FOR THOSE OF us who came of age in the early 90s, the portly figure of Maxwell Pereira, cop and columnist, was a role model who invited awe and reassurance in equal measure. A prolific writer, and a regular on TV to speak about police matters, he represented in many ways the sense and sensibility of the growing urban English-speaking middle-class that acquired a presence and a voice in post liberalisation India. Today, with dozens of news channels in existence along with the omnipresent social media, truth and post-truth come entwined in cacophony and confusion. Pereira represents a seemingly simpler era. But, as one goes through his latest book, The Tandoor Murder, one realises that it was an era that was simple only on the surface. Then, as now, politics, crime, media and the justice system clashed and meshed in complicated stories that held up not a mirror, but a kaleidoscope to the heart of a rapidly changing India.
The facts of the case are macabre but fairly simple. They involve a student leader turned politician, Sushil Sharma, his political activist wife Naina Sahni Sharma, and a love triangle with another colleague with a political background, Matloob Karim. On the evening of July 2nd, 1995, Sharma stumbles upon his wife’s affair with Karim and shoots her dead with his licensed weapon. He then chops her body into pieces and tries to dispose of it by burning it in the tandoor of Bagiya, a restaurant he ran at the government- owned Ashok Yatri Niwas, the site of the present day Ramada Plaza hotel. Two alert employees of Delhi police, constable Abdul Nazeer Kunju and home guard Chander Pal, discover this ghastly deed and foil this attempt. Sharma manages to run away from the scene, but his manager Keshav and a few others are detained by the police at the spot. After a week-long nationwide manhunt, Sharma finally surrenders, and an investigation begins into the Tandoor Murder case.
As the man in the eye of the storm, the supervisory officer of the police district where the crime took place, Pereira had a unique vantage point to witness every twist and turn in the case and the media frenzy that accompanied it. He tells a gripping tale, with a fascinating cast of major and minor characters. It is material fit for a Bollywood potboiler, or even a Netflix series. The case is quickly charge- sheeted, in less than a month, a record time for a complicated and sensational case, and the trial commences.
The trial would go on for eight years. In the meantime, Sushil would run through a long list of prominent lawyers, trying every trick in the book to delay the inevitable. It is a tribute to the dogged determination of Pereira and his team that in November 2003, the trial Court of ADJ GP Thareja finally pronounced its verdict: guilty. The punishment: death. The appeal in the High Court, ruled upon in February 2007, also upheld the verdict. However, in October 2013, the Supreme Court of India, while confirming the conviction, commuted the death sentence of the accused. As per Pereira, Sharma is said to have served the longest time by any person in Tihar jail, a grim price to pay for his crime.
The questions posed by the Tandoor Murder still vex society. The toxic relationship between crime and politics continues to diminish our democracy. The criminal justice system remains clogged by an insufficient number of courts and an overwhelming burden of cases. This results in delays that an accused with money and influence can use to his or her advantage, further eroding public confidence in the system.
The malady is well understood, but, despite the anxieties expressed by civil society, the collective will for effective remedies is still missing. In that sense, the terrible legacy of the Tandoor Murder case continues to cast its shadow on all of us.