April 29, 1999. Time: 2am. Venue: Tamarind Court, a restaurant in the capital. The events of that night are only too well known. They have been recounted over and over again. Siddharth Vashisht alias Manu Sharma, son of Haryana politician Venod Sharma walked into the bar and demanded a drink. Jessica Lall and upcoming model Shayan Munshi were at the bar. So was restaurant owner Bina Ramani’s daughter Malini who told Manu and his friends that the bar had closed.
Not used to hearing a no, the politician’s son offered to pay a thousand rupees for a drink. When he still didn’t get one, he whisked out a .22 pistol from his pocket, shot once into the air and then fired the next shot straight at Jessica’s head.
In a matter of seconds, a young life had been snuffed out. Ask Dr Alok Chopra, who attended to her at Aashlok Hospital, 15 minutes after the shoot-out, and he will tell you this: “Jessica’s lungs were full of blood, her blood pressure had crashed, her brain was smashed like a mangled piece of tissue”. Why was the model killed? Only because the politician’s son had been refused a glass of whisky.
The nation was shocked. After all, at least 200 high-profile swashbucklers had attended the party. Actors, bureaucrats and senior police officers were there. So were three eyewitnesses: Shayan Munshi, the restaurant electrician Shiv Das and Karan Rajput, the uncle of restaurant manager Jitendra Raj.
All three recounted the events. Their testimonies were identical — the killer had first fired in the air and then at Jessica. They also identified the man in the ‘white T-shirt’ as the murderer. They had even gone to the police station, identified Manu and put their signatures on his photograph. Manu too, in his testimony to the police, had confessed to the crime. Yes, he had pressed the trigger, he admitted, because he so badly wanted that drink.
It was an open and shut case. Or so it seemed. Three eyewitnesses were more than enough to ensure a life sentence for a brash son.
Yet, Manu Sharma — who is called Glaxo Baby by friends and family — walked out a free man. He and eight associates smirked as they took their steps to freedom on February 21, 2006. Killing someone and getting convicted for it, after all, are two separate things.
Each eyewitness turned hostile and the case didn’t stand a chance. Shayan Munshi, suddenly decided he could not read or understand Hindi, even though he was a Bollywood wannabe. Shiv Das, the electrician, retracted saying he was on the terrace then, and Karan Rajput, in a total volte-face, said he was not even in Delhi on April 29.
So what happened? Why did all the eyewitnesses change their testimonies and derail justice? Just like the witnesses in other cases including the Nitish Katara case and the infamous bmw case when the car had miraculously turned into a truck. Were Munshi, Das and Rajput threatened? Were they lured or was it a mix of the two?
A three-month-long Tehelka investigation — aired on Star News — has finally blown the lid off all conjecture. The truth is brutal. In some ways, it is a confirmation of what everyone suspected. Yes, in this case, the answers lie in the shock and cynicism that Manu Sharma’s acquittal evoked. That witnesses had been bought. That they had been threatened into silence.
Tehelka’s spycams and phone conversations point to the nauseating reality. The camera captured lengthy conversations that revealed monetary details. Of how Venod Sharma would dole out bags of cash to secure his son’s future. We were given horrifying accounts of how the Delhi Police was — and still is — using strong-arm tactics. We were told how vital clues were ignored, how the judiciary erred in not asking the relevant questions and how the defence exploited every lacuna to bail out Manu. During the investigation, one of the characters — in a strong reminder of what transpired when the Sharmas were working overtime to influence the witnesses — actually made demands of us journalists. We recorded the demands and refused to meet him. Clearly, the Jessica Lall murder had become a money-minting expedition. When civil society protested and demanded justice for Jessica, the villains who had ensured its miscarriage were gloating over their various trips to Sharma properties in Delhi, Chandigarh and Manali.
The admissions were unabashed. They pointed squarely to the fact that Venod Sharma had abused power and money. The first crucial clue came from Karan Rajput’s nephew, Jitendra Raj (see transcript). Rajput, according to Jitendra, had for long been an alcoholic and would often drop in at Tamarind Court to borrow money. He came that night too but since the nephew was busy with the party, he asked his uncle to sit near the piano by the bar. Rajput had a vantage position: he was seated on a chair facing the bar where Shayan and Jessica were making drinks, for which they were paid Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500.
