The death of Sunanda Pushkar, the former wife of Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, has been mired in controversies. After almost 7 years since her death on January 17, 2014, her husband was ‘acquitted‘ of all charges on August 18. “The accused (Mr. Tharoor) is discharged,” remarked Special Judge Geetanjali Goel and asked him to pay a requisite bond.
Following the verdict, a relieved Tharoor commented, “This brings a significant conclusion to the long nightmare which had enveloped me after the tragic passing of my late wife Sunanda. I have weathered dozens of unfounded accusations and media vilification patiently, sustained by my faith in the Indian judiciary, which today stands vindicated.” While the Congress Parliamentarian, his fans, and party workers have been celebrating the Court verdict, the arguments by the prosecution have dismantled the image of a ‘loving husband’ that Tharoor had been trying to portray all this while.
Circumstances leading up to the mysterious death of Sunanda Pushkar
It was submitted[pdf] before the court that the deceased Sunanda Pushkar had found ‘intimate messages’ between Shashi Tharoor and a Pakistani journalist named Mehr Tarar during their journey from Dubai to Delhi on January 15, 2014. The incident led to a situation of ‘serious disquiet’ amongst them as Pushkar accused the Congress leader of ‘continuing infidelity’. Later on that day, Sunanda Pushkar reached the Hotel Leela Palace, and checked in at Room No. 307.
In a statement recorded before the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Sunanda Pushkar’s domestic help Narayan Singh and other witnesses testified about the ‘frequent quarrels’ between Shashi Tharoor and the deceased over Tharoor’s relations with Mehr Tarar on the nights (January 15, January 16, and January 17). He added that on the intervening night of January 15 and January 16, there was a heated argument between Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar during which the latter banged the phone of the Congress leader on the wall.
The extra-marital affair of Shashi Tharoor and Mehr Tarar had left Sunanda Pushkar mentally depressed. “As per the charge-sheet, this showed mental agony, suffering and depressive state of the deceased close to her demise,” the Court was told. Sunanda Pushkar wanted to hold a press conference on January 17, 2014, the day she was found dead.
Post-mortem and findings of the AIIMS Autopsy Board indicates ‘chemcial poisoning
On January 18, 2014, the post-mortem of her body was conducted by an AIIMS Autopsy Board, comprising of Dr. Sudhir Kumar Gupta, Dr. Adarsh Kumar, and Dr. Shashank Pooniya. The Autopsy Board noted 15 ante-mortem injuries (inflicted prior to the death of the victim) on her body, which were caused 12-96 hours before her death.
Based on the circumstantial evidence, the Board ruled her cause of death to be ‘Alprazolam poisoning.’ The doctors however specified that there was not only an injection mark on her body but also a teeth bite mark, indicating the torture that she was subjected to prior to her death. Although the AIIMS Autopsy Board found that the injuries did not contribute to her death, it was a clear indicator that she was subjected to physical assault.
Given that the fights between the two ‘sporadically turned physical’, it cannot be ruled out that the 15 injuries inflicted on the victim’s body were caused by Tharoor. And the bone of contention between Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor was the latter’s extramarital relationship with Mehr Tarar. “The communication between Mehr Tarar and the accused continued unabated and the nature of the communication was beyond any official communication and was positively intimate.”
Although the AIIMS Autopsy Board was convinced that Sunanda Pushkar died due to chemical poisoning, the limitations in the viscera report meant that it was not possible to detect specific poisons. On December 29, 2014, the doctors gave their third opinion and ruled out the possibility of death due to natural causes. They re-emphasised that the cause of death was poisoning, which must have been administered orally or through intravenous injection.
Shashi Tharoor caught in his own web of lies
During the probe in the Sunanda Pushkar case, it came to light that Shashi Tharoor had lied to the investigative agencies. In a statement made before the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, he claimed to have gone to the Hotel Leela Palace on January 15, 2014, as there was renovation work underway at his house.
“During the investigation, AE (Civil), CPWD and the Contractors had stated that the same was incorrect and that renovation at the residence of the accused had been completed before 31.12.2013 and in the month of January, 2014, no such work as stated by the accused was being carried out,” the Court said.
It further added, “As per the charge-sheet, the accused in an apparent attempt to conceal the fact of continuing severe matrimonial discord and what had happened between the couple when the deceased had checked his mobile phone while they were on board the flight from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi had tried to mislead the officer conducting the inquest proceedings.”
