Shweta Bhatt would have been like any other middle-class Indian housewife—happy and content with no reason to complain about anything. She was leading a normal life with her husband Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior IPS officer, and her children, till her husband was arrested in September last year by the Gujarat police and locked up for many months without bail.
A few days ago, on June 20, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Jamnagar Sessions Court in a case of custodial death that allegedly took place in November 1990, nearly 30 years ago. The young officer had joined the police force only a few weeks before this incident and the case had been lying dormant for decades till it was fast-tracked by the state administration recently. Bhatt’s conviction set a record for the Gujarat police as in the 16 years since 2001, there has been as many as 180 cases of custodial deaths in the state with no convictions except Bhatt’s.
Sanjiv Bhatt’s case has attracted national attention because it is seen as a case of political vendetta on the part of Narendra Modi government. The IPS officer had accused Modi of complicity in the violence let loose on Muslims in Gujarat in the post-Godhra riots in 2002. He gave evidence before the Nanavati Commission inquiring into the matter in 2011–following which he was placed under suspicion and later dismissed from service in 2015. Since his arrest on September 5 last year, he has been lodged in the Palampur jail in Gujarat.
Shweta Bhatt is now fighting back, to ensure that Bhatt get justice. She was in Kozhikode last week as part of her whirlwind tour of the country seeking support for her cause.
Excerpts from an interview with her:
How do you feel as a citizen of this country, fighting a difficult case against the powerful establishment all alone, with your husband incarcerated for such a long time? How are you coping?
It is tough. One fine morning my husband is taken away, without any reason, without any charges, without doing anything wrong and does not come back for months and, I was not even allowed to meet him all these months except while he was produced in the court. How do you expect a person to cope with it?
I have many things to discuss with him, I have many things to sort out with my husband—but then, he is not even allowed to talk to me. It is a system that is so insensitive, unjust, and I feel sad and disappointed with the way we have been treated all these years after he gave evidence before the Nanavati Commission, and especially since he was taken away as they swooped down upon our home in a pre-dawn raid.
You were not allowed to meet him alone all these months?
No, never. I only get a chance to meet him in the court, which is always packed with cops in plain clothes or in lawyers’ gowns. We have so many things to discuss between us. How to go about the case, how to arrange lawyers, where to find the finances, the future of our children, the family, but they have never allowed me to meet him to discuss such things. For me, it is a terribly lonely battle, it is tough. You know this a completely false case, a totally fabricated case, and there are absolutely no merit in the charges. When the verdict against him was delivered at the Jamnagar court, there were three hundred to four hundred policemen in the courtroom, all dressed up as lawyers— all in black and white.
So you think this court verdict that imposes a lifetime in jail for your husband is nothing but a travesty of justice?
It is a miscarriage of justice. There is no merit in the case because Sanjiv was not in any way involved in the arrest of this person, he never questioned this person and the said victim died 18 days after he was released from police custody owing to some kidney problems. All that happened 29 years ago and what really happened was that L K Advani’s rath yatra was on at the time, he was arrested on his way to Ayodhya, there was much rioting and arsoning by the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) people in those parts of the state and the local police took the mischief-makers into custody.
Sanjiv had just joined the force a few weeks prior to that and he was asked to go there and take care of the situation. It was outside his area of jurisdiction. The next day these people were all produced before the court, they had been examined by the doctors and there was no signs of any torture, no complaints about any torture, nothing. All this happened 29 years ago and now this is being brought up with a specific motive, to destroy the man who had given evidence to the Nanavati Commission, which does not go well with the powers that rule this country.
What are you doing to ensure his release?
I do whatever is within my powers. I keep shuttling from Bhavnagar to Jamnagar, to Ahmedabad to Delhi, where we are fighting cases, meet lawyers, meet people, try to generate awareness about the case and seek help and support from the public. It is a lonely and difficult battle and so I need all the support I could muster, every small bit is important for us now.
Have the public been supportive? Do people come out and support you to show solidarity with you? Are they not afraid of the powers that are ranged against you?
I do receive public support from every part of the country; every day, hundreds of people call me on the phone pledging support, and they come and meet me wherever I go. I am happy we are getting support from the people of this country, people of every political persuasion, civil society—except for the IPS Association. They were not forthcoming with their expression of support although many of its members and their families had called me personally to express their concern and solidarity.
What about the political parties, do the political parties support you?
I have not sought the support of political parties as such, because this is still a legal battle. But there are many political leaders and activists who give me support—people like Digvijay Singh in Delhi, the Congress party in Gujarat—they all support me.
So you look at this essentially as a legal battle, a battle in the courtrooms and not in the streets, not a political fight?
