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Murder She Wrote

Sutapa MUKERJEE

Monday 28 June 2004, by MUKERJEE*Sutapa

Politics, sex and enmity beget another high-profile UP murder. Is Lucknow the capital of political crime?

All the mileage Lucknow has lost of late in the national power stakes, it seems eager to make up by way of political sleaze.

If the Madhumita Shukla murder combined poetry and gangsterism in a uniquely UP blend before the elections, the post-poll scenario brings another case that yokes together political ambitions, sexual misdemeanour and a severely compromised police. Just check the bare facts. The body of a local BJP leader, Malti Sharma, is found a kilometre away from her house in east Lucknow on June 9. She was last seen leaving with her bodyguard to visit a senior police officer. The guard, constable Rajkumar Rai, is a prime suspect.

The other suspects-all arrested in a blaze of media attention-include, primarily, Alka Mishra, Malti’s party colleague and wife of a senior police officer, and a confidante of hers named Deepa Singh. As details tumbled out, a patchwork tale of mofussil political rivalry emerged, enveloping the local-level BJP leadership in its folds.

The story appears to run to type. Seema Rizvi, a senior BJP leader, recalls that both women were important functionaries in the state BJP. The rest flows logically. Two politically ambitious middle-class women vie to move up the ladder, only to find there is space for only one. Both are in their early forties, and from respectable backgrounds. Alka Mishra is "very close" to the upper echelons of the BJP both in Lucknow and Delhi. Malti Sharma, who was general secretary, city BJP women’s cell, derived her popularity from the grassroots. But all that came to an end on that fateful June 8 day. That day, Malti Sharma went out late in the evening to meet deputy inspector general (cooperative cell), Suvrat Tripathi, for some official work. She was accompanied by Rajkumar Rai. Neither returned home. The next day her body was recovered from near a local dargah, with gunshot injuries. Abrasions on her face and chest suggested she had fought for her life. Even more mysterious-her bodyguard was missing. "That aroused our suspicion," says senior superintendent of Lucknow police, Kamal Saxena.

The facts are indeed curious. The last number on Malti’s mobile was that of Tripathi. What’s more, she never carried her mobile herself but let Rai do it. Apparently, Malti had gone to visit the transit hostel residence of the DIG. What transpired afterwards is not clear. When Outlook contacted Tripathi, he confirmed the bare bones. "Malti had come to meet me with a complaint against a policeman, but I could not help her as that was not related to my department."

Given the circumstances, the role of the police is naturally under the scanner. Loose talk, some of it attested to by those in officialdom, has it that there are a number of top UP officials involved and the three arrests are merely the tip of the iceberg. Suvrat Tripathi naturally tops the list of suspects. But Lucknow police officers deny Tripathi had any role, saying many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have yet to fall into place. Says an officer: "Such easy conclusions only add to the confusion. We have nabbed Rai and are interrogating several others. We hope to reach a conclusion soon." Tripathi, of course, dismisses all talk of his involvement. "If I had to plot all this, why would I have done it so close to my residence? Look how Shivani Bhatnagar was murdered," he says, referring to the famous case of a journalist’s killing in Delhi a few years ago, which too had political links.

Meanwhile, under interrogation, constable Rajkumar Rai spun his own tale. He told investigators that they were attacked by three men with country-made pistols on their way back from meeting the DIG. It was they who shot dead Malti, he said. The police cross-checked his version at other points and then came back to him. Under sustained interrogation, Rai started wavering.

Finally, he admitted that Alka Mishra had conspired to have Malti eliminated.He confessed that Alka had promised him money-apart from help to settle scores with his personal enemy, one Bacha Lal Pandey. "You do away with her and I will do away with your enemies," he quoted her as saying. So what could have been Alka’s motive? Well, by all accounts, it was plain old political enmity between kindred spirits. "They always revelled in each other’s losses," says a city politician. He recalls incidents where the two fought in public. There are even reports that each accused the other of running a flesh trade racket in Lucknow. In January 2002, when Alka Mishra was denied a BJP Vidhan Sabha ticket, there were public celebrations in the rival camp. During the Lok Sabha elections, both had been assigned particular polling booths at Rasphel Academy in Khurram Nagar. There they spent a better part of their time sniping in public, rather than mobilising supporters.

In a story where many intangible leads entangle, most point to a deeper political angle-though no one is willing to state it outright. Listen to Malti’s husband Prem Nath Sharma: "Many more influential people are involved; constable Rai is just being made a fall guy." SSP Saxena too believes Malti Sharma was the victim of a political game. "It’s a tricky situation where the main witness (Rai) is also the prime accused. The motive seems none other than political rivalry between the two women," he says. Prem Nath, for one, is demanding a CBI inquiry as he has no faith in the local police. He says even after the arrests the police have not filed a chargesheet nor have they thrown any fresh light on the investigation.

The media coverage and outcry has set top BJP leaders into motion. Vinay Katiyar, the party’s state president, has suspended Alka Mishra and has also demanded a CBI inquiry into the incident. "Alka Mishra has been suspended and if she is proved innocent she will be reinstated into the party," says Katiyar. The state BJP is vertically split over this sequence of events. Senior leader Lalji Tandon has openly criticised Katiyar for demanding a CBI probe. Former chief minister Kalyan Singh, though, has supported Katiyar, saying the investigation should be handed over to the CBI. "Our efforts are to see that the guilty are punished and there should be a free and fair investigation," he told the media.

Just how politically loaded this case is can be gauged from the fact that even a senior central party leader like Pramod Mahajan has demanded a CBI inquiry. Faction feuds are now in the open, with supporters of Katiyar and Lalji Tandon attacking each other for the BJP’s poor showing in UP in the general elections. The last time such a murder took place, it claimed a UP minister. Who all will Malti Sharma take with her?

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 28, 2004.

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