1. A Mysterious Death | Crooked Media
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May 27, 2024
Killing Justice
1. A Mysterious Death

In This Episode

Ravi Gupta is approached with a tip for a story: a prominent Indian judge has died, and his family doesn’t believe the official explanation for his death. Could there be any connection to the controversial murder case the judge was hearing at the time of his death?

TRANSCRIPT

 

Ravi Gupta: For much of my life, India has been a distant voice, whispering in the back of my mind. Traveling there was never a burning desire. More question mark. An unexplored obligation stemming from my heritage. The thought lay dormant, not urgent, not pressing. Less an itch to scratch than a box to check. Yet there it lingered, a silent expectation, never quite making it to the forefront of my plans or my dreams. But an email in 2022 changed all that. It was on a March morning when I was sitting in my New York office at my laptop. It was a typically hectic day. One of those mornings when I was frantically trying to make a second cup of coffee between meetings. I scanned my inbox before jumping on another call, and I saw a curious email, one from India. I run a media company so it could be hard to read every pitch that comes in, but this one was tantalizing. 

 

[clip of voice actor playing filmmaker who emailed Ravi Gupta]] I have five or six more projects in the pipeline, one of which is an extremely politically radioactive thriller based in India. 

 

Ravi Gupta: The sender was a filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary based on a blockbuster exposé in India, published by his journalist friend, and that journalist would end up introducing me to a story that I’ve come to think of as a litmus test for how people interpret the current state of democracy in India. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The email was curiously vague about the details, but the filmmaker said: 

 

[clip of voice actor playing filmmaker who emailed Ravi Gupta]] This project has the potential to be the next spotlight with the ability to bring down the current Indian administration’s house of cards. 

 

Ravi Gupta: To be honest, my first reaction was that the email felt a bit melodramatic, but I was also intrigued. So I had one of my India based colleagues take a deeper look at the story. When he got back to me. He said it was worth pursuing, very carefully. Because the story implicated one of the most important men in India, someone who gathers power over decades. Some said he was the second most powerful man in the entire country. His name is Amit Shah. And at this point, there are two things you should know about him. He’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right hand man, he’s been charged with some serious crimes. The email I received on that March morning said that back in 2010, Amit Shah was charged by the CBI, India’s central crime investigation agency. Charges including the alleged murder of a gangster, the gangster’s wife and a witness. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter] The CBI had accused BJP president Amit Shah as a key part of the conspiracy. 

 

[clip of unnamed NDTV Reporter] Amit Shah surfacing after being almost underground for so many days. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Then, while the case was in court, the judge overseeing it showed up dead. Amit Shah was ultimately cleared. But despite that fact, some believe the circumstances surrounding that judge’s death just didn’t add up. What made the story so alluring was it’s timing. The death of Judge Loya coincided with a critical juncture in India’s history, as the nation seemed to be turning its back on the pluralism of its past, and at the center of both events stood the same figure, Amit Shah. Over the next two years, I delved into the hazy and complex mystery behind Judge Loya’s death. In this show, we’ll trace evidence gathered by a group of fearless reporters, and we’ll crisscross the country to visit the people and places that loom large in the story. [music break] This series will reveal how the very foundations of civic life can erode, transforming a democracy into something that feels distinctly undemocratic. I’m Ravi Gupta and you’re listening to Killing Justice. Episode one, a mysterious death. [pause] I’m Indian American, emphasis on American. I grew up on Staten Island, mostly with my Polish American mom. My dad was an Indian immigrant, and I didn’t see a lot of him when I was a kid. He left for good when I was in middle school, which started a chaotic period of my life. I like to call it my Rage Against the Machine phase. In a four year period, I was suspended multiple times, got my stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning, and was arrested after a fight went bad. As a teenager, I blamed my dad for that chaos, so turning my back on my Indian heritage was an easy way to get back at him. A small rebellion that lasted long into my adult life. I never visited my dad’s country, couldn’t speak a word of any Indian language, and had eaten less Indian food than most white people I know. Fortunately for me, my Rage Against the Machine phase eventually ended. I got a law degree. I started working in politics and education. The splashiest line on my resume is when I worked for President Obama. I poured my energy into being a high achiever, but it took years for me to even come close to forgiving my dad for what he did to our family. Over the past decade, I’ve rebuilt my relationship with my dad, and that process has drawn me towards my Indian heritage. I started reading more about the country’s history and my family’s role in it. India has an incredibly complex past. Before the middle of the 18th century, the region was made up of assorted kingdoms with different languages, religions, and customs. Then the subcontinent was colonized for 200 violent years by the British. The country we now think of as India only came to be in 1947, when India’s independence movement gave birth to a new country. And that new country is inextricably linked to one man who you know by name. Mahatma Gandhi. 

 

[clip of Mahatma Gandhi] For I can see that in the midst of death, life persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Gandhi will always be remembered for his commitment to peaceful resistance. During India’s fight for independence, he galvanized a nationwide movement to encourage the British to withdraw. 

 

[clip of Awadhesh Gupta] Quit India is the name of the movement. 

 

Ravi Gupta: That’s my dad, Awadhesh Gupta. In an old interview I did for a different show. I’ll get more into it later. But he says my grandfather was active in Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. 

 

[clip of Awadhesh Gupta] And part of the resistance, the way Gandhi had planned was non-cooperation. 

 

Ravi Gupta: For my grandfather, that many shut down his business selling British textiles. That decision also thrust his family into poverty. My father told me that my grandfather was so committed to the movement that the British took notice. He became a wanted man. 

 

[clip of Awadhesh Gupta] And he and my uncle both had order for arrest by British. So they actually not only closed the business, but they fled and they were in hiding until India became independent, actually. 

 

Ravi Gupta: My dad has always talked about his father with pride, especially how he gave up so much for Gandhi’s independence movement. But over the years, my dad’s own politics have drifted very far from Gandhi’s pluralistic ideals. My dad has supported right wing politicians in both the US and India. He even recently ran for office here in the US as a MAGA Republican. And he loves Narendra Modi, [clip of Modi speaking in Hindi playing in background] the current two term prime minister who has steered Indian politics towards Hindu nationalism. 

 

[clip of Narenda Modi] [translated into English] Hindu Dharma is not a religion. Not one way to worship God. The Supreme Court has said it is a way of life.

 

Ravi Gupta: Narendra Modi is expected to win a third term in this spring’s national elections. By some accounts, Modi is the most popular democratically elected leader in the world, commanding an approval rating above 70%. Yet he’s achieved that popularity by chipping away the country’s civic institutions and steamrolling minorities. I’ve had a hard time squaring Modi’s India with the country my grandfather fought for. It’s the world’s largest democracy, a nation so famous for its pacifism and inclusion that it inspired our American civil rights movement. Now it’s descended into factionalism and religious populism. That email I received about the judge’s death, it piqued my interest, but I truly became invested later when I realized the events described coincided with a major turning point in India’s history. A shift from the nation my grandfather fought for to one he wouldn’t recognize. And the same figure, Amit Shah, was at the center of both stories. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Ravi Gupta: I flew to India to begin tracing the story of the judge’s death in the fall of 2023. It was my first time in India, ever. After touching down in Mumbai, I deposited myself in the backseat of an Uber. The driver turned around with a skeptical look. “Ravi Gupta?” he said. Yes, I’m Ravi. His face twisted in confusion at my very American pronunciation. This was just the first of many times over the next few weeks that someone would remind me that I mispronounced my own name. “You’re Indian?” he asked. I am. “You don’t look Indian.” I’m half, the good half. He laughed before hitting the gas. I arrived in Mumbai on a Sunday night. Not to be a total American cliché, but the first thing that caught my attention was the traffic. There were barely any traffic lights. Cars, motorbikes and auto rickshaws wove around each other in a ballet of organized chaos. It reminded me of something my dad always told me. He’d say India has too much of everything. Too much poverty, too much wealth, too many people, too much pollution. He repeated this to me a few days before I departed, as a way to warn me about what I was about to experience. I thought that was a negative way to look at it. But as I first rode through the streets of Mumbai, I also saw what he meant and I was mesmerized. The rows of glowing street stalls, the mix of dilapidated buildings and towering skyscrapers and above all, the energy. At around 9 p.m. on a Sunday, the streets were more vibrant and packed than any corner of Manhattan at any time of day. One of my first stops was to meet the journalist who published the story about the judge, Niranjan Takle. He lives in a city a few hours away from Mumbai called Nashik. The easiest way to get there is by car. So I hired a driver. On the way, I watched how the crowds and smoggy humidity of Mumbai slowly gave way to Nashik’s clear blue skies. The rounded, tree speckled hills surrounding the city look like they are straight out of a Doctor Seuss book. I’ve been communicating with Niranjan for months at that point, but this was the first time we’d meet in person. He picked me up at my hotel and drove me to his apartment. 

 

[clip of Ravi Gupta] Oh hey. What’s going on? What’s happening? [?] Ravi.This is a great place. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Yeah. It is. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Niranjan is in his 50s, with closely cropped, graying hair. He was dressed casually in a T-shirt. 

 

[clip of Ravi Gupta] How long have you lived here? 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Since my birth. 

 

[clip of Ravi Gupta] This is your home? 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Yeah. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Niranjan lives in a modest high rise apartment. It’s external hallways often echo with the sounds of children playing. Sounds I’d heard from afar in our many Zoom meetings and phone calls. He told me about what it was like being cooped up inside his apartment during the pandemic. How life in India, like much of the world, shut down for months. For Niranjan, who loves to be on the road reporting that reality was particularly unsettling. He doesn’t like to stand still. I can relate. Niranjan has lived in Nashik his whole life, but not in this apartment. He only moved there four years ago. Before that, he and his wife lived in the home where they raised their daughter. But he says they had to sell it in part because of lost income when he struggled to find work after publishing a scoop about the judge. Niranjan never seemed to doubt the choices he’s made, and he still saw the story I came to see him about as one of the most important he’s ever worked on. He first came across this story, one that would ultimately change his life when he was traveling on assignment to the city Pune, to the south of Mumbai. Monsoon season had brought rain and gloom, and he had checked into his hotel in the center of the city. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Hotel Royalty in Pune.

 

Ravi Gupta: It was in the grand lobby of the Hotel Royalty that Niranjan first met his source. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Her name was Nupur Biyani. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Nupur was young, barely out of high school. She had sought out Niranjan because she wanted to tell him about her uncle, Judge Brijgopal Loya. Judge Loya died suddenly and under what her family believe were mysterious circumstances. He was the judge overseeing the case I mentioned at the very beginning. The case that charged the powerful politician Amit Shah of conspiring with 17 others to allegedly execute a gangster and two others. Nupur sought out Niranjan because he had a reputation for publishing stories critical of Modi’s administration and its allies, and Nupur’s family believed the administration could have something to do with the judge’s premature death. At their first meeting, Nupur left an impression on Niranjan. She was emotional and clearly under a lot of stress. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Here this girl, she was constantly crying I mean I still remember those 3.5 hours. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Nupur described her uncle to Niranjan fondly. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Never spoke anything negative, always encouraged Nupur and his son and daughter also, so he was extremely kind. 

 

Ravi Gupta: It just so happened that Nupur was living with her uncle in the summer of 2014, when he was presiding over the murder case that charged Amit Shah. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] And her uncle, Judge Loya had once confided in her that he was under tremendous pressure, but he is not going to compromise with the ethics of the profession. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Nuper didn’t know who was pressuring her uncle, only that they wanted Judge Loya to quickly rule in favor of Amit Shah to clear him of wrongdoing. Niranjan knew immediately that this could be an important scoop, because Amit Shah figured so centrally in the case. From the beginning of this project, I knew we had to get a clear picture of who Amit Shah is in Indian politics. So I turned to one of the producers on this project. 

 

Raksha Kumar: I’m Raksha Kumar and I’m a journalist covering human rights in India. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Raksha’s observed how Amit Shah presents his public image. And she’s going to walk us through how India sees Amit Shah. 

 

Raksha Kumar: Ahmit Shah is a burly man. He always wears Indian attire and more often than not, he has a tilak on his forehead, which is a small red Hindu religious symbol. He has a deep voice and insists on talking to the media only in Hindi. That is his way of exhibiting national pride. 

 

Ravi Gupta: And Shah in the eyes of the public, is closely linked to Prime Minister Modi. They’re seen as a dynamic duo. 

 

Raksha Kumar: There have been books written about their camaraderie. Before he became prime Minister, Narendra Modi was the BJP secretary in New Delhi for a few years and we often saw him on TV, but not Shah. Amit Shah was known to wield immense power by remaining in the shadows. He was the guy who catapulted Modi to power. By many accounts, he was the kingmaker, if you may. Never the king. When Judge Loya died, Amit Shah was heading the ruling party, the BJP. And we’ll get into more about the BJP’s ideology later. But it’s rooted in Hindu nationalism and is aligned with right wing politics in India. 

 

Ravi Gupta: I’ve heard the BJP compared to the Republican Party in the US. It’s not a perfect comparison, but in some ways, like the GOP, religion is very much at the center of BJP politics. 

 

Raksha Kumar: You could say that the BJP wants to make India great again. They want to do that by refuting pluralism and returning the country to its glorious Hindu past. And that might make the BJP vaguely comparable to the Republicans, who believe that the US was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and must remain so. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Before Amit Shah led the BJP, he was Home Minister of Gujarat, a devout and prosperous state in western India. According to charges brought by the CBI, that’s where the alleged killings at the center of the case occurred. That case charged Shah for conspiring in the extrajudicial execution of a man named Sohrabuddin Sheikh. 

 

Raksha Kumar: All this went down in 2005, nine years before Judge Loya died. By all accounts, Sohrabuddin Sheikh was a gangster who was picked up by law enforcement and then shot and killed while he was in custody. The police said he was shot and killed during an escape attempt, but Shah’s brother didn’t believe that account. When the case eventually went to court, the CBI charged that Amit Shah conspired with law enforcement in Sheikh’s death. The charge sheet also connected Shah to two other murders of potential witnesses. It was major news all over. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter 2] CBI has questioned former Gujarat minister Amit Shah for over six hours today on the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter 3] But in the subsequent statement to CBI. He has directly named Amit Shah as the one who had called–

 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter 4] Amit Shad did not cooperate during the interrogation. He has denied any involvement or knowledge in the Sohrabuddin case. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Amit Shah’s complete charges included conspiracy, destroying evidence, in the murder of three individuals. The charge sheet included some head turning allegations, including that Amit Shah led an extortion scheme backed by Gujarat’s police and politicians. According to the CBI, Sohrabbudin Sheikh, who was a foot soldier in the extortion scheme, became a threat to his powerful backers. That’s why he was allegedly killed by the Gujarat police. The CBI believe that Shah planned the murder. The investigation revealed that Shah made dozens of calls to the officers who carried out the killings, including while Sohrabbudin and his wife were in custody. To the CBI, that many calls from a home minister to rank and file officers was highly unusual, and pointed towards Shah’s involvement. The families of the victims and many sectors of Indian society demanded justice, but the case unfolded slowly, very slowly. 

 

Raksha Kumar: Court cases in India take years and years, sometimes decades, to see a judgment. 

 

Ravi Gupta: And it was in this period that Amit Shah was busy. 

 

Raksha Kumar: Very busy. [small music break] He was running a major political campaign for his party, the BJP, laying the groundwork for a victory that could put Narendra Modi in the most powerful seat in India, the prime ministership. 

 

Ravi Gupta: So while the Sohrabbudin murder case was winding through the courts, Modi and Shah were campaigning across India. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter 5] Amit Shah blazed a bigger trail for the BJP than ever before. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Shah was consolidating party workers across the country, doing the grassroots organizing on an absolutely massive scale. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter 6] He used 400 Modi vans to take Modi’s message directly to remote villages. 

 

Ravi Gupta: It’s wild to think about what it must have taken. The sheer numbers are staggering. Over half a billion people voted in that election. It was the largest electoral turnout in world history up to that point. 

 

Raksha Kumar: I was covering the 2014 elections in Uttar Pradesh. It is a bellwether state. I met dozens of people, sweet merchants, priests of temples, um snack vendors on streets. They all seemed mesmerized by Modi. [clip of Narenda Modi speaking in Hindi plays] They told me that they love his oratory skills. He uses evocative language. [clip continues of Narenda Modi] This is from a rally Modi did ahead of the election. [clip of Narenda Modi continues] He says for the first time, people from all corners of the country are eager, almost aggressive, to discard those who hold power. There was a palpable Modi wave throughout the country. 

 

Ravi Gupta: And it worked. Modi was elected to be the next prime Minister of India, and the man who made it happen was Amit Shah. 

 

[clip of unnamed news reporter] The man who delivered the virtually impossible, Amit Shah. 

 

Raksha Kumar: No one had expected the BJP to win with such a huge margin except the BJP itself. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Raksha remembers it felt like everyone knew there were big changes on the horizon. 

 

Raksha Kumar: You know the feeling when you flip a page to suddenly realize that the chapter you were reading ended, it felt a bit like that. We were very aware of how this was a new chapter in history for India. How different BJP’s view points were to literally all the federal governments that came to power before them. They were more conservative, less pluralistic. And everyone knew that when Modi led his home state, Gujarat, he had a reputation for ruling with an iron fist. He had authoritarian tendencies, and many thought he had even encouraged communal violence against Muslims. What was going to happen now that he was the most powerful man in India? [music break]

 

Ravi Gupta: On the day of the BJP’s victory, Amit Shah became the second most powerful man in the country, second only to his boss, the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Until now, Shah’s path still hadn’t crossed that of Judge Brijgopal Loya. But that was about to change. Just a month after Modi and the BJP came to power. The CBI’s case charging Amit Shah with co conspiring in three murders landed on Judge Brijgopal Loya’s desk. Judge Loya was actually the second judge assigned to hear the case. The first judge had been reassigned. That may seem like a boring procedural detail, but I think it’s important to understand. So bear with me here. We don’t know why the first judge was transferred. One court official said that the judge actually requested the move himself. But this was a direct violation of an earlier Supreme Court order that only one judge oversee the case from start to finish. The thing that sticks out to me is the timing. That first judge was transferred after compelling Amit Shah to present himself in court. Until that point, Shah had never actually appeared in front of the judge himself. This story is full of these kinds of details that can add up to a whole lot of something or nothing. We do know that with the first judge transferred,  the case file to Judge Brijgopal Loya, and Loya’s niece, Nuper told Niranjan in the lobby of the Hotel Royalty that her uncle knew this case would change his career. Here’s Niranjan. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] He said that this case will also decide my reputation. And I won’t compromise with my principal. So he was very conscious about the reputation that he was going to leave behind. 

 

Ravi Gupta: That day in the hotel lobby, Nupur spoke about her family’s suspicions around Loya’s death for hours, and through all that information and all those details one particular thing she said stood out. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] She also mentioned in that meeting that he was offered a bribe. 

 

Ravi Gupta: A bribe. Niranjan says Nupur told him it was in exchange for a quick judgment in favor of Amit Shah. She had heard this second hand from her mother, who didn’t tell her who made the offer. According to Nupur’s family, Judge Loya refused the bribe. But any allegation of bribing such a senior judge is not something a reporter wants to ignore. Niranjan immediately understood the implications of Nupur’s story, and he knew this was the scoop of a lifetime with the potential to transform his career and make him a star of the Indian press. Other journalists told him he was on to something big. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] Other people in my profession also had told me that you will get showered with offers because you have done the biggest story of the year or the decade. 

