An IITian, ​​a convict serving life, and a ‘whistleblower’ cop: the many Sanjiv Bhatts

Born and brought up in Bombay, Sanjiv Bhatt is a Masters in Technology (M.Tech) from IIT-Bombay from the 1985 batch, who three years later joined the IPS in the Gujarat cadre.

It was about the same time that he married Shweta Bhatt, a classical dancer and a civil services aspirant like him. It is Shweta who has been fighting to have Bhatt’s conviction overturned, since he was going to life in connection with a custodial death in 2019.

On Saturday, the Gujarat Police booked Bhatt in a case arising out of the Supreme Court order upholding the SIT’s clean chit to the Narendra Modi government in the state in the 2002 riots. The Court order questioned the role played by Bhatt — the deputy commissioner of the State Intelligence Bureau at the time of the riots — along with that by former DGP RB Sreekumar and activist Teesta Setalvad, in the claims levelled against the Modi administration.

Bhatt is set to be brought to Ahmedabad from the jail in Palanpur in Banaskantha where he is serving his sentence, as the Ahmedabad Detection of Crime Branch (DCB) investigates the charges of forgery, criminal conspiracy among others against the three.

Removed from service in 2015 on the grounds of “unauthorized absence”, Bhatt had a turbulent police career of just over two decades, facing several internal inquiries and FIRs, apart from the conviction in the custodial death case. Several of these probes date from before the Modi government’s time, but saw action after the BJP leader came to power in 2002.

Among his first run-ins with the state government was the same year, when he was among the three IPS officers shifted out of the state CID intelligence after audio clips of CM Modi’s Gaurav Yatra held across Gujarat post the riots of 2002 were leaked.

In 2003, Bhatt again faced the rap when, while posted as Superintendent of Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad, he included the Godhra train burning accused among a prisoners’ committee. When he was posted out in September of that year, prisoners went on a hunger strike in protest.

For a long period after that, till 2007, Bhatt remained in the SP rank, denied promotion due to several pending inquiries against him.

In 2011, he was suspended soon after he deposed before the Nanavati-Mehta Commission probing the 2002 riots — nine years after the violence — where he said he was witness to a meeting that showed alleged complicity of the state government in letting the violence continue.

Even as Bhatt was hailed by some as a whistleblower, the state government put him under suspension. The police officer then gradually moved towards social activism.

This was around 2012, when Modi was already being talked about as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014. In an obvious bid to embarrass him, the Congress fielded Bhatt’s wife Shweta against Modi from Maninagar constituency in the 2012 Assembly elections in Gujarat.

Modi swept the BJP bastion with a margin of over 86,000 votes, and later came to power in the Center with a thumping majority.

Soon after, in 2015, Bhatt was dismissed from police service by the Union Home Ministry on an application by the Gujarat government on grounds of “unauthorized absence” — though he was under indefinite suspension for four of the years.

In 2019, a trial court in Jamnagarhat convicted seven police officials, including B, for the custodial torture and subsequent death of Prabhudas Vaishnani in 1990, at a time that Bhatt was an additional superintendent of police in Jamnagar.

Police had arrested 133 people, including Vaishnani, from Jamjodhpur on charges of communal rioting during a bandh called by the BJP and VHP, to protest against the arrest of BJP leader LK Advani during his Rath Yatra for Ram temple. Vaishnani’s brother Amrutlal had complained at the time that he died during treatment in November 1990 after he was tortured by Bhatt and the others in custody. Four more complaints were filed by the remaining 132, also alleging torture.

These complaints however pending lay for more than two decades, never converted into an FIR since the state government refused permission for action against the officers. Then, in July 2011, after Bhatt had deposed before the Nanavati-Mehta Commission for the second time, the state government withdrew the denial of permission, and an FIR was lodged against the eight officers, including Bhatt, for murder.

Bhatt is also facing trial before a special NDPS court in Banaskantha in a ‘drug-planting’ case dating back to 1996. A Rajasthan-based lawyer, Sumer Singh Rajpurohit, had been arrested from a Palanpur hotel with allegedly 1.5 kg opium.

Besides this, Bhatt faces an FIR related to the 2002 riots, with Constable KD Panth, who served as an assistant intelligence officer under him then, complaining that Bhatt had coerced him to testify before the commission.

As per the FIR filed against him by the DCB last week, Bhatt submitted “forged” documents to the Nanavati-Mehta Commission in 2011 and 2012, claiming he had sent fax alerts to several authorities on February 27 and February 28 night in 2002, regarding brewing of communal tension in the wake of the Godhra train burning.

The DCB said that the SIT, appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the role of the Modi government in the violence, had found that the two fax documents were “forged, fabricated and manipulated with an ulterior motive”.

The FIR further claims that as per the SIT’s findings, Bhatt had deposed falsely before the inquiry commission that he was present during a meeting at Modi’s bungalow in Gandhinagar on the night of February 27, 2002, where the CM allegedly said that Hindus “should be allowed to vent their anger” over Godhra.

The FIR also accuses Bhatt of hobnobbing with “different NGOs, some political leaders and organizations… to settle their scores and achieve the object of implicating innocent individuals in punishable offences with life”.

Denying the accusations as “false and shocking”, Bhatt’s wife Shweta told The Indian Express over the phone: “There are videotapes… the complicity of people like Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi is indisputable. My husband reported before the SIT and answered their questions in his capacity as an intelligence department officer. From where then arises the question of him having submitted forged documents? This is an absolute mockery of justice. People who filed petitions are being locked up.”

On the case in which he is convicted, Shweta said that even as other cases are speeded up, “when we try for bail in front of the Supreme Court, our applications never move beyond mere registration”.

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