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Sheena Bora finally makes an appearance

September 14, 2017 09:39 IST

There it lay, a photograph on the desk under a stapler, and later a stamp pad, forgotten, done with, like its subject, a Mumbai Metro One employee who vanished overnight.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Her face is perky.

She smiles brightly.

Shining black hair falls almost to her shoulders.

Of medium height, she is wearing a sleeveless, cropped black top and jeans.

Via a solitary, slightly crumpled photograph, not her best, Sheena Bora, who lived most of her life as a sister rather than a daughter, finally made her maiden appearance in the murder trial at Courtroom 51 of the Kala Ghoda sessions court, Wednesday, September 13, eight months after it began and five years after she was killed.

Looking at the photograph it was hard to believe she was dead.

Her picture came out of one of those brown government envelopes, with many wax seals on it.

The envelope, as per proper court procedure, was first placed before Special CBI Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale.

After it was opened for him and he looked at it, through the court clerks, he handed it down to the lawyers' bench, into the hands of the defence.

Each lawyer glanced at it, carefully examining its rear, where it said Poonam Labs (there is one in Worli, central Mumbai, where Sheena once lived), looking for a non-existent date.

The fact that the print actually existed, when most photographs have been digital for many years now, suggested that it might be quite old.

An unidentified man in a suit stands outside the focus of the picture. He seems to have ambled in last minute and was not meant to be part of the image.

This photograph, which was not as fetching as some of the cuter pics available of Sheena in the public domain, was one of the items picked up by the Khar police from the Mukerjeas' former driver Shyamvar Rai's home in Mosambi Tabela, Vakola East, north west Mumbai, after his arrest in 2015, along with his driver's license and Aadhaar card.

It is the picture Rai justified, a few weeks ago in court, having in his possession as he said he usually kept pictures of those he drove for, though none of his other charges/employers were found.

After five defence advocates passed it among themselves, one by one, the photograph was then placed before Rai.

He was asked by Sudeep Pasbola, Indrani Mukerjea's trial lawyer, if that was the picture of Sheena Bora that the police took from his home two years ago.

He agreed, without hedging, that it was.

The luckless Sheena's picture didn't seem to produce much curiosity or anticipation in the trio in the accused enclosure.

Or sadness.

No one craned to look at it. But Sanjeev Khanna, Indrani and Peter Mukerjea are located so far in the back of the room, craning would not have helped them see any bit of the picture.

Surprisingly too, they were not shown this case exhibit either, given it is their trial.

After the viewing by Rai, the picture was given back to the court clerks.

There it lay, on the desk under a stapler, and later a stamp pad, forgotten, done with, like its subject, a Mumbai Metro One employee who vanished overnight.

With that Sheena's presence too, once again, seeped away from Courtroom 51.  

You could almost imagine you could see her stealing softly out of the room, pausing at the door to give the people seated there for her trial a smile and a wave, before gliding off headed for oblivion.

The girl in the picture was the reason why we were all in that room on Wednesday.

As months get added to this trial, I now know more about a Chhindwara farmer-turned ice cream seller-turned-driver-turned-murderer-turned-State-witness named Shyamvar Pinturam Rai than I do about the girl who was murdered and for whom Rai stands in the witness box as approver.

Wednesday was a hugely busy day for this case.

Six hours were spent in arguments and cross questioning before Judge Jagdale across two sessions.

It was a strange day for Courtroom 51. Twenty-four policeman milled about, most of them outside the door, where Indrani and Sanjeev sat, with Rai and Peter some distance away.

A policewoman held a scanner and checked anyone entering the room. No one could explain the additional police detail. One policewoman told me that for security reasons the escort for the accused had been stepped up.

Judge Jagdale shed light on the extra police swarming about. He asked the court clerk to summon CBI Investigating Officer K K Singh into the room. He told Singh and the rest of the court, with a reassuring smile, that they must have been wondering about the extra security.

"We received a call" the judge said and went on to explain that there had been a threat that a bomb had been placed somewhere near Courtroom 51 and 50. A similar call was also received on Wednesday at the Mumbai high court two blocks away.

Before lunch, Peter Mukerjea's lawyer Shrikant Shivade, along with CBI Prosecutors Bharat Badami and Kavita Patil, spent 90 minutes arguing the necessity of securing the Khar police station case diaries, loosely termed CDs, for the murder trial.

This was a continuation of an argument begun first on Monday, then on Tuesday, on the same topic. It is also the fourth or fifth time this matter has come up at the sessions court and at the Bombay high court too, largely because of Shivade's steely persistence.

Both Tuesday and Wednesday's arguments focused largely on legal procedure and were all about the technicalities of court practices.

Resonating terms like 'ensure fairness of the investigation', 'to have checks and counter checks', 'satisfy the court', 'correct position of the law', 'in the interest of justice' were bandied about liberally both days.

Arguing law processes is a high octane, purely legal domain where Shivade obviously excels -- given that his arguments finally carried the day a few months ago when it was being argued that Khar Constable Ganesh Dalvi, a case witness, could not give any evidence relating to what Rai had said to him since he was an approver.

The matter was referred to the high court and they agreed with Shivade.

Apart from the fact that Shivade is his lawyer, the technicalities of court method interested Peter quite a bit, as he hung over the accused enclosure's railing on Tuesday listening in rapt attention to every QED Shivade pulled out of his legal hat with a wave of his soft, elegant hands, while Sanjeev and Indrani seemed mildly tuned out.

Basically every Indian police station is directed to maintain a variety of diaries/logs.

Police officers have case diaries, personal diaries, weekly diaries, as does apparently the police station too.

In these diaries is recorded each activity done in relation to a case or the work of the day/week.

Case diaries are sort of the vehicles of an investigation or the documented path along which an investigation starts up and are not normally produced in a trial.

They trace an investigation from its rawest form. From case diaries evolve First Information Reportss and 161s under the Criminal Procedure Code etc.

But since the Sheena Bora case began life initially as an investigation into Rai's possession of an illegal weapon -- the katta or country revolver, for which he was first apprehended in 2015 -- there were two cases, with multiple case diaries.

So far the case diary relating to the arms charge has been off limits to the defence lawyers working on the murder case.

But those diaries are of specific interest to the defence precisely because there are two cases here though they are interlinked.

It seemed that Shivade and Company feel certain that the arms case diary will unearth a bunch of contradictions between what Rai said to the police first in the arms case and what he said later in the murder case that Khar police Constables Ganesh Dalvi and Dinesh Kadam recorded.

"We want to confront the approver with his first possible statement," Shivade said in a reasonable voice, gesturing again with those delicate hands, his ring flashing.

Secondly since Kadam and Dalvi are also witnesses Shivade claimed they had "no other check on their statements. We want to confront Dalvi with his previous statement" in the CD.

Summoning a case diary of another case is a bit of a legal no-go area.

Shivade had maintained that what Rai said first to the constables would be in those case diaries and therefore amounted to being his very first statement to the police.

If Judge Jagdale and the prosecution agreed to his assertion the very definition of a case diary could change.

On the face of it, Judge Jagdale, who intently heard Shivade's arguments, taking notes, did not seem convinced and would be reluctant to agree, even though he said placatingly, "If I accept your argument the CD has to be produced. You have every right (to ask for them) provided you satisfy the court."

The arguments supporting it were all in by 2 pm and with the judge for him to mull over.

Shivade, who cited several precedents or leaned on several aspects of previous judgments pointed out that "the evidence of an approver is most important. To impeach its credibility we need to uses all legal means to find out what the truth is."

"What comes before the court is not always the truth."

He said his client was facing a sentence of capital punishment and all efforts had to be made to make sure justice prevailed.

Judge Jagdale asked Shivade with a sharp, challenging look: "Do you want to say it is the rarest of rare cases?"

Shivade, in a less emphatic tone but still firm: "The charge is capital punishment."

The lawyer planned to submit a few more citations in a few days for Judge Jagdale's perusal.

Badami, serious and stern, his eyes missing their usual mischievous gleam, in turn, set forth his two key rebuttals, building up grounds for Judge Jagdale's denial of Shivade's request.

Opening up a case diary, Badami argued, could severely endanger his witnesses and "my police officers" that a "CD is the mirror of an investigation and not the final proof" and using it would be like using a "back door."

Secondly, he suggested that the cases were not actually separate -- one case was "an offshoot" of the other.

A few days earlier, Shivade quickly pointed out, Badami had said the cases were separate.

The CBI prosecutor also added that the arms case was about the katta Rai had illegally in his possession, but that the katta was not the murder weapon and therefore that made its case less important.

