Shashi Tharoor, a former member of parliament from India's main opposition Congress party. Photo: Reuters/ Anindito Mukherjee
Shashi Tharoor, a former member of parliament from India's main opposition Congress party. Photo: Reuters/ Anindito Mukherjee

Former Member of Indian Parliament and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has been charged with aiding in the suicide of his wife, a Dubai-based business executive whose body was found in a five-star hotel in Delhi more than four years ago.

Patiala House Court in Delhi said on Tuesday there were “sufficient” grounds to proceed against Tharoor under Section 306 (Cruelty to Wife) and 498 A (Abetment of Suicide) of the Indian Penal Code. He is the sole accused in the police charge sheet, which runs to around 3,000 pages.

Tharoor was ordered to appear in the court on July 7. He said in a Twitter tweet he would “vigorously” defend himself, adding: “I find the charges preposterous and baseless, the product of malicious & vindictive campaign against myself”.

The timing could not be worse for Congress, as the case could tarnish the party’s reputation during the 2019 general elections if Tharoor is found guilty. The cruelty charge can carry a jail term of three years, and abetment to suicide a sentence of up 10 years.

Sunanda Pushkar was found dead by Tharoor and two aides on January 17, 2014, with an initial post-mortem suggesting that she might have died from a drug overdose. As many as 27 Alprax tablets   were found in her room, but it wasn’t clear how many she had taken.

Subsequent reports emerged of injuries to Pushkar’s body, including a bite mark on her left palm and signs of injections, which had not caused her death. Doctors who did the autopsy said that she died an unnatural and sudden death.

However, the lead doctor, Dr. Sudhir Gupta of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences forensic medicine department, said he had been  pressured to alter Pushkar’s post-mortem report, though this was denied by the hospital where it was performed.

The police charge sheet alleges that Pushkar was subjected to mental and physical cruelty which led to her committing suicide. On Tuesday the court was told that emails and social media posts by Pushkar before her death should be seen as “a dying declaration”.

In one e-mail sent to Tharoor nine days before she died, Pushkar had said: “I don’t care about the test. I have no desire to live … all I pray for is death.” The “test” referred to medical tests Pushkar was undergoing because of her ailments, and police said it was evidence Tharoor had abetted in her suicide and subjected her to mental cruelty.

The private life of the couple, who married in 2010, spilled into the public arena even before Pushkar’s death, when she reportedly used her husband’s Twitter account to publish tweets allegedly sent to him by a Pakistani journalist called Mehr Tarar that inferred they were having an affair. Pushkar even accused Tarar of being an agent for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organization.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Special Public Prosecutor Atul Shrivastava referred to Section 113A of the Indian Evidence Act and told the court: “It is presumed that if she has committed suicide, she must have been subjected to cruelty before death. Court may take cognisance of this fact that it is a case of abetment, as the death has taken place within seven years of the marriage, and under the law, a case of abetment is made out.”

Tharoor, then a Union minister, wrote to then Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde in 2014 pledging his “full and unstinting cooperation” with the investigation into Pushkar’s death. He also said that he was “horrified” to read the speculation being circulated in Indian media.

On Tuesday Tharoor asked the media to respect his right to privacy.