In the wee hours of 29 April, a white Toyota Corolla Altis crashed into a concrete structure after mounting a pavement in south Kolkata at considerable speed, resulting in the death of one passenger, and injuries to another. It would have been written off as just another case of reckless driving by the city's rich and entitled youths out for a joyride at 3 AM, but for the occupants of the car.
The next day the city tabloids were buzzing with the news of the death of 28-year-old model and actor Sonika Singh Chauhan, a familiar face in television and newspaper. Her friend and actor Vikram Chatterjee, 30, who was behind the wheel on the night of the accident, was injured. The reportage in local media has sparked off a frenzied debate on the case and the Bharatiya Janata Party has accused the ruling Trinamool Congress of going easy on Vikram because he's a popular actor.
Vikram was booked under Section 304A (causing death by negligence) and 279 (rash driving) of the Indian Penal Code. He is out on bail on paying a bond of Rs 1,000 after surrendering before a court in Kolkata.Four friends of Chauhan have told the police in their statements that Vikram had consumed alcohol on 29 April when all of them were partying. Police say that there is almost no contradiction in their statements.
According to police sources, Sonika along with two women friends first went to The Myx, in the Park Street area, where they had a few drinks. From here, they went to Phoenix at The Astor Hotel, which is close by, on Camac Street area, where they met two male friends apart from Vikram, who were all waiting outside.
Here, they ate food and consumed alcohol. According to the claims, the two male friends did not drink here, but Vikram had four pegs of Old Monk rum. Police seized the bill from the bar authorities, and even interrogated the bartender. The bill shows four pegs of rum, and it was paid by one of the two men (not Vikram). The video footage of the session that police have come across, shows Vikram with a glass of drink.
From here, all the six friends went to Hotel Hindustan International (HHI) on AJC Bose Road. This too, is not far from Camac Street-Park Street area. According to the statement of friends, Vikram took a glass of drink here too, but there is no confirmation in their statement what drink it was and whether or not it was alcoholic. All of them left HHI at 2:15 am – Sonika and Vikram in the latter's car, and the four others in different vehicles.
The accident took place at 3:33 am on Rash Behari Avenue – approximately six to seven kilometre from HHI where they were last with their friends, and police as well as Sonika's friends so far assume that she and Vikram were taking a spin around the city in the car. However, CCTV footage have not yet been able to zero in on Vikram's car – and could not figure out the route his car took from HHI to Rash Behari Avenue where the accident took place. Sonika was taken to the hospital, but she died in less than two hours.
It is evident that confirmation of Vikram's alcohol intake can be made only through blood sample (apart from whether he admits to it in his statement to the police).
Vikram's blood sample was collected by Ruby General Hospital authorities where he was admitted. Police authorities say this was done within 24 hours of the alleged consumption of alcohol, and this sample has been sent it to the State Forensic Science Laboratory in Kolkata. The blood sample determining the level of alcohol in blood will be ascertained once this report comes.
Technical experts from the State Forensic Science Laboratory in Kolkata have also checked the mangled car and are currently ascertaining its speed when the accident took place. This would establish if Vikram was indeed speeding, and whether the accident was a result of that.
Sources said that the Toyota Corolla Altis has a special device, an EDR (event data recorder), which can reveal the exact speed of the car when the accident took place. Officials say that only the company experts will be able to get the data from the system which Forensic Sciences Laboratory experts could not retrieve. As a result, the Forensic Sciences Laboratory authorities have got in touch with Toyota company authorities and some experts from the company will come down from Bangalore to Kolkata in a couple of days.
The Mamata Banerjee government has been criticised by BJP leaders that the charges slapped on Vikram were mild. The chief minister had asked minister Aroop Biswas to visit the actor immediately after the accident, leading to allegations that the government is going soft on the actor. When singer Kalikaprasad Bhattacharya was killed in a car accident earlier this year, the driver was slapped with Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) which can lead to ten years' imprisonment.
However, Vikram was slapped with charges under Section 304A and 279. According to a senior official of Kolkata Police who is investigating the case, "Vikram and Sonika were known to each other. They were friends, partying together, and Vikram was himself was injured in the accident, and he could even have died in it. Therefore, it would have been difficult to prove in court that he had caused the accident intentionally. In nature, it did not appear culpable homicide".
The television actor had held a press conference where he claimed he was neither speeding, nor had he consumed alcohol. Several questions remain unanswered, and as the probe progresses, a clearer picture will emerge.