The Tandoor diary
Retired policeman Maxwell Pereira fleshes out one of India’s most horrific killings after 22 years, Saatvik Jha listens in
For a generation raised on Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, Maxwell Pereira presents Indian readers with a real-life ‘whodunnit’, straight from the heart of the capital city,” declared veteran journalist Rajdeep Sardesai while introducing The Tandoor Murder. The book chronicles Naina Sahni’s gruesome murder at the hands of her husband, Sushil Sharma, early in July 1995. A Congress youth leader and MLA, Sharma was primed for a meteoric rise in the political sphere. “Had I not murdered her I would have been a union minister today,” lamented Sharma to a colleague of Sardesai’s back when the UPA government was still in power. Suspecting his wife of infidelity, Sharma shot her with a revolver while enraged. This became pretext for the politician's defence of his act as ‘a crime of passion’. In an attempt to cover his tracks, Sahni’s body was chopped up by Sharma and set ablaze in a tandoor at Baghiya restaurant — giving the case its notorious title.
Most readers first encountered Pereira’s writing at a Times of India column called ‘The Middle’, published literally in the middle of the newspaper. “Witty, ironical, irreverent, Pereira was a skilled writer. The spark he showed in his ‘Middles’ has became a flame in this book,” remarks Sardesai. Having sampled the book beforehand, the journalist expresses incredulity at the attention to detail present in the chronicle. Upon inquiry, Pereira disclosed the secret behind the vivid details preserved in his book, despite being published 22 years after. “As it turns out,” reveals Sardesai, “the book was written at the time of the murders itself! Fresh from the eyes of Pereira, the investigating officer, the Tandoor Murder is a real page turner.” Sushil Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court in October 2013, commuted from the death sentences passed by lower courts. Previously unpublished in interest of fair trial, Pereira’s gripping chronicle was read out loud in Sardesai’s resounding voice to the audience gathered at the book launch.
Before exiting the stage, Sardesai observed how the Tandoor case was distinct when viewed from the lens of 2018. “Sharma was a relatively powerful politician, photographed with even more powerful politicians. Yet, Sushil Sharma was viewed as a criminal, not a politician. In today’s age, this would inevitably have become a Congress versus BJP tussle,” noted Sardesai to a round of laughter from the gathering. “Private news television had just emerged then, growing slowly,” continued Sardesai, counting the news channels present in 1995 on his fingertips, “This put the Tandoor Murder before the ‘breaking news’ era. The media didn’t broadcast the lurid details of Naina and Sushil’s lives to the public. Thus, one could say the Tandoor Murder occurred in an age of innocence.” No one has written about the Tandoor case in such vivid detail hitherto, and nor was it possible for anyone else to produce such a work. Sardesai sealed the stamp on the novelty of Pereira’s book, concluding, “Pereira’s is a book for the age of the breaking news era about a story from the pre-breaking news age.”
Sardesai’s enthralling introduction was followed by a panel discussion, featuring Pereira in conversation with journalists Rini Simon Khanna and Sunetra Choudhury. Early on, Choudhury highlighted, “The media was very much a part of the Tandoor case.” Pereira’s responses corroborated this instantly: “Influenced by tabloid media, the forensic specialist in-charge ruled out the possibility of firearms being used on Sahni’s body. This created yet another hurdle for us in establishing Sharma’s culpability — representative of the problems faced by Indian policemen.” On that note, Pereira added, “There’s a great lesson to all investigative officers in this book: how important the links are.” It appears the police in India are often content to merely have traced the origins of a crime after due investigation. Pereira’s remarks pointed out that frequent negligence in duly documenting all the links and evidence caused a lot of solved cases to see culprits walking scot-free once the matter reached criminal courts.
Choudhury went on to ask, “Sushil Sharma has behaved really well during his internment, lobbying now for release after 22 years. Would you support it?” With this, discussion had reached an inevitable juncture. As is often the case in Indian polity, the definition of life imprisonment — Sharma’s sentence — is not taken on face value by many. The Criminal Procedure Code provides for state governments to remit life sentences to a shorter duration, a minimum of 14 years. In the face of rising maintenance costs, many state governments exploited this feature to remit all life imprisonments under their ambit in this manner. Such widespread malpractice had, in earlier years, given rise to the misconception that all life sentences are a duration of 14 years. Such misuse of the provision has, to some degree, abated. However, it remains a continued practice to reduce life sentences on a case-to-case basis. “It’s a tradition in Tihar jail [where Sharma lies imprisoned] to not detain an inmate for more than 25 years,” mentioned Pereira. Sunetra interviewed Sharma while writing Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous. In this context, she expressed sympathy towards the pleas of a man who has spent over two decades imprisoned. Alas, the panel conceded that no conclusion could be reached on the matter until the courts give their verdict on Sharma’s appeal.
The outcomes of this case were two-pronged. For her part, Choudhury prudently observed that Naina Sahni was often vilified in the media outcry that ensued after the murder. “Vilification of the woman victim remains a consistent aspect of crimes committed in India till date,” said an exasperated Choudhury while recounting similar instances. Adding to Choudhury, Pereira exclaimed, “One needn’t even go as far as murder. Every time a rape is discussed on television news, one or the other party unfailingly finds faults in the victim.” Pereira went on to elaborate on the other major outcome, “Criminalisation of politics, which became a feature of this case, has not changed.” In 2018, nearly half the cabinet and over a hundred MP’s have criminal records. Thusly expressed, the outcomes mentioned serve to render the Tandoor case into a lynchpin of features which have gone on to characterise crime in India. “We are complacent,” said Pereira wistfully, “nobody cares about crime until it comes knocking on their door.”
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