In spite of the session being dully weighed down by the arcane nature of these arguments there were lively moments.

Like when Badami made a startling statement against the use of the CD, that had everyone in the room sitting up in their chairs, momentarily forgetting their thoughts about lunch, including the judge and especially Shivade, some sneaking small grins.

"We have not closed our investigation," Badami announced. That doesn't necessarily mean we are sleeping. It is going on."

Asked Judge Jagdale, his eyes twinkling, his puzzled smile unable to take quick refuge under his shaggy moustache, "Should I take a note that the investigation is going on?"

Shivade aghast: "Have you heard of a trial and investigation going on together? Stop the trial otherwise it will be a mockery!"

Judge Jagdale offered in conciliation that Badami was probably speaking about a hypothetical situation.

When the court broke for lunch, the issue of Indrani's meal arose.

She, Sanjeev and Peter had been in court well before noon. They were, of course, hungry.

Peter was well set. Since his low sugar issues have been acknowledged and accepted by the court, he sat down to eat the sandwiches and fruit his sister Shangon Das Gupta brought him in her black rucksack.

Security considerations dictate that regardless of the length of a day in court, undertrials are not allowed to eat without special written permission.

This is mostly overlooked -- one sees scores of poorer prisoners seated on staircases, or the corridor floors, tucking contentedly into dabbas of biryani or roti and sabzi brought by their caring families on the lower floors.

Judges give oral permission allowing the undertrials their food, as did Judge Jagdale on Wednesday.

Badami was not having anything of it. He kept insisting it was a security risk for Indrani to eat. Probably since Indrani and sometimes Sanjeev don't have anyone to bring them a dabba.

Badami: "You can't eat unless someone tastes your food."

Indrani: "You taste it. Or she can (indicating the lady police escort)."

Gunjan Mangla (Indrani's lawyer, repeating): "You taste it. Or she can."

Badami to Gunjan: "You taste it."

Gunjan: "Why should I taste it?"

Badami to Indrani: "Have fruits."

Indrani: "Where will I get fruits? And I am on medication. What are you going to eat?"

Badami: "I don't eat."

Indrani very sweetly: "Aap kyon nahin khate? (Why don't you eat?)"

Finally it was worked out with the more kindly policewoman in charge that Sanjeev's cousin, who Indrani seemed to call Lucky or Lucks, if I heard right, would taste the food.

If he didn't die they could tuck in.

The canteen man, magically, in about ten minutes flat, rustled up two steel plates of warm puri-bhaji with gravy, and brought them over just as the very tall Judge Jagdale, minus his black robes, emerged from his chambers and loped down the hall, perhaps towards a tastier lunchtime offering somewhere else in the building.

When a judge walks down the hall of a court, even in civvies, everyone silently stands up and position themselves flat against the wall to make way for him.

Also, food/chai is never allowed in an in-session courtroom, even for a judge.

Post-lunch was Day 10 of Sudeep Pasbola's cross questioning of Rai. It began, as mentioned earlier, with Sheena's photograph.

Then Rai's Aadhaar card and driver's license, which each had different addresses, were examined.

It was revealed that Rai could not remember -- "Yaad nahin" -- what documents he used to get himself a license issued in 1997.

He was asked what documents he still had to show for where he resided.

Rai for the first time was truly a picture of genuine confusion.

In a small voice he tentatively offered, "Par mein jail mein hoon (But I am in jail)."

After that Rai's life story was verified through a Q and A with Pasbola.

It was a wretched, snakes-and-ladders tale and so illustrative of how very hard it is for poor, semi-literate people to come up in India, only to have prosperity elude them or ultimately fail, as Rai did, landing himself in jail, with only bizarre explanations for his actions.

After high school, Rai never studied further nor did he seem to have passed the school-leaving exams he gave in Danwa, Madhya Pradesh.

Farming didn't seem a workable option either. Finally his brother Virender drove up to his village in a truck in 1993 and brought him to Mumbai.

In Mumbai Rai couldn't find any kind of work.

Pasbola, painting him not-that-subtly, through his interrogation, as a shiftless, good for nothing, asked him if he eventually became an ice cream hawker.

Rai denied it, but said he did hang out with people who sold ice cream.

He got his first job as a peon for Rs 600, but quit that after six months.

Rai said he could not remember his first salary though it was a struggle to find this first job.

