Seven-and-a-half years is a long time indeed. A long time to wait for a case to be closed. Even longer when you are waiting for closure.
At least one of these occurred this week when, in a rare and bold judgment, a case was disposed of before a trial had begun. Make that the trial in court. Because, for the very many who were involved, a trial of a different kind had been underway all these years. A trial by public perception, which tested both official machinery and personal tenacity.
On January 17, 2014, when Sunanda Pushkar was found dead at the Leela Hotel in New Delhi, no one expected this to be an easy, open-and-shut case. Because this was not just another woman. She was the wife of one of India’s most well-known and influential politicians, and a woman who held her own, thanks to her bold and commanding presence. Not to forget the scandal that had spilled out of Twitter and onto the national media just a day before the tragedy.
What all of this collectively set in motion was a chain of actions and reactions, twists and turnarounds that converted the mysterious death into a raging controversy. Starting as early as the funeral itself (“held too soon”) to the post-mortem report (doctored or not) to multiple theories about the cause of death (accidental drug overdose/murder/suicide), it was a case that challenged every investigative agency, even as it captured the attention of the nation.
Six police commissioners came and went, four detailed medical reports were drawn up, multiple viscera reports, including one from the FBI, obtained, FIR filed, polygraph tests and even psychological forensic tests conducted, a detailed Vigilance Committee Report filed, SITs formed, over 100 people questioned, raids conducted and a humongous 3,000-page chargesheet presented in the court.
If it strained the system, infinitely more damaging was the havoc it wreaked on the human spirit. And here we are not talking just about Shashi Tharoor, though, admittedly, as the one accused by the police for abetting the suicide of his wife, his was one of the heaviest burdens to carry.
If Sunanda’s death came under a cloud, her life was nothing short of spectacular, marked by an extraordinary display of grit and courage. If there was one thing she had learnt, it was to always land on her feet and bounce back. A single mother, she had changed continents in search of a better life for herself and her young son and transformed their lives from bankruptcy to riches.
At the other end of the spectrum was her son Shiv, trying to balance his irreparable emotional loss with the pragmatic demands of financial stability, given that his mother’s Rs 100 crore-worth assets remained mostly inaccessible to him due to the non-closure of her case and the absence of a will. Two grieving brothers, a father suffering from dementia and eventually passing away in 2019, a sea of friends caught between sorrow and the anguish of not knowing what happened — the Sunanda saga seemed to be an unending tale of mystery and misery.
Till Wednesday, when Tharoor was cleared of all the charges against him. A trial conducted outside the court had been brought to an end.
While the court has deemed what could not have been, there is no revelation yet of what did happen on that fateful day of January 17, 2014. Officials have long complained that high-profile cases, where the authorities are compelled to carry out investigations under the media and public eye, are not just hampered by pressure, but tend to get so complicated that an originally straight-forward situation gets obfuscated, something that is unfair both to the deceased and the family and friends left behind. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is often cited as another example.
As we stop to remember Sunanda’s feisty life and mourn its end, closure will take much longer.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 20, 2021 under the title ‘Life after Sunanda’. Mehta is the author of ‘The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar’.