Book: The Tandoor Murder – The crime that shook the nation and brought a government to its knees
Writer: Maxwell Pereira
Price: Rs 599
A sensational murder, a body burnt inside a tandoor and the dogged determination of a cop — all elements that make for potent crime thriller fiction. On July 2, 1995, however, this is exactly what happened in reality at an upscale restaurant in Delhi.
Former Delhi Police Joint Commissioner Maxwell Pereira, who investigated the Naina Sahni murder case — dubbed the tandoor murder — has gone back to his meticulous case files and penned a page turner.
On July 2, 1995, Delhi Police Constable Abdul Nazir Kunju saw fire leaping from the Bagiya Barbeque restaurant in Ashok Yatri Niwas on Ashoka Road. The fire refused to die down, as did Kunju’s curiosity. Without Kunju’s determination, Pereira writes, the case might never have come to light. However, in interviews given several years after the case was cracked, Kunju expressed his disillusionment with the police force and the treatment meted out to him.
The book gives chronological details of the case, which was extensively covered by the media. The audacity of burning a body inside a tandoor in a restaurant, the coverups, and, the accused, Sushil Sharma, who was wont to theatrics — the book covers all these aspects in great detail. The events in the book are certainly hair-raising, and Pereira masterfully stays true to his case files without exaggeration — in fact, setting the record straight on a few exaggerations that were reported in the mid-90s. It also tackles myths about the post mortems the case entailed, the hurdles in catching Sharma and his surrender, and, blunders made by the police that later haunted them in court.
Beyond just the case details, however, the book talks about how India’s police force and criminal justice system works. It details the frustration of the cops at being played by Sharma several times in court, their helplessness as they tried to find reliable witnesses, and how the case was played out in media.
The tandoor case dragged on for eight years, and Sharma was sentenced to death in 2003. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court in 2013 and he was granted parole in 2015.
Pereira also talks about how the case was politicised and there were accusations that Sharma, a Congress party leader, was being shielded. Senior leaders spoke about the nexus between crime and politics, and opposition parties used the case to corner the ruling party — “The imbroglio in the wake of Naina Sahni’s killing helped bring down India’s national government and humbled the country’s dominant political party,” Pereira writes.
Pereira also touches upon the relations between Sharma and Sahni, and Sahni’s previous relationship with an NSUI member. The media frenzy surrounding the case meant there were several stories — true and concocted, sometime salacious — about Sahni.
For those who did not follow the case closely or for those who were too young to, at the time, The Tandoor Murder is a nail-biting thriller. For those who followed the case, it helps bust a few myths and provides perspective on why getting justice, in what could be called an open-and-shut case, sometimes takes years.