July 2, 1995. A couple of stray dogs ran across the deserted, and deathly-silent Ashoka Road in New Delhi. It was 11pm. Thick plumes of smoke were billowing into the night sky from inside a hotel.
Constable Abdul Nazir Kunju was posted at Connaught Place police station and was on night duty, from 11pm to 5 am, that day. He was a man of integrity and always did things on time. He reported for duty ten minutes before 11 and met his partner for the night, Home Guard Chander Pal.
‘Are you ready for patrolling Chander Pal?’ Kunju asked, trying to lighten the long night of duty ahead of them. And both of them set out on Ashoka Road on patrol. By 11:15 pm they had reached the lane next to Ashok Yatri Niwas and saw plumes of smoke emerging from the hotel compound. Both of them approached the security guard of the ITDC-run Ashok Yatri Niwas hotel.
‘Bhai! Why is there so much smoke coming out of the Bagiya restaurant?’
‘We are burning old election posters,’ a man stopped them at the entrance. ‘Don’t worry, it will be done soon.’
Being reassured, Kunju told them to be careful and left.
They continued patrolling the area when suddenly they heard a woman scream, ‘Fire!’
Kunju had left, but decided to check again when he heard the vendor scream "Fire!".
The duo turned around to see a vegetable vendor pointing towards the leaping fire coming out of the restaurant. ‘There’s a fire in the hotel!’
Seeing the smoke and the large fire from over the wall, Kunju ran to a nearby telephone booth wanting to dial 100 for police and also call the fire brigade. But the telephone booth was closed.
‘Chander you stay here. I am going to make a call on my wireless – I have left it on the other side of Western Court.’ Saying this, he rushed off. When Kunju returned, he detected a strange smell from the fire. And the flames were larger.
This time, Kunju jumped over the hotel wall and saw two men fanning the large fire over the restaurant tandoor with scraps of paper and wood.
Kunju came face to face with Keshav Kumar, the manager of Bagiya, standing next to the restaurant’s tandoor.
‘What is going on? The fire is dangerous for the hotel!’ Kunju screamed.
‘These are old political banners, paper and posters we are burning,’ Keshav said.
Kunju recognized the other man as the first person he had met while trying to enter the restaurant earlier. He would later be identified as Sushil Sharma, the main accused.
The smell of the fire and something he saw in the fire alerted Kunju. He walked slowly towards it, afraid to acknowledge what he was looking at.
It was a human torso sticking out of the tandoor. He and Chander put out the fire with buckets of water and found that it was a charred body. The skin on the lower part melted away.
In an interview he recalls, "I felt my hair stand on end. We found a human body in the embers. It seemed to be that of a woman whose legs, from the side of the foot, were partially burned. Her intestines spilled out.”
Sushil Sharma was on the run. ACP Ashok Kumar, additional CP Maxwell Pereira and other senior officers arrived at the crime scene.
The next day’s headlines shocked the capital – A body being burnt in a restaurant's tandoor! And the body was that of Naina Sahni.
How did the beautiful 29-year-old Naina Sahni get killed and burned in a restaurant tandoor? For this, we need a flashback and see her husband Sushil Sharma's rise.
Sushil was born to be in politics. But he was born into a lower middle-class family, where his father was the breadwinner working as a bank clerk. Sushil had bigger ambitions. From the time he was in college, he was active on the political scene as a student leader. Many describe him as a brash and brazen man. And he rose in the ranks in the years following the Emergency.
The student workers of the Congress called him ‘Chakumaar’ (knife-slasher) as he used to slash the posters of rival student leaders on campus. His attitude grew and he started carrying a licensed 0.32 revolver and was known to abduct political rivals. Sushil’s name was suddenly being thrown around across Delhi student politics.
Sushil rose from students' union president of Delhi University's Satyawati College in 1977 to Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress (I) chief. Sushil was a clever man and knew who to make friends with and who to keep away.
He was a dedicated party worker and it is here that he met Naina Sahni around 1989.
Naina Sahni came from a lower middle-class background, like Sushil. What she lacked in wealth and stature she made up for with her ambition and dreams. She was always interested in politics. Her father was a storekeeper in an Ordnance factory.