During the hearing, it also came to light that the Congress Parliamentarian had been lying to his wife about his extra-marital affair with Mehr Tarar. In a bid to cover up his ‘illegitimate relationship’, he saved the Pakistani journalist’s number in the name of one ‘Harish.’ By doing so, he avoided suspicion of Sunanda Pushkar while insisting that Mehr Tarar was just a friend/acquaintance.
Adultery, Cruelty and Insensitivity: The Holy Trinity of Shashi Tharoor
When investigative authorities began scouring the social media accounts of Mehr Tarar, Sunanda Pushkar, and Shashi Tharoor, they found that e-mails were shared between the three. There was a heated exchange between Pushkar and Tarar over the latter’s relationship with Tharoor. She had even warned Tarar to stay away from the Congress leader.
Mehr Tarar’s communication with the Congress Parliamentarian indicated a ‘close interest in continuing their relationship.’ To ensure that there were no issues between him and Sunanda Pushkar, the Pakistani journalist vowed to not come in between Tharoor and his legally wedded wife. The prosecution noted, “The emails, even if they did not reveal anything incriminating, were certainly suggestive of mental torture of the deceased owing to the affair of the accused with Mehr Tarar.”
The Prosecution highlighted the insensitivity and apathy displayed by Shashi Tharoor after he deserted his wife at the Delhi airport under the pretext of attending a function. This is despite the fact that she was wheeler chair-bound. Later in the day, when Sunanda Pushkar required medical assistance, a resident doctor was not sent in by the hotel staff.
It was further highlighted in the Court that Sunanda Pushkar had called Nalini Singh on the intervening night of January 16 and January 17. It is considered to be the last statement made by the deceased prior to her death. “She had stated that she was extremely ill and had cancer and the accused (Shashi Tharoor) had never even once taken her to a doctor or to a hospital, which was abnormal behaviour covered under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC),” the prosecution emphasised. According to independent journalist Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, the court did not pay heed to the last statement of the deceased.
Alprazolam poisoning, treatment by a child specialist and a Kerala connection
The AIIMS Autopsy Board had confirmed on four different occasions that the cause of Sunanda Pushkar’s death is related to Alprazolam poisoning. “The circumstantial recovery of empty Alprax strip (i.e. 27 consumed tablets) and the report of FBI which shows the presence of Alprax in the stomach and its contents, spleen, liver section, half of each kidney, blood sample, as well as urine wet clothing, bed cover and bed sheet confirmed the death is due to excessive ingestion of tablet Alprazolam,” the Court was told.
Besides, it was pointed out that the intravenous injection of lidocaine (found in FBI report) in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar content) patients could lead to death. According to the AIIMS autopsy Board, the administration of hyperglycemic agents such as insulin, tanzeum, or lidocaine intravenously can cause death. “As such, the report left open the possibility of hypoglycemic agent/ lidocaine to have caused the death, and the medico-legal investigation remained inconclusive,” the prosecution said. Although a clarification was sought by the SIT from the AIIMS Autopsy Board, no reply was ever received.
It had also come to light during the Alprax medicines were provided to the patient at around 12 pm on January 17, 2014, hours before Sunanda Pushkar was found dead. Although the medicines were not available at the government store, one Dr Sudershan Kumar Mehra had procured the same on the behest of Shashi Tharoor’s aide Shiv Kumar. It must be mentioned that Kumar had initially demanded 120 tablets but was given only 60. Kumar had claimed that he was tasked by domestic help Narayan Singh to procure the medicines. However, one Yashpal Khurana alleged that the Alprazolam medications were taken in the name of Sunanda Pushkar on the behest of a Kerala resident Narayan Kutty.
“It was vehemently submitted that when the deceased was hale and hearty, there was no need for her to start or to be given so much amount of Alprax. It was contended that at the stage of charge, suspicion was enough. It was submitted that how the tablets were procured and the quantity confirmed that it was not a natural death but it was due to poisoning as had been opined in the Post-Mortem report,” the prosecution argued. To make matters worse, the prescription was written by Dr. Mishra, who is a child specialist and not a psychiatrist.
“It was argued that efforts were made by the accused to mislead the investigation and he had sent an e-mail to the doctors. Injection mark was found on the deceased so there was possibility of her being injected with some medicine. Moreover, the prescription was written by a Child Specialist. It was argued that the accused was a Minister at the time of investigation and there was no reason why Dr. Mishra was consulted by the accused when he was only a Child Specialist,” the excerpt from the Court verdict read.