 

Ravi Gupta: But that’s not how it went. After over a year of reporting and a standoff to get the story published, all of which we’ll get to, Niranjan found himself alone. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] There was nobody to support me. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Something had shifted for journalists since Modi and Shah had come to power. The consequences for pursuing negative stories about the administration had become too steep. [small music break] Many journalists who dare to publish critical stories of the powerful know they need to watch their backs. In the past decade, India dropped ten points in its Press Freedom index. According to Reporters Without Borders, three or four journalists are killed every year in India in connection to their work. And I found even on the other side of the world, there was a chill around pursuing negative stories that touch Modi. American funders who’d supported my work before told me they couldn’t support this particular show. At least one of them implied that they couldn’t afford to piss off Modi because of India’s growing global clout and its government’s penchant for punishing critics. Even my dad warned me away from this project, saying he’d just bought an apartment in Delhi and wanted to spend more time there. He was worried I was putting both himself and me in the crosshairs of the Indian authorities. When Niranjan first told me this story, back when we started talking. It raised a question for me, it’s a question I still have. 

 

[clip of Ravi Gupta] If they’re willing to kill all of these powerful people, this is like, a very crass thing to ask. But how are you still alive? Um. Why do you think you’re still alive? 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] I don’t know. 

 

[clip of Ravi Gupta] Yeah.

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] I still I still wonder. And in fact, many people ask me, you are not the first person to ask me this. So, I mean, I am I find myself lucky that I am still alive. And if I am alive, it means for me, it means that I still have a lot to do. 

 

Ravi Gupta: Niranjan doesn’t seem overly worried for safety. But all of this has kept me worried. Over the course of reporting the show, every time Niranjan didn’t respond to an email or a text, anxiety crept in. Was he running late, ghosting me or had something terrible happened to him? It was hard to know when I was being paranoid, or when there was real cause for concern. And over time, I found that feeling didn’t go away. It only grew. Over the course of reporting this story, Niranjan and others have told me so many compelling, tantalizing details. Things that hint at danger and it’s shadowy interests at play. But finding evidence or getting sources to talk about those details on the record was far more difficult than I imagined. For every truth, there’s been another dead end. But that’s a big part of the story, too, because that messiness says so much about modern day India, more than any clear resolution ever would. India is famously the world’s largest democracy. But the things I was learning didn’t feel very democratic at all. And with another election looming, I wanted to know more. [music break] Next time on Killing Justice. Niranjan traces what he could find out about the last hours of Judge Loya’s life. 

 

[clip of Niranjan Takle] And he called his wife at 11 in the night. And that was the last conversation that he had with his wife. 

 

[clip of Nupur Biyani] They said that he got a heart attack. The chest pain was going on. They took him to the hospital. 

 

Ravi Gupta: And Judge Loya’s family reveals a mysterious visit a few months after the judge’s death. 

 

[clip of Anuj Letter] I could completely see the guilt on his face. I fear that these politicians can harm any person from my family, and I’m also not powerful enough to fight with them. [music break]

 

Ravi Gupta: Killing Justice is an original podcast from Crooked Media and The Branch media. I’m your host, Ravi Gupta. Our executive producers are me, Ravi Gupta, Katie Long, Ben Rhodes and Alison Falzetta. With special thanks to Sarah Geismer, Madeleine Haeringer, and Kate Malekoff. Our senior producer is Khrista Rypl, and Lacy Roberts is our story editor. Raksha Kumar is our consulting producer. Her associate producer is Sydney Rapp. Fact checking by Amy Tardif. Sound design and mixing by Sarah Gibble-Laska with assistant editing by Nathalie Escudero. And original score by Karim Douaidy. [music break]