issue for political reasons, and “it has been a long time in Indian political history that anyone has taken Subramaniam Swamy seriously”. The minister claimed that the Delhi police was on the same page. No FIR had been filed, and there was no chargesheet until now. It implied that the investigators had found no evidence that Sunanda’s death was unnatural or suspect.

Tharoor said it was increasingly clear that there was no reason for taking the process further, adding, “Sunanda’s son, father and brother have stood with me solidly; no one has any suspicion of foul play, and we are not going to let Sunanda’s memories to be soiled by other people’s petty politics or the media’s quest for cheap TRPs.” He told Headlines Today that since Swamy claimed to know about the alleged murder, he should produce the evidence. He added that he loved Sunanda and missed her every day.

While India Legal does not wish to get into the politics of the Tharoor-Swamy brawl, and personal issues of the minister, we do see Sunanda’s death as a high-profile case as it involves a cabinet minister. There is justifiable public interest to expose the truth behind her death. This is the only reason why we finally decided to publish these photographs taken after she died. If you look carefully you will see injury marks on her wrist, chin, neck and other parts of her upper body. These bruises throw up enough questions to justify a more detailed investigation into her death. Swamy asked the news channel what the hurry was to close the case. We merely reiterate it.

Hours before she died, she had called Rahul Kanwal who heads Headlines Today, Barkha Dutt of NDTV and TV personality Nalini Singh, who was Sunanda’s close friend. Kanwal said on television that Sunanda had told him that she wanted to disclose facts to him about the controversies that surrounded Tharoor. But before they met, she was dead. Nalini Singh told a television channel that Sunanda was disturbed with the alleged relationship of her husband with a Pakistani journalist. She said that she was not the kind of person who would commit suicide.

Two days before Sunanda’s death, Tharoor had found himself in the midst of a controversy when intimate messages he had sent to Mehr Tarar, a Pakistani journalist, appeared on his highly popular Twitter account. Tharoor posted a message that his account was hacked. Sunanda tweeted that it had not been and that she had been posting the exchange between her husband and Tarar so that the world would know.

Speaking to The Economic Times, she said, “This is a Pakistani woman who is an ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) agent and she is stalking my husband. And you know how men are. He is flattered by the attention. I took upon myself the crimes of this man during IPL I will not allow this to be done to me. I just can’t tolerate this.”

Swamy said it was rare in criminal jurisprudence that the body of a person, who died in ‘mysterious’ circumstances, was cremated within 24 hours.

In her statement to the sub-divisional magistrate, Nalini Singh said that Sundanda had called her at around 12.10 am on January 17 and was crying. She was reportedly upset with her husband’s alleged relationship with the Pakistani journalist.
Tharoor had to resign in 2010 as junior minister for external affairs after Lalit Modi, the then chairman of IPL, alleged that Sunanda had been gifted sweat equity in a consortium that was bidding to become the Kerala team. At that time, Tharoor said that he was just a mentor to the consortium and had not benefitted financially.

(See the accompanying piece on Justice Mudgal probe on links between the underworld and IPL)

Post mortem on post mortem

Within a day of Sunanda Tharoor’s death on January 17, three theories emerged about how she died. Suicide, murder, and accidental overdose of drugs. Since there were no eyewitnesses, and none has come forward until now, the police investigations revolved around circumstantial evidence, forensics, and medical reports. The most crucial among them was the post-mortem report by AIIMS, the state-funded hospital in New Delhi.

The police seemed convinced that it was a case of either suicide or overdose. The conclusion was probably a hurried one, especially when Sudhir Gupta of AIIMS, who headed the three-member panel to conduct the autopsy, announced a few days after the death that it seemed “sudden and unnatural”. India Legal’s investigations indicated that there was more to the case than what had been revealed till now.

Consider, for instance, the post-mortem report. According to a directive by Delhi’s lieutenant governor, controversial and mysterious cases like Sunanda’s should be handled by a three-member medical panel. The reason: a single doctor conducting a post mortem could be manipulated or influenced by interested parties. Logically, one would assume that the three doctors would be from different hospitals or mortuaries.

Curiously, in Sunanda’s case, they were from the same hospital, AIIMS, and from the same department — forensic medicine. The panel was headed by Sudhir Kumar Gupta, professor and head of department, and included Adarsh Kumar, assistant professor, and Shashank Pooniya, senior resident. This created the first doubt about the veracity and objectivity of the post-mortem report.
A forensics doctor from another hospital asked: “How can the three-member panel be dubbed independent or impartial, if it was headed by the senior-most doctor in a department, and included two junior colleagues? Could the juniors question the conclusions reached by their senior? Wouldn’t the fear of a bad annual confidential report, which a senior submits about his juniors, compel the latter to toe the head of department’s line?”

Several sources that India Legal spoke to maintained that this had become the norm with the Delhi police. In several cases in the past few years, the post-mortem panel of doctors was constituted to include forensic professionals from the same hospital or mortuary. This helped the police to extricate a tailor-made report that proved its suspicions, rather than raise fresh questions.
In fact, there have been a few cases where post-mortem reports were conducted by independent panels, which
provided breakthroughs to the police. One such case dealt with the death of Anju Illyasi, the wife of TV journalist Suhaib Illyasi, in January 2000. One of the panel members concluded that the knife wounds on her body were not self-inflicted and, therefore, it was a case of murder, and not suicide. This forced the investigators to pursue a different path.

A source who insisted on anonymity alleged there was informal pressure from the union health ministry, which monitored AIIMS and Delhi police in such criminal cases, to gloss over uncomfortable issues that Sunanda’s post-mortem would have raised. Although this could not be proved conclusively, the post-mortem did seem like an exercise in haste.

Circumstantial evidence indicated that foul play could not be ruled out. For example, hours before her death, Sunanda’s tweet hinted that she expected her death. In phone calls to friends and journalists, she claimed that she would reveal everything she knew about Tharoor’s role in the IPL controversy in 2010.

In 2010, when a consortium purchased an IPL franchise, Kochi Tuskers, Sunanda was given a 25 percent sweat equity in the company, which was free and in perpetuity. The allegations were that Sunanda got it only because the union minister was lobbying for the team. Was Sunanda’s murder related to the IPL or to links in Dubai (where both lived for a while), and the underworld there which controls illegal betting and match fixing in cricket?

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