Rajput, Jitendra said, had no source of income. Till the night of the murder, he eked out a living at a bread factory. What Jitendra told us next was startling — his uncle never worked for a single day after Jessica’s murder till he himself succumbed to liver cirrhosis in January 2005. For the six intervening years, not only was he paying a monthly rent of Rs 4,000, he was also drinking and gambling large sums of money. Jitendra also told us more — that Rajput had turned his testimony on its head because he had been paid by the Sharmas. Through Jitendra, we met two of Rajput’s friends, Surinder, and Rajput’s landlord and drinking buddy, Rajbir Singh.
They, in turn, told us more. The details of how Rajput often went to the Sharma’s office in Piccadilly House in Delhi’s Okhla area and to Chandigarh’s Piccadilly Hotel to collect money were not just stories they had heard. Importantly, Surinder and Rajbir had escorted him on such missions.
Surinder told us in Jitendra’s presence that Rajput — also called Mamu by his friends — took Rs 30 to Rs 35 lakh from the Sharmas. Surinder revealed that when death seemed near because of alchoholism, Rajput once even talked of recording a tell-all CD so that he could keep milking the Sharmas. Surinder also revealed that once when the Sharmas refused to pay up, he confronted Manu in the Patiala House court complex. He was immediately paid Rs 50,000.
Surinder said Rajput received money in tranches: “Money used to come in the name of Arjun. Karan was referred to as Arjun. Jitne humein chahiye the, pachas, bees, das…. Humein to har mahine bees pachees hazar rupaye to aise mil jaate the…. Baad mein unhone fix kar diya tha bees hazar rupaye. Dawai dene ke baad bees hazar rupaya dete the.” Surinder goes a step further saying he used to make threatening calls from Rajput’s telephone numbers (which kept changing) and that if the records are taken out, they will reflect numbers that belong to the Sharmas.
Surinder said he met Rajput while sealing a property deal a few years back and knew him since. Surinder told us that Rajput took nearly Rs 50,000 from Sabrina. Asked whether he accompanied Rajput on his Chandigarh trips, he said Rajput used to be accompanied by another of his friend Rajbir and his brother-in-law. Surinder said Rajput told him that the Sharmas had offered to take care of him and also offered him a job at their Chandigarh hotel.
Rajbir, mentioned by Surinder as his friend, was also Rajput’s landlord at his Saidullajab village house. Rajbir’s family was aware of Rajput’s antics. Says his son: “Bahut fancy the wo. Bade bade baal rakhte the, paancho ungaliyon mein ring thi. Moti. Paanch-paanch che-che pehante the. Chain pehente the. Joote high, matlab.” Rajbir said he accompanied Rajput to Okhla a couple of times and also stayed with him at Chandigarh’s Piccadilly hotel. He confirms what Surinder told us, that he and his brother-in-law accompanied Rajput. Neither expressed any remorse or guilt, anything for free was welcome. Karan Rajput loved spending money. Adds Rajbir’s wife: “Wahan se paise le ke aata tha na, to unko kharachta hua aata tha. Ghar mein le ke nahin aata tha.”
Money was coming easy and in plenty. Rajput did not even have a shred of the proverbial ‘honour among thieves.’ Greedy for more, Rajput preyed on the Lalls. In her hope for justice, Sabrina Lall, Jessica’s sister, confirmed that Rajput would visit her and ask her to help out because he did not have a job. Sabrina says: “Karan Rajput was very much in touch with me. He kept insisting he would take money from the Sharmas but would testify in our favour. He used to keep telling me what was happening on the other side, how they gave him the money.” Rajput played a sickening doublegame. When a distressed Sabrina asked him why he had lied in court, he confessed to a chilling truth: the Sharmas, he said, had kidnapped his mother the day he was to testify in court.
The Sharmas — it appears — had smelt a rat. Rajput had once come to Sabrina asking her to buy him a tape recorder. He came back with a taped conversation between him and a man he called Anil Mahajan, one of Venod Sharma’s associates, whom he had met at Delhi’s Chelmsford Club. Sabrina remembers its contents — Mahajan is pleading with Rajput to forget what he saw that night. He tells him, the girl has died. You can’t bring her back. Why don’t you take money from us and help us out, so that the boy (Manu) is saved.
Raput’s testimony helped Manu for sure, but all the money didn’t help his health. His liver was packing up and he was admitted to the not-so-easily affordable Sitaram Bhartia and Pushpawati Singhania hospitals. The treatment at both cost a steep Rs 80,000 (the bills are with Tehelka). Where did the money come from? How could Rajput — who never worked for a single day after the murder — afford to pay, that too in cash? In answer, Jitendra points a finger at the Sharmas.
Only towards the very end did Rajput show signs of remorse. He sent for Sabrina and offered her his ring and chain saying he had been unfair to her. Call the police now and I’ll tell them the truth, he said. It was too late. The Sharmas had succeeded in weakening the case.
The Tehelka investigation threw up another chilling fact. Venod Sharma and his wife had even called on the Lalls months after the murder. Ajit Lall, Jessica’s father, answered the door one day and froze when he saw the unannounced visitors. They came in and sat in silence. Finally, 20 anxious minutes later, he took out a garland and, handing it to the father, said, “Place it on Jessica’s photograph.’’ Was that Venod Sharma’s way of saying sorry on behalf of his son? Had guilt brought him to the Lall residence or was it plain fear?
Unlike Rajput and the senior Sharmas’ all-too-fleeting moment of guilt, actor Shayan Munshi displayed naked immorality. It did not matter to him that Jessica was a friend. It did not matter, either, that he had single-handedly destroyed the case by introducing the two-weapon theory. And it did not matter that he had lied through his teeth when he said he did not know Hindi. All that mattered was a career in films.
Exposing Munshi’s lies was crucial and challenging. No one believed him when he said he didn’t know Hindi but, reluctant as he has always been to speak to the Press about the case, the only way out was to trap him. We posed as agents for a London-based producer who was visiting Mumbai, meeting potential actors for a Indo-British bilingual film. Hungry for the role, Munshi bought our story and reached the Juhu five-star hotel 10 minutes before time. Eager to impress Jane — our colleague who posed as the London-based producer — Munshi took the bait when we asked, “What’s your Hindi like?” (see transcript).
Munshi had told the court that he only knew simple Hindi but did not even know the word bayan (testimony). But for Jane he laid it all out. He explained Hindi’s different dialects. He admitted he had studied Hindi in Class vi and vii. Reluctant as he was to speak about the Jessica case, he did let out the crucial line — “Everyone knows who did it, so why are they beating around the bush… They (the Sharmas) are very powerful people.”
Their might was proved, time and again. They used muscle-power to browbeat Shiv Das. He admitted as much when he spoke to us, thinking he was speaking to Sabrina. The fear was palpable when he said, “Main majboor hoon. I am a resident of UP. What more can I say? You know what the condition in UP and Bihar is like (see transcript). My whole family lives in UP.” He said another crucial thing, when we pleaded on humanitarian grounds. What he had first told the police, he said, was the truth.
So, Shiv Das had been intimidated. Rajput had been bought and Shayan Munshi, who had lied, had also been caught on camera. He too admitted that ‘they’ were very powerful people.
The Sharmas proved, as each eyewitness fell, that money and muscle are useful weapons of subversion. As lethal as the pistol that was used that night.
Tehelka’s investigations brought other startling facts to light. If the Sharmas are guilty of making a mockery of the criminal justice system, the Delhi Police now has a lot of answering to do too. Here is what Madan, a Tamarind Court waiter, has to say about the Special Investigation Team, set up, ironically, after the outrage over Manu’s acquittal. Here, he says, that he is so tired of being thrashed he will be willing to sign any statement to save his skin: “If you hit me, I will say what you tell me. Why would I take madam’s (Bina’s) name when she never asked me to clean the bloodstained floor? I told the cops, if you hit me, I will do whatever you want.”
Ramani was arrested on Madan’s testimony but here he clearly tells Tehelka that he is tired of being beaten. Sabrina confirms that when the sit examined her, they asked so many questions about Ramani, she had to remind the police that they were shifting their focus, for it wasn’t Bina who killed her sister. Again, on the basis of Madan’s testimony, Bina’s husband George Mailhot was declared a false witness. Madan said that George had left Tamarind Court hours before the murder, but Tehelka caught up with Bina’s driver who revealed that he had seen George chase Manu Sharma and his friends after the murder.
Crucial questions arise. Why is the police shifting the focus of its investigation? If Tehelka has managed to dig out key aspects that document intimidation and inducement, what has the police done in all these years? The sting operation reveals extremely dangerous and damaging truths about our democracy and raises critical questions. Why do we still have a system that can be so easily manipulated by muscle and money? Is there hope for justice when forces inimical to truth remain so strong? The Lall family deserves an answer, so does the nation.