The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Can you recognise the people who shot him?" asked Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam.
An expectant hush filled the Bombay sessions court.
"Yes," replied 49-year-old Ramchandra Ananda Lavangare, the prosecution's first witness.
The relief was actually palpable.
"Can you identify them in this courtroom?"
"Yes," Lavangare unhesitatingly pointed to the prisoner's dock, located at the back of the courtroom. "They are sitting there, in the last row."
Nikam asked the six accused in the last row -- the dock was packed to capacity with 12 prisoners, the remaining five had to be seated to the judge's right -- to stand up.
"Can you identify them specifically?" asked the prosecutor.
"Yes. Third from the left. And third from the right."
Every head in the packed courtroom turned. The rest of the accused sat, while Rashid Dawood Merchant and Mohammad Rauf Dawood Merchant remained standing. Short-statured, neatly dressed and clean-shaven, they looked more like disinterested passers-by than hired assassins. There was no trace of guilt or fear in their demeanour; in fact, there was actually a hint of a smile on their faces.
You could be forgiven if you thought this was the beginning of either the latest thriller or a new, slick flick from Bollywood. But Lavangare's next words shock you into reality.
"I saw them shoot Gulshan Kumar as he was returning to his car after visiting the temple at around 10am," said Lavangare, a plumber by profession. Lavangare, who lives near the fateful spot in Jeet Nagar, Four Bungalows, northwest Bombay, where Kumar was mercilessly gunned down, is a former chairperson of the mandal that built the Shiva temple. Kumar, a self-acknowledged Shiva devotee, used to visit it twice daily.
At this point, the prosecution looked pleased. After all, it has been four long years since the shocking murder of the Super Cassettes Industries mogul; Gulshan Kumar was gunned down in broad daylight on August 12, 1997. Yet, their star witness had just made an unambiguous identification of two of the murderers.
The case is a complicated one, with 22 accused (including a pensive-looking Ramesh Taurani, promoter of Tips Music Company, who is out on bail). Five of them are still absconding (including music composer Nadeem Saifi, of Nadeem-Shravan fame, who has beaten an extradition attempt by the Indian police and remains safely ensconced in London, nurturing his blooming career). The prosecution has also listed almost 270 witnesses -- including stars Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan.
"As soon as Gulshan Kumar opened the door of his car, Rauf shot him. He fell down, but got up and tried to escape. That was when Rashid shot him," said Lavangare. "Then they escaped by running towards Bharat Nagar."
Defence lawyer Majeed Memon interrupted, "How many killers were there? Two or three?"
"Three," said Lavangare, at which point Memon drew Additional Sessions Judge M L Tahaliyani to the fact that the witness was changing his statement. Lavangare admitted that though he saw three people shoot Kumar, he was able to see the faces of only two of them.
There have been rumours that the third accused, Anil Sharma, had been killed in an encounter. Prosecutor Nikam, though, denies any such knowledge. "I have no information about his death. As far as we are concerned, he is absconding."
The case, which has generated a lot of interest, has also thrown up numerous questions. No one seems to have any clue about the motive for the murder. Will the Indian government push again for Nadeem's extradition if he is found guilty? Was Ramesh Taurani involved? Did some film stars witness Nadeem hire gangster Abu Salem, Karachi-based gangster Dawood Ibrahim's lieutenant, to kill Kumar? Will these stars be called to the witness stand?
Nikam, who later spoke to reporters, said he had no plans to call any film stars as his witnesses. "We will decide as the case proceeds. We will call them only if required. At the moment, I am happy that the witness has identified the accused."
The prosecution believes that both Nadeem and Taurani conspired to get rid of Gulshan Kumar. The police say Nadeem was furious because he believed Kumar was deliberately not promoting his album, which featured Nadeem as a singer. Nadeem had openly voiced his ire, say the police. Taurani's music company Tips was, on the other hand, being given a run for its money by Kumar's T-Series label.
The initial meeting that allegedly led to the Kumar murder was held in Dubai. It was chaired by Abu Salem and allegedly included Nadeem, Qayoom Chacha, Mohammed Rauf, Shaikh (who had turned approver but is now fighting to have that status rescinded) and Nawab Sharif.
Salem allegedly told those present that Gulshan Kumar was bothering Nadeem and should therefore be killed. He apparently added that he would pay anything for Kumar's head. Rauf, who is said to have accepted the offer, apparently hired Anil Sharma and Rashid Dawood Merchant to assist him. Taurani, according to then assistant commissioner of police L R Rao, "made a big payment to Kumar's killers".
The prosecution's main witness is the sole approver-turned-non-approver, Mohammed Ali Hussain Shaikh. He is reported to have told the Bombay police that Nadeem participated in the conspiracy to murder Kumar. But the London high court, which heard Nadeem's extradition case, rejected the Indian government's request on the grounds that there was no prima facie case against Nadeem.
Asked if the police would try again for Nadeem's extradition if found guilty, Nikam said, "We cannot try in the London court again at this juncture."
After the Nadeem fiasco, Nikam believes the extradition treaty should be amended. "According to the present treaty, the foreign courts assess and evaluate our evidence on the basis of their laws. I think this requires modification. After all, any fugitive is ultimately going to be tried in our country."
Nadeem, who has refused to leave London since the murder, has protested his innocence in innumerable interviews. "The Bombay police are framing me on wrong charges. How can I kill Gulshan Kumar? He was like my father. He was my mentor."
Criminal lawyer Majeed Memon, who is representing both Taurani and Fayaz Chougale, adds, "The London court has said there was a pre-conceived motive to blame Nadeem without adequate evidence to prove the allegation. That the investigating agency used improper pressure to coerce Shaikh into making statements corroborating the allegations."
"Shaikh is an old, sick and illiterate man. He has alleged torture in custody. He also says he was offered monetary temptations to own up to certain statements prepared by the police. He made these allegations a few months after his arrest and had even petitioned the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission in March 1998 against the investigating agency.
"Metropolitan Magistrate A M Gharde, before whom he was first produced in September 1997, did not record his statement because he felt Shaikh was under tremendous pressure. When questioned by the magistrate in his chamber; he broke down and said that if he did not give a statement, his life and the lives of his family members would be in danger."
The police, however, are confident that they will be able to prove Nadeem guilty. A senior police officer investigating the case told rediff.com, "We know he is guilty and we will open our cards in court. There is no point in starting a trial in the media. Let Nadeem give interviews to the press about his innocence. We will see that he is punished."
Page design: Dominic Xavier
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