On June 21, former Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer Sanjiv Bhatt was sentenced to life imprisonment in a 1990 custodial death case. The Jamnagar Sessions Court in Gujarat found Bhatt guilty of torturing and murdering Prabhudas Madhavji Vaishnani, along with four other officers. However, Bhatt’s case is not straightforward—he has since alleged that Prime Minister Modi fueled the 2002 Gujarat riots while the government claims that he is creating rumours.
Five other policemen were also found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail and a Rs 10,000 fine: sub-inspectors Deepak Shah and Shailesh Pandya, and constables Pravinsinh Jethva, Anopsinh Jetva, Keshubha Jadeja.
The Supreme Court rejected his plea for the court to question 11 crucial witnesses, including three policemen related to the custodial death case, who deny the custodial violence. It also vacated a 2015 plea by him asking for a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the cases against him filed by the Gujarat government.
The court said, “Bhatt was in active touch with leaders of rival political party, was being tutored by NGOs, was involved in politics and activism of creating pressure, even upon 3-judge bench of this court, amicus and many others.”
Vaishnani’s brother, who brought the FIR again Bhatt and the other officers, said, “I feel this punishment is true homage to my bother. [sic] We are relieved to have received justice after 30 years of legal battle.”
Bhatt’s wife, Shweta, has taken to social media to protest against her husband’s sentence. She released remarks by Bhatt and Dr. Reddy, a medical expert.
Sanjiv Bhatt accused in 1990 custodial death case
On October 30, 1990, while Bhatt was Jamnagar Additional Superintendent of Police, he detained around 150 people for participating in a communal riot. 32 of the rioters were arrested.
The riot took place in Jamjodhpur after a bandh was called to protest the halting of BJP leader LK Advani’s rath yatra in Adhoyadh. This rath yatra was organised to campaign against the Babri Masjid mosque that was subsequently demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob.
Vaishnani, one of the detainees, spent nine days in custody and died around a week after he was released on bail after kidney failure. Following Vaishnani’s death, his brother Amrutlal Madjavji Vaishnaniregistered an FIR against Sanjiv Bhatt and six other officers for torturing Vaishnani in custody.
In a statement, Bhatt said, “On 18th November 1990, while undergoing treatment in Rajkot, Mr. Vaishnani passed away. The hospital records as well as the forensic postmortem records of Prabhudas Madhavji Vaishnani have noted that there were no internal or external indication of any injury/torture or any grievance’”.
He adds that Amrutlal became an active member of the BJP after Vaishnani’s death.
In 1996, the government filed a petition stating that none of the officers, including Bhatt, were guilty of custodial death. However, the government withdrew this petition when Bhatt filed an affidavit claiming that then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was guilty of instigating communal riots in the state.
Bhatt said he was present in a high-level meeting where Modi directed law enforcement to “allow the Hindus to vent their anger” and “teach Muslims a lesson” for the Godhra train burning case where 59 kar sevaks or Hindu pilgrims were killed. Bhatt even said that the Supreme Court was complicit in the communal conspiracy and helped to cover it up.
In 2011, Bhatt was suspended for being absent on duty without obtaining prior permission and misusing official vehicles. He was later fired in 2015. In 2018, Bhatt was arrested for drug-related charges and denied bail.
Bhatt and his family have stated that they are being unfairly targeted by the government because of Bhatt’s affidavit against PM Modi.
Sanjiv Bhatt to appeal against life sentence verdict
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,557 custodial deaths have been recorded between 2001 and 2016 for which 26 police officers (mostly from Uttar Pradesh) have been convicted.
Although over 100 cases of custodial deaths were registered in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh each, only 17 officers in UP were convicted. So Bhatt’s harsh sentencing is not commonplace.
Bhatt received his verdict from Gujarat sessions court. He can appeal against the sentence to the high court. The Jamnagar court also stayed the execution of its verdict for a month so the cops can appeal if they wish.
Bhatt’s family said, “We shall be examining the order minutely once we receive it and we shall challenge it in the appropriate forum. Justice has not only been denied, but an innocent man has been persecuted for doing his duty with diligence.”
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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