In the evening on 31 July, Satish Uke, a lawyer and activist, was arrested by the Economic Offences Wing of the Nagpur Police’s Crime Branch for offences he allegedly committed 17 years ago, in 2001. In June this year, Uke had filed a petition in the Bombay High Court demanding official compensation for the family of the late CBI judge BH Loya, on the basis of government documents showing that the judge was in Nagpur “for government work” at the time of his death. Two weeks before his arrest, Uke filed another application in the court, requesting it to entertain the petition. The court has not yet listed the petition for its first hearing. Uke has previously filed petitions accusing the chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis of electoral offences, alleging that Fadnavis filed inaccurate nominations for two state assembly elections.
According to Lalit Vartikar, the investigating officer in the case against Uke, the police arrested the activist-lawyer following a complaint by Shobharani Nalode, the secretary of a cooperative housing society in Nagpur. Vartikar said Uke had presented forged documents in order to purchase land from the society. Vartikar added that Uke has been booked under sections 120B, 420, 423, 424, 447, 465, 467, 468, 471 and 474 of the Indian Penal Code—all of which constitute offences related to conspiracy, cheating and forgery of documents.
Vartikar told us that though Nalode had filed the complaint in April, the Economic Offences Wing registered a first information report against Uke on the same day as his arrest. When we asked him about the unusual alacrity shown in this case, he said that a preliminary investigation was already ongoing against Uke since April, and that they registered the FIR because Nalode approached the police again on 31 July. That morning, right after registering the FIR, the police appeared to have concluded that the evidence furnished by the preliminary enquiry was already enough to charge Uke on 10 counts of the IPC and arrest him as well.
The Nagpur Police’s pursuit of the case is conspicuous for its timing. We asked Shivaji Bhodke, the joint commissioner of the Nagpur Police, whether any other cases of alleged land fraud from 15 years ago were also currently under investigation. Bodkhe answered, “I do not know, how can a senior officer know everything?” Uke’s friends, however, claim that he is being targeted due to his work as a lawyer-activist. His brother, Pradip, has told the media the alleged property-fraud case has been used as a pretext to arrest Uke for his involvement in cases concerning the death of the judge Loya.
For a few years now, Uke has been working to gather information and documents pertaining to the Loya’s death. His association with Loya became public in recent months, after The Caravan published a series of reports regarding the suspicious circumstances surrounding the judge’s death in Nagpur in 2014, purportedly of a heart attack. At the time of his death, Loya was hearing a case pertaining to the alleged fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. The prime accused in the case was the BJP president, Amit Shah. On 31 January, Uke appeared among the speakers during a press conference led by the senior advocate Kapil Sibal, on behalf of the Congress party. Sibal recounted Uke’s account of his interactions with Loya to the press: he said that in October 2014, nearly two months before his death, Loya had confided in Uke that he was facing immense pressure while hearing the Sohrabuddin case.
In the petition seeking compensation for Loya’s family, Uke and Ashok Pai, a resident of Mumbai who is a co-petitioner in the case, rely upon documents obtained through right-to-information applications, which reveal surprising details about the judge’s visit to Nagpur in 2014. In an official letter dated 27 November 2014, the Nagpur office of the department of law and judiciary wrote to the Public Works Division Number 1, under the local Public Works Department, about “reserving one V.I.P. Air-Conditioned Suit in Ravi Bhavan”—the government guest house where Loya is said to have been staying at the time of his death. The letter, as per a translation submitted to the Bombay High Court, stated, “from Mumbai Hon’ble Shri B.J. Loya [sic] and Hon’ble Shri Vinay Joshi, these both District and Session Judges Mumbai, will be staying from early morning of 30.11.2014 till 7 am of 1.12.2014 for government work.”
The information uncovered through the RTI applications is striking because these documents were not included in the report of a “discreet inquiry” carried out by the Maharashtra State Intelligence Department, which began in November 2017. The state of Maharashtra submitted the report to the Supreme Court in January. Its findings formed the basis of the Maharashtra government’s claim, which was accepted by the Supreme Court, that Loya died a natural death. The RTI documents obtained by Uke, and submitted to the Bombay High Court, indicate that the government of Maharashtra had concealed this information of enormous importance from the Supreme Court. This also assumes particular significance because it contradicts the SID’s findings in its report, which note that “Judge Loya was in Nagpur to attend the wedding in the family of a colleague on 30 November 2014.”
