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Rediff.com  » News » Sheena Bora Trial: And the SuperCop takes the stand

Sheena Bora Trial: And the SuperCop takes the stand

July 03, 2018 11:29 IST

Clusters of policemen and television journalists alertly anticipated the arrival of Mumbai's joint commissioner of police, who, it was confirmed by most people I asked, does not visit court often.
No one could remember when they had last heard of Deven Bharti appearing as a witness in a murder trial.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

 Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

On July 2, Monday, a welcoming committee awaited Deven Bharti, outside the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, at Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, in the rainy, muddy lane that has approached this august court ever since it was established in the 1870s.

He was expected to testify in the Sheena Bora murder trial.

Clusters of policemen and television journalists, their cameras eagerly poised, alertly anticipated the arrival of Mumbai's joint commissioner of police, law and order, who, it was confirmed by most people I asked, does not visit court often.

No one could remember when they had last heard of Bharti appearing as a witness in a murder trial, although he probably most certainly would have had a role to play in the Mumbai 26/11 trials.

Predictably, and ironically, the X-ray machine, at one of the entrances, was still not working, although the police security officers were checking bags a little more thoroughly on Monday.

Upstairs in Courtroom No 51, CBI Special Prosecutors Bharat Badami and Kavita Patil and CBI Investigating Officer Kaushal Kishore Singh were waiting for Bharti.

As were Gunjan Mangla, Shreyansh Mithare, Vishal Gupta and Anup Pandey, defence lawyers for Accused No 1, 2 and 4.

The accused, former Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea, his wife Indrani Mukerjea and her former husband Sanjeev Khanna were sitting outside Courtoom 51 with their innumerable police escorts.

 

It was a flood of khaki in this part of the court on Monday. The accused seemed to have supplementary security as did the courtrooms and corridors outside.

For some reason, oddly, the courtroom looked much orderly and tidy on Monday too, its chairs all neatly lined up, perhaps ready to receive this senior police officer.

CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale was hearing another short matter in the interim, when the frantic hustle and bustle in the corridor heralded the Jt CP's arrival.

Pretty much on the dot of 2.45 pm, Bharti swept in the courtroom escorted by several other assorted police personnel and officers.

He quietly sat down at the lawyers' table between Singh and Badami.

Defence lawyer Sudeep Pasbola entered a few minutes later.

Pasbola was quietly pointed out to Bharti by Singh.

Bharti and Pasbola exchanged glances of acknowledgement, but not exactly recognition, from afar.

At that precise moment the combined experience, in years, of all the officers in the room -- counting both the police and CBI officers and the officers of the court, be they lawyers or the judge -- exceeded 200 possibly.

So much collective influence and power, plus capability, was for a heady interval located in just a few square metres.

Before the matter began, Pasbola, Indrani's lawyer, got up to excuse himself from cross examining Bharti on Monday. "Sir, I have an appeal going on in the high court." He said he would be available at 4 pm on Tuesday to cross-examine Bharti.

Looking displeased, Judge Jagdale tersely said, "The court has time and again reminded you that the accused have been in jail for already three years."

He said he was under orders from the Bombay high court to expedite a trial and that "witnesses are not supposed to be harassed due to regular adjournments." But yet he was being asked for repeated adjournments.

He then grudgingly gave the lawyer his assent and Pasbola left.

Bharti, who was wearing his uniform and is the sixth prosecution witness, took the stand for the first time, placing his police cap on the stool in the witness box behind him, and gave his name, age and address to the judge and the court stenographer.

The 49-year-old commissioner, who hails apparently from north Bihar, but was educated in Ranchi and nearby Netarhat, gave his deposition in fluent Marathi.

A man of medium height, fit and slim with a youthful face, he stood, most of the time, perfectly erect during his 20 minutes in the stand, his hands straight down at his sides, almost at attention.

One star and a pair of crossed swords on his epaulets denoted his rank. The several colours on the commendation bar on his chest indicated his achievements.

He has a strong voice but not overly loud and his eyes are watchful. Policeman's eyes, one imagined, that missed little.

His tone towards Judge Jagdale was rather respectful, more markedly deferential than anyone who had been in the box before him in this trial.

In turn, Judge Jagdale was super-serious on Monday, his brow furrowed, his focus instense, as he spoke to Bharti or counter checked each statement with him.

Police officers, no matter their seniority, are once again ordinary citizens the instant they enter a court room.

Rank is left outside the door.

They are obligated to answer a judge's summons with the same alacrity, obligation and punctuality as anyone in this country.

Before a judge everyone is equal. There are no commissioners in a court room.

Bharti was asked to recount his connections with the Sheena Bora murder case.

Badami steered Bharti, effectively and swiftly, through the short testimony, in places making sure any missing detail was filled in, be it attaching a name to a 'he' or a 'she' or a date to an occurrence.

The prosecutor chose to speak in Marathi and his answers were returned mostly in Marathi by Bharti, with some English occasionally thrown in.

The main language of the courts in Maharashtra is Marathi, but Hindi and English can be equally used.

Gujarati-speaking Badami, for reasons that he put down to legