Indian MP Shashi Tharoor charged with abetting wife's suicide

Delhi police file charges against high-profile politician more than four years after her death

Ex-junior minister for external affairs and Congress Party's Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor (R) with his wife Sunanda Pushkar arrive at parliament for the opening of the budget session in New Delhi on March 12, 2012. Budget session for the Indian parliament began with the general budget to be tabled on March 16. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH / AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH

Indian police have charged opposition MP Shashi Tharoor with abetting the suicide of his wife Sunanda Pushkar, who died in unclear circumstances in a Delhi hotel room four years ago.

Mr Tharoor, 62, was also accused of marital cruelty in a charge sheet submitted to a metropolitan magistrate's court by Delhi police on Monday.

The court will examine the charges next week to decide whether they can be taken into a full trial.

The charge sheet concludes that Pushkar, 51, killed herself and was not murdered, as alleged in several conspiracy theories swirling around her death on January 17, 2014.

Mr Tharoor found his wife’s body in a room at the Leela Palace hotel, where the couple were living while their house was being renovated. The body was reported to have borne marks of injuries, but an autopsy determined that the cause of death was an overdose of sedatives and other medication.

The couple had been married for four years, having met in Dubai in 2009. It was the third marriage for both of them. They had been in a phase of personal strife at the time of Pushkar's death. She had taken to Twitter two days before to accuse a Pakistani journalist of stalking her husband. The couple subsequently released a joint statement claiming that they were happily married and that Pushkar had been unwell, suffering from an auto-immune disease.

Her death took a political twist later in 2014, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unseated the Congress from power in parliamentary elections. Supporters of the BJP had frequently hinted that Mr Tharoor may have poisoned or otherwise killed Pushkar himself.

Mr Tharoor described the charges filed on Monday as “preposterous” and said he would “contest it vigorously”.

“No one who knew Sunanda believes she would ever have committed suicide, let alone abetment on my part,” he wrote on Twitter. “If this is conclusion arrived at after 4+ yrs of investigation, it does not speak well of the methods or motivations of the Delhi Police.”

Randeep Surjewala, a Congress spokesman, said the Delhi police were being used as a tool of political vendetta by the BJP. The case that Mr Tharoor drove his wife to suicide was weak, Mr Surjewala said. “There was no suicide note. Is there a statement of any other witness?”

The crime of abetting suicide carries a maximum prison term of ten years under Indian law. Marital cruelty can be punished by up to three years in prison.

But proving that a person abetted another’s suicide, creating the kind of circumstances that directly instigated someone to kill herself, can be very nebulous, said Satyajit Sarna, a lawyer practising in Delhi.

“If a person leaves a suicide note naming someone directly as being responsible, then there’s at least a basis for framing these charges and proceeding to trial,” he said. Without a note, proving “that you’ve forced someone to kill themselves, or created a situation in which they have no way out” becomes significantly harder, he added.

The law on abetting suicide is an old one, dating from 1860, and is most often used in cases where daughters-in-law kill themselves after their husbands’ families harass them for dowry payments.

“The abetment of suicide charge is really the least you can do to connect someone to a death,” Mr Sarna said. “I don’t know if they’ll be able to make it stick, to be honest.”

Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader who has accused Mr Tharoor of murdering Pushkar, claimed that witnesses and documents proving the alleged crime had been destroyed by the Congress-led government before it was voted out in the summer of 2014.

“On the basis of current evidence, this is what could be done,” he told the ANI news agency. “More information will come out during the trial.”

The case has drawn widespread attention because of Mr Tharoor's high profile as a former government minister, prolific author and one-time contender for the top post at the UN, where he had a distinguished career before quitting in 2007.