Uke has also repeatedly raised serious allegations against the Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. In 2014, after a Bombay High Court bench comprising the justices Bhushan Gavai and VM Deshpande passed an order quashing a first information report against Devendra Fadnavis, Uke filed an application for the recall of this order. The FIR pertained to a case from 1992. The court dismissed Uke’s application, but he persisted, challenging the court’s orders with numerous subsequent appeals and applications. Through the course of these challenges, Uke levelled allegations questioning the impartiality of several officers of the court. In June 2016, the Bombay High Court judge RK Deshpande, one of the judges named by Uke, initiated contempt proceedings against him.
In February 2017, a division bench of the Bombay High Court convicted him for criminal contempt, upholding Deshpande’s order that Uke had made “irresponsible allegations scandalizing the Court” and for “making a scurrilous attack on the Judges.” Though Uke initially appealed the order in the Supreme Court, he later withdrew the challenge and informed the court that he would “like to tender an unconditional apology to the High Court and withdraw all allegations made by him.”
Accordingly, on 28 February this year, Uke approached the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court and offered the apology, withdrawing all his allegations against the judges of the court. That day, the bench presiding over the case, which comprised Deshpande and MG Giratkar, appointed the advocate Firdos Mirza as an amicus curiae to look into the “genuineness of the apology.” On the next hearing, Gavai replaced Deshpande on the bench. The newly-consituted bench then appointed a second lawyer to look into the “genuineness” of Uke’s apology—it asked the senior advocate Subhodh Dharmadhikari to assist the court as an additional amicus.
Uke subsequently claimed that Dharmadhikari has represented Fadnavis in the past, before lower courts. In 2016, Uke filed a criminal writ petition in the Bombay High Court against the returning officer who accepted Fadnavis’s nomination papers. The petition is presently being heard by a bench comprising Deshpande and Arun Upadhye. During the hearing on 13 July, Uke reportedly objected to the Election Commission appointing Dharmadhikari as its lawyer, noting that the senior advocate had represented Fadnavis in cases in the lower courts.
The ongoing petition is not the first time that Uke has accused Fadnavis of an electoral offence. In 2014, Uke filed a criminal complaint and an election petition against Fadnavis on allegations that the chief minister had failed to disclose two criminal cases pending against him in his nomination papers submitted for the 2009 and 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections. The election petition, too, was heard by Deshpande, who dismissed the case the next year on the grounds that criminal charges against Fadnavis had not been framed before he submitted his nomination to the state election commission. In the criminal complaint, on the basis of directions issued by the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court, a sessions court issued notice to Fadnavis on 24 July.
Uke has been persistent in his pursuit of the proceedings surrounding Loya’s death. In its order convicting him of criminal contempt, the Bombay High Court had also constrained him from initiating any legal proceedings. The court noted that if Uke “intends to move any application/complaint or proceedings, he may file an application seeking leave” to do so. Accordingly, upon seeing that the Bombay High Court had not listed the petition seeking compensation for Loya’s family for over a month, Uke filed an application requesting the court to grant leave to hear the case. The case has not yet been listed for a hearing.
In early March this year, Sanjay Fadnavis, a cousin of the Maharashtra chief minister, made a late-night call to threaten Abhiyan Barahate, a lawyer and activist who has been working with Uke to obtain information about Loya’s death. During the call, which lasted nearly two minutes, Sanjay Fadnavis told Barahate that he had come to know of the “big work” the advocate had been doing recently. He added that “we are coming in even in 2019,” and warned Barahate to not “complain” later when he is “picked up by the police,” thrown “behind bars” and “gets fucked in the ass.” Sanjay is the son of the chief minister’s paternal uncle.
On 6 March, Barahate sent a written complaint to the police commissioner Bhodke, in which he stated that he was “deliberately keeping distance” from those affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party because he had begun working with Uke. He also noted that he had been helping Uke gather information about Loya’s death.
At the press conference held by the Congress, Sibal had circulated a note describing various suspicious circumstances concerning those involved with the late judge, which claimed that Uke, too, was “repeatedly threatened.” The note reportedly described an incident from June 2016, when 5,000 kilograms of iron fell on the roof of his office moments after he had exited.
The arrest of Satish Uke was not the only incident of significance in relation to Loya’s death to take place that day. While Uke’s petition, which reveal the documents concealed by the government of Maharashtra, is still pending before the Bombay High Court, the Supreme Court, on 31 July, dismissed a review petition against its judgment that relied on SID’s report.
Arshu John is an assistant editor (web) at The Caravan. He was previously an advocate practicing criminal law in Delhi.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.