He finally took lessons towards getting a driving license but found no driving work because he didn't know the city or its roads -- and still doesn't, Pasbola whispered with a chuckle to his colleagues.

At last Rai got his first temporary job as a driver. His driving assignments improved until he was thrown out of employment when his Standard Chartered Bank executive employer was transferred abroad.

He often shuttled between village and city, doing more kinds of fill-in work till he started his employment with Indrani for a handsome Rs 10,000 that went up to eventually Rs 12,000 with an extra Rs 3,000 thrown in for keeping an eye on their residence at Marlow when the Mukerjeas were not in town.

The extra Rs 3,000 was a source of acrimony and controversy, in more ways than one.

Rai said he had to tussle with Indrani to get it paid.

Secondly in his statement to the police he said he needed money and Indrani denied it.

In court he clarified that this was about the held back Rs 3,000, but Pasbola immediately hit back saying he never told the police that and showed him his statement to prove it.

The final item on the agenda on Wednesday caused a minor uproar.

Pasbola suddenly pulled out a wad of photographs much to Badami's indignation.

"Taking photographs out of your pocket is not good! And you have not supplied them to us. Or made an application!"

Pasbola, still irate from not having received certain case statements from Badami, and in a sort of wayward stick-out-your-tongue mood, said impishly, "The pot is calling the kettle black! They are pictures of the Marlow garages" and added he would give copies of the photographs to Badami later because he needed to understand from Rai the height of the walls around the garages since Rai was unable to estimate.

Badami took off, "What is the use of giving them to me later? There are any number of Marlows in the world! Not just one single Marlow! Walls are there everywhere!"

The various Mukerjeas and their relatives in the court room grinned.

Judge Jagdale chided them both for useless chatter and allowed the photographs into the court because he said it would aid the cross process and help jog Rai's memory.

There were seven pictures.

A long discussion ensued on which garage was which, which faced the road, distances, heights of walls, the access and exit route to garages, who in the building parked where, how many cars who had and what could be seen from Indrani's garage etc (it was always referred to as "Indrani Madam's garage", as if Peter had not part in the ownership).

Indrani, dressed in pale green and white, whose idea it perhaps was to get the photographs taken, looked as smug as a well-fed cat, as some progress was made in the cross questioning via the photographs.

It was also oddly quite a different Rai speaking from the witness stand while looking at these pictures.

He was much more animated, giving longer and more exact answers, than he had ever given before and not a single "yaad nahin" was uttered.

Perhaps, as a fellow reporter pointed out, he was on much surer, safer, ground and therefore had found his tongue.

At one point Rai held up a picture of the garages and as he looked at it, a slow nostalgic but melancholy smile crossed his face, almost like he was looking at a place he once loved.

Badami, still looking like a child who had been denied his toy, was finally passed a set of the pictures and Wednesday's edition of Rai's cross examination came to a close.

Six hours spent in court meant long sessions in the corridors for Peter, Indrani and Sanjeev on Wednesday.

Peter -- who looked mildly different, swapping his formal white and khaki for cream and khaki, wearing a fashionable shirt -- used this treasured extra time to have a long affectionate chat with his devoted sister.

Sanjeev and his cousin poured systematically over his legal papers.

K K Singh spoke, at length, to all of the accused separately.

Sanjeev, who had been quite upset over the immense and apparently unnecessary delay in getting his CDMs (the request for CDMs was mistaken for CDs) spoke to Singh about how he needed time to do "research on them."

Indrani, who must have once been an exotic butterfly on the South Bombay cocktail circuit, now uses her charm and effervescence to conquer the grimy court hallways, batting her eyelashes at the garrulous Badami or the mild-mannered Singh whose hooded eyes miss nothing.

She even chatted up a junior CBI officer, asking him teasingly why he had taken to wearing brighter colours.

Everyone got quality time with their lawyers and even each other's lawyers.

The next hearing is on Tuesday, September 19.

In the interim one or two things may happen. Judge Jagdale said, with a smile, that he was going away on a five-day training session.

Indrani too may be headed out of town, to the dismay of her escorts (5 or 6 of them will travel with her).

As one lawyer put it with a mischievous glint in his eye, "Madam is going away."

Indrani could travel to Goa or New Delhi to be questioned in the Karti Chidambaram disproportionate asset case.

EARLIER IN THE TRIAL

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com in Mumbai