For me, this is still a legal battle, where we have to fight the cases foisted upon us. We have two cases against us. For them, of course, it is a political battle.
With the sort of verdict that has come in your case, do you still have faith in our legal system? Do you feel you might still get justice, this system would not let you down?
The Sessions Court verdict was a miscarriage of justice, no doubt. But I do have faith in our judiciary, our legal system. I hope the case would come to a judge who would see the way it was fabricated, the concocted evidence and the political motives behind all this. We are appealing against the present order and hope that justice will prevail in due course of time. After all, this is nothing but political vendetta. But I am resolved to fight it legally till the end.
It is surprising that women are being forced to take up the fight in this country, especially in your home state of Gujarat. First it was Teesta Setalvad and now you….
Frankly, left to me I would much rather prefer to sit at home, drink a cup of coffee and listen to some music in my spare time than run around the country facing all these troubles. But what can I do? My husband is taken away, he is now in jail and I have a family to protect; so I have to fight, there is no choice for me.
So, are you apprehensive of further harassment from the authorities?
Do you think the sort of troubles I face now aren’t enough for a lifetime? My house was broken into, a false case foisted, no fair trial and no bail for nine and a half months and now, when it is reaching a stage where we might be able to fight it in a higher court, another case is coming along. Any number of private complaints can be filed to harass people beyond their powers of endurance. This is what is happening to me and my family now.
What is this second case you are talking about?
It is a private complaint filed by an individual from Rajasthan who had been arrested some time back; he was released soon after and six months later he suddenly files a complaint. So there can be any number of cases like that if the powers that be want to harass a person they want to fix.
Why is this case being brought up after such a long time? As a senior police officer he had legal protection as an officer. Why did he not get such protection from the state?
That is exactly my point too. There are sections in the Indian Police Act that gives protection to an officer handling his official duties and even if the state feels that he had committed an error, permission has to be granted to proceed against him and such proceedings could be taken up within a specific time period and not 23 or 24 years after as it happened in this case. It shows how vindictive this government is towards Sanjiv Bhatt. There is not a single police officer who has been convicted in Gujarat for the dozens of custody deaths; or those notorious cases of “encounter deaths” under Amit Shah; but in Sanjiv’s case, he has already been found guilty of the death of a person with whom he had no business at all, and has been given a life term. This clearly is the way the state functions now, a case of clear double standards.
Why is the Gujarat state behaving so vindictively towards Sanjiv Bhatt?
It is only because he gave evidence before the Nanavati Commission about the complicity of Narendra Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots. He gave evidence in the morning, it was in 2011, and the very same evening the retaliation started—in the form of sudden transfers, accusations, suspensions and all sorts of harassment culminating in his arrest nine months ago and incarceration without bail. It is an unending series of brutality towards an honest and upright officer who refused to look the other way, refused to give false evidence. His sole fault was that he remained a truthful and a conscientious officer committed to his principles and our country’s Constitution.
Can you detail the harassment that came your way?
He was falsely accused, his security removed, dismissed from the service, then arrested and put in jail and now this verdict of life imprisonment. I was not spared either: a few months ago, I was hit by a truck deliberately as I was driving the car. It had suddenly come up from the right, hit me from the side and my car banged a wall on the other side, l luckily escaped with a few bruises on my hands and legs. So we live in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty on a daily basis. It is really frightening.
So how do you hope to move ahead in such a situation?
What can I do but try and tell people around to make them aware of what really is happening to all of us. I may be an individual and easily disposable, but when hundreds or thousands or millions of people start talking about it, start feeling concerned about it, then things may not be that easy for the perpetrators to continue like that for long. That is my hope and mission.
Well, let us talk about your family. How do they cope with everything?
Well, we were married for the last 33 years. We have two children; the son is an architect and my daughter is now in Oxford doing her higher studies. We met while we were studying; he was preparing for the Indian Police Service (IPS) after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and I had completed the written examinations for the Indian Administrative Services (IAS). Then when he joined the IPS, I decided not to appear for my IAS interview because my husband thought both of us should not be part of the same administration. So I have remained a happily married housewife all these years. Of course all of us in the family feel really sad and disappointed about the turn of events. Sanjiv was such a great friend, a wonderful father and I think my parents are much closer to him. This is a sad story. We all have families, our children, we do our best to live an honest life and then something like this happens. Like a bolt from the blue. There is no respite, no justice. What kind of message does this give to the youngsters of this country?
How is Sanjiv Bhatt reacting to all this? Is he ready to fight to the finish? Is he optimistic?
Yes, definitely. He is fit as a fiddle at 55, both mentally and physically extremely alert. He exercises regularly and runs 14 kilometers a day. No one is going to crush him that easily and I think his tormentors have not really factored his capacity to endure.