One day Naina and her friends were seated in the canteen of the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee College in Delhi sipping on tea. She had just become the All India Girls' Convener of NSUI. One of her friends turned to Naina and said, ‘You are galloping too fast my friend. You will not find a man who is right for you. Everyone laughed and soon their discussion turned to their future husbands and everyone agreed that Naina was never going to be dominated by her husband!
Naina left politics for a while and went off to get herself a pilot's licence. But as they say, politics turns you into a hunter and once you taste blood, you cannot stay away from it. And so she soon returned to politics, and joined the Delhi Youth Congress as General Secretary in 1989.
She worked closely with many leaders and party workers at Congress (I). And she fell in love with Matloob Karim at this time. But Sushil had already spotted Naina and made a beeline for her.
‘We cannot go on. My family objects to our relationship.' Naina held Karim’s hands in hers.
Karim knew that because of his religion, Naina’s family had objected. Matloob’s heart was broken. They separated but remained good friends. Meanwhile Sushil continued to woo Naina and she on the rebound fell in love with him. She found him dynamic and outgoing, confident and street-smart. While he was attracted to her beauty, her confidence and the easy charm that she had. The final decision of hers was swayed when Sushil helped her aunt sort out a land dispute.
2 years before the murder
The two were married in Delhi's Birla Mandir in 1993. But Sushil wanted to keep their marriage secret. He told his friends that "I will only acknowledge marriage once I become something."
Their neighbours in Pitampura remained unaware that Sushil was married. Even Sushil’s father often confused the issue by saying he would like to see his son married, even though Sushil’s parents attended the marriage ceremony! It was a well kept secret.
But the marriage soured immediately. Sushil liked power and dominating others, while Naina wasn’t going to be submissive. She was an independent woman who wanted her own career and glory. According to Karim, his former love Naina used to call him and cry on the phone narrating how Sushil, after getting drunk, regularly beat her and locked her up in their rented Gole Market flat. There was even an instance when Sushil brandished his gun at her and deliberately misfired to scare her.
But to the outside world, Sushil portrayed himself as a soft-spoken, non-smoking, teetotaller who regularly visited the Chhatarpur Temple. But people knew him as a ladies’ man! He lived a double life. In an article when he was interviewed, Maninderjit Singh Bitta, the Youth Congress(I) president and Sushil's rival, says Sushil used to "recruit women as office bearers". And Karim said "He never refused any woman a favour."
‘Are you involved with Ila?’ Naina asked Sushil when he walked in through the door. She was referring to rumours that she had heard about her husband’s affair with the divorced wife of a businessman.
‘Don’t believe every word you hear. I told you earlier as well, no.’ Sushil replied angrily.
Naina knew her husband was lying. She knew that her husband had wooed Ila with the promise of getting her a parliamentary ticket.
Journalist Archana Jahagirdar in her India Today article of July 31, 1995, writes that Ila was also rumoured to be the mother of Sushil’s child.
Naina realised that there was nothing left for her in this ‘secret marriage.’
‘I am moving to Australia,’ Naina declared one evening while sipping her Bloody Mary drink.
‘Why? Why do you need to go?’ an infuriated Sushil asked.
‘I want to be independent and set up my own export business,’ Naina looked her husband straight in the eye.
‘And who will help you? Your ex-lover Karim?’ She saw him clenching his jaw in anger. He glared back at her.
‘How does it matter?’ She answered back.
The night of the murder
July 2, 1995
Sushil had been angered by Naina’s decision to leave him and go abroad. And he became more angry as he felt her proximity to her ex-lover grow.
As Sushil entered the house, he saw Naina disconnect the phone and keep the receiver back. Sushil knew who his wife was speaking to. She was sipping on a drink and offered him one. Sushil walked to the telephone, lifted the receiver and pressed the redial button. From the other end a male voice answered. Sushil immediately recognized the voice as Karim’s. He confronted Naina and an argument ensued.
He pulled out his gun and fired three fast shots at close range. One bullet entered her neck, the second her head, and the third bullet missed her. Realising what he had done, he knew he had to act fast. He rolled her up on the bedsheet on which she had fallen. Seeing blood seep through, he pulled the plastic cover off the dining table. He wrapped the body in it. He needed to dispose of the body. He went down from his Gole Market flat and reversed the car to the stairs. He then dragged the corpse from the second floor flat and dumped it in the car. He went up and changed into a fresh kurta as the other one was completely soaked in Naina’s blood.
While driving he came up with a plan to get rid of the body. He drove to Bagiya Restaurant at the Ashok Yatri Niwas hotel, in which he was a partner and the manager Keshav was a friend.
It was 10:15 when Sushil drove up to the restaurant in his white Maruti car. He rolled down the car window and Keshav saw him run up to the car. Sushil directed Keshav to close the restaurant immediately and empty it of customers and staff. Keshav knew something was horribly wrong and better not question Sushil.
When Keshav realised what was in the car he felt nauseous. Sushil scolded him and said they had to hurry up. And he asked him to get a gunny bag. But Naina’s body wrapped in a bed-sheet and lying on the folded back seat of the car, would not fit into the bag. So Keshav got a tarpaulin and dragged the body inside. While Keshav stood guard, Sushil put the corpse into the tandoor.
As the body did not fit, he forced the limbs in by severing both legs from below the knees. He also chopped the arms from the elbows. The feet stuck out of the tandoor in a ghastly manner. Keshav supplied him ghee from the restaurant kitchen. Sushil lit the tandoor. But he needed to get rid of the evidence faster. The ghee had run out and so Keshav came back with 500 gm of butter. When this was not enough, both of them added paper to the fire.
That is when the flames leapt up, and were seen by the vegetable vendor, Kunju and Chander.
By the time police arrived, Sushil had escaped. But Keshav immediately confessed. A massive search began to apprehend Sushil Sharma.
Matloob Karim identified Naina’s body from her nose structure and hair style.
The first postmortem conducted at Lady Hardinge Medical College revealed that she died due to burn injuries and excessive bleeding.
This was shocking as it changed the tone of the story as it had been revealed by Keshav.
A second postmortem was ordered by Lieutenant Governor Delhi, which was conducted by a team of 3 doctors from 3 different hospitals headed by T D Dogra.
The postmortem report revealed that Naina had been shot twice, and died of firearm injuries, making it a murder case. Finally the real story emerged from this second post mortem report. This case is a landmark example of a successful second autopsy.
9 days later Sushil Sharma surrendered in Bangalore. His head was shaved, and he said he knew nothing about the murder as he had left Delhi on a "pilgrimage". And his story was that he had left Delhi on the 2nd morning in a DLY taxi summoned by Naina. He had driven to Ajmer, followed by Jaipur.
When the cops asked him to reveal the name of the temple he had visited in Ajmer, Sushil could not and made the excuse that he had visited the temple at night and didn't know which temple it was!
From Jaipur, he claimed to have taken a flight to Bombay and then to Madras. And this is where he heard for the first time that he had been implicated in his wife's murder.
He immediately hired S. Anantanarayanan as his lawyer, who moved for interim bail. And then Sushil claimed that he visited the Venkateswara temple at Tirupati where he tonsured his head and shaved off his moustache. He even presented some 'prasad' and a ticket for 'prasad' as proof of his visit. And after that, both he and his lawyer travelled to Bangalore and surrendered.
The police knew he was lying!
On July 27, 1995, the police filed a chargesheet.
On May 9, 1996, the Trial court framed charges of murder, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence against five people.
On Nov 7, 1996, Sushil Sharma was sentenced to death, while Keshav got 7 years rigorous imprisonment.
While convicting Sushil and his friend Keshav, the restaurant owner, additional sessions judge G.P. Thareja wrote in the judgement, “By burning the dead body, the accused intended that Naina Sahni should go unwept, unsung and unheard.”
Dec 2003: Sharma moves Delhi HC challenging trial court judgement
On February 19, 2007, the High Court upheld the death sentence of Sharma
On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment
On December 21, 2018, the Delhi High Court ordered "forthwith" release of Sharma
On December 22, 2018, Sushil Sharma walked out of Tihar Jail after 23 years.
The ‘Tandoor Case’ will forever be etched in the memory of Indians as one of the most heinous and shocking crimes ever.
Anirban Bhattacharyya is the Creator and Producer of the hit TV show Savdhaan India. He is also the bestselling true crime author of ‘India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery’ and ‘The Deadly Dozen: India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers’.
Follow him on: www.linktr.ee/anirbanb