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Tandoor case: Murder most foul

A former police officer revisits one of India's most horrific crimes in this chilling account

A file photograph of Naina Sahni. Photo: Hindustan Times
A file photograph of Naina Sahni. Photo: Hindustan Times

In the annals of the most gruesome crimes in India, the year 1995 holds a special place. The murder of Naina Sahni, a Congress worker, by her husband and Youth Congress leader Sushil Sharma created as much furore then as the killing of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar did in 2008 or, more recently, the Nirbhaya gang rape did in 2012. Apart from the attention it brought to the culture within the Congress, as well as judicial and procedural delays, Sahni’s death remains especially shocking for the brutality with which her body was disposed by Sharma and his accomplices.

On the night of 2 July 1995, after shooting Sahni dead from close range, Sharma first drove up to the Yamuna with her body, to throw it into the river. But his plan was foiled by uncharacteristic traffic congestion at that late hour. He went on, instead, to the Bagiya restaurant, which he owned, at the Ashok Yatri Niwas hotel in central Delhi, and enlisted the help of the manager, Keshav Kumar, to burn Sahni’s remains in the tandoor on the rooftop. By a stroke of luck, the conspiracy was discovered by two junior members of Delhi Police, out on night patrol. Constable Abdul Nazeer Kunju and home guard Chander Pal raised an alarm, but in the ensuing commotion over dousing the fire and grappling with the horrific sight of the partially charred body, Sharma escaped.

In his book, The Tandoor Murder: The Crime That Shook The Nation And Brought A Government To Its Knees, then additional police commissioner Maxwell Pereira resurrects the sordid details of that night with chilling accuracy. The unburnt hairclip that held Sahni’s hair in a bun, Kumar being sent off by Sharma to buy butter to hasten the grisly cremation, the media shenanigans that interrupted, and almost derailed, the course of justice—each moment in the case that ran for almost two decades is revisited with remarkable acuity in this true-crime narrative.

If the recounting is vivid, it is because the book had its gestation all those years ago, in 1995-96, when Penguin asked Pereira to write it while he, along with his team, was investigating the case. “I held back the manuscript for fear of jeopardizing the trial," says Pereira, but he picked it up again after the Supreme Court upheld Sharma’s conviction by the lower courts in 2013. By then, “a lot of water had flown under the bridges", as Pereira puts it.

The involvement of a high-profile accused had led Pereira to anticipate some degree of political interference, but he hadn’t realized the range of troubles that awaited him over the months and years of investigating the case. Although most Congress leaders eventually ended up distancing themselves from Sharma, he desperately sought help from his allies and cronies, including top-level IAS officers. He devised the most ingenious escape routes, found unlikely places to hide from the police, and picked every loophole available in the legal system. From seeking anticipatory bail in Chennai to employing top criminal lawyers, he played a cat-and-mouse chase with the police. Many witnesses turned hostile. Even after he was arrested and incarcerated, Sharma always seemed to be a step ahead of the authorities, uncannily able to second-guess their moves.

“One of my seniors had alerted me when I first joined the service that one’s reputation is built with the first encounter, be it with a politician or another adversary," Pereira says. “You bend once and you remain bending forever. You call their bluff the first time, and the adversary is forever wary and steers clear of you." A life lesson to live by, it would come back to haunt him during the investigation, as Pereira battled resistance not only from expected quarters but also some unlikely ones, such as the doctor who prepared, or rather botched up, the first forensic report by failing to follow basic protocol.

The Tandoor Murder—The Crime That Shook The Nation And Brought A Government To Its Knees: By Maxwell Pereira, Westland, 304 pages, Rs599.
The Tandoor Murder—The Crime That Shook The Nation And Brought A Government To Its Knees: By Maxwell Pereira, Westland, 304 pages, Rs599.

The Tandoor Murder puts back the spunk into publishing’s favourite cliché: page-turner. The pace of Pereira’s story-telling, his reconstruction of the crime scene and the recounting of the progress of the investigation will keep the reader breathless. But there’s never any gratuitous titillation. Interjecting the course of the narration are in-depth dips into the history of the years Pereira writes about. Character sketches of Sharma, Sahni and her former lover, Matloob Karim, led him back to the track record of young Congress leaders under the patronage of Sanjay Gandhi. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of my seniors had alerted me when I first joined the service that one’s reputation is built with the first encounter, be it with a politician or another adversary. You bend once and you remain bending forever.- Maxwell Pereira

It’s crucial to remember that the tandoor murder was investigated at a time before social media became the media’s as well as the public’s most favoured trial room, as the coverage of the Arushi murder and the Nirbhaya incident would attest. The media frenzy in 1995, however, was no less intense: Each development was dissected to shreds and the slightest misstep became the talking point of headlines. Pereira found himself in the insalubrious position of becoming the target of media attention after one flippant remark. At an incipient stage of the investigation, he told the press that the police had enough evidence to hang Sharma, a comment that would raise a storm in newspapers and TV studios. “The desperation for ‘Breaking News’ and no respect for facts and truth continue to plague Indian media," he says.

Underneath the veneer of a tough police officer, Pereira betrays a strikingly humane mind. He lobbies with his superiors for the recognition of junior colleagues who discovered the murder, he is perplexed and pained by the Sahni family’s reluctance to claim the body, and does everything within his means to give a young woman, gone long before her time, a decent farewell. For him, the closure of the case is not only a moment of personal triumph, but also one of justice being finally done to Sahni. “Unfortunately, no lessons are really learnt," Pereira says, speaking of his takeaway from the case. “The criminal-minded continue to warm the chairs in Parliament because no prosecutable evidence has been found against them—why and how nobody cares—and the righteous are not uncomfortable enough to hobnob with them."

The Tandoor Murder will be out in book stores on 30 March.

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