Bite Soldier

What Sunanda Pushkar told me

Sunanda texted me the night before she died, saying that she was very upset with what Mehr Tarar had said on my show.

 |  Bite Soldier  |  6-minute read |   23-01-2015
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I was called this morning to the Sarojini Nagar Police Station to depose in the Sunanda Pushkar "murder" case. Over the past few months people on social media have been asking what Sunanda told me in the days and hours leading up to her death. My Twitter handle was tagged in the last few tweets that Sunanda posted before her death and the trolls suggested that some other journalists and I were somehow complicit in covering up the murky goings-on that led to Sunanda's "murder". You would notice that I've put quotes around the word murder. That is because I hold no opinion on whether Sunanda was murdered or not. I would rather wait for the police to prove their charge before rushing to shout murder. 

DCP South Delhi Prem Nath wanted to know how I knew Sunanda and what she wanted to say in the interview that she wanted to give us. Like hundreds of other people in the capital, I knew Sunanda socially. She was a friend magnet and my wife and I had on a few occasions devoured the wonderful Kashmiri food she would put together for guests at her 97, Lodhi Estate residence. I had interviewed Sunanda a couple of times and had always found her to be a person who spoke her mind fearlessly, regardless of the consequences, even to her minister husband. In a city where wives of other netas stay miles away from the limelight, let alone give interviews which hit the headlines, Sunanda was one of a kind.  

On January 16, when the spat between Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda was splashed all over the news channels, I reached out to Sunanda asking her if she was keen on doing an interview to talk about the "IPL scam" she had been referring to in her tweets. She had spoken to us on the phone the previous night and I wanted to know if she wanted to do a full length interview. I was actually half hoping that she would say no. The producers in our newsroom were very keen on a TV interview. This was after all the kind of story that lights up a television rundown, a public spat between one of India's most high profile couples, with swelling charges of a cover-up.  

Much to my surprise, Sunanda immediately agreed to do the interview. She was distraught when I spoke to her. "I have tuberculosis in my stomach," she told me and added, "I'm going to die very soon. But before going I'm going to expose Shashi for what he's put me through. I will take him down". 

I was concerned about getting caught in a domestic row but new revelations in the "IPL scam" would have had huge public interest and could not possibly be ignored. We agreed to set up the interview that afternoon. "I'm going to have my medicines and sleep for a few hours... haven't been able to sleep peacefully for the last few days. My people are getting my clothes. When I wake up, I'll get ready and call you and we can do the interview." 

Our producers were on stand-by for the interview. But Sunanda never called that evening. I did not push the issue and decided that the interview could wait till Sunanda was ready. That same evening Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar was a guest on my TV show - Centre Stage. Mehr spoke of how she got to know Shashi Tharoor, how they hadn't met as often as Sunanda alleged, how she wasn't an ISI spy and how Sunanda had gone "crazy". 

My wife and I discussed the interview over dinner and then we went off to sleep.The next morning I was supposed to anchor from the Congress convention at the Talkatora stadium, where Rahul Gandhi was supposed to make a big speech. I woke up early in the morning to find a series of missed calls from Sunanda. The calls were made past 1 am, when my phone was on silent and I was fast asleep. Sunanda texted to say that she had watched the show at midnight and that she was very upset with what Mehr had said on the show. She said that Mehr had ruined her life and she wouldn't allow her to get away with it. And she wanted to do the interview we had spoken about.

The Rahul Gandhi speech was a big political moment. The Congress cadre was pressing for Rahul Gandhi to don the mantle of the party's PM candidate. All eyes were on whether the scion would oblige the faithful. The Sunanda interview would have to wait.  

I bumped into Shashi Tharoor at Talkatora. He was clearly upset. Sunanda had spoken to Shashi about what Mehr had said on our channel. They seemed to have had another fight over her comments. Shashi told me I shouldn't have done the interview. I tried to explain that I was only doing my job. We then chatted about the Congress conclave and I also invited him to join us on Centre Stage in the evening. We settled on 9.30pm and Shashi walked away.  

On the way back from Talkatora I thought I could stop over at the Leela hotel where Sunanda was staying and record the interview. I called her. But the call went unanswered. I tried again after a while but as before there was no response. I drove back to our studios in Noida.

We led Centre Stage that night with Rahul Gandhi's speech. This was his big moment. Under pressure from the party workers, Rahul had all but declared himself Congress's PM nominee. For once he had delivered a powerful speech and even his critics were forced to concede that the young man had done well.  

What was meant to be Rahul's moment of prime time glory vanished in a flash as the news ticker started screaming that Sunanda's body had been found at the Leela Hotel. I was anchoring at the time. Journalists are used to receiving bad news, over the years you get immune to the news of death. But I could hardly believe what the ticker was saying. One of the liveliest people I knew, was dead.

The Delhi Police's recent decision to add the murder charge has renewed vicarious interest in Sunanda's death. Some channels have gone to the extent of calling Shashi Tharoor a "murderer". I can't speak for Shashi Tharoor. I do not know if he's in any way culpable in Sunanda's death. But what we can certainly do is give the police a chance to prove their charge. Let them conduct a thorough probe without running vicious campaigns aimed at convincing TV viewers about a husband's guilt in his wife's 'murder.' What if the viscera samples show that Delhi Police's murder theory is unfounded, will we still be able to look the bereaved widower in the eye? Justice demands that the guilty must pay but an innocent cannot be hanged without a fair trial.

Writer

Rahul Kanwal Rahul Kanwal @rahulkanwal

Managing Editor, India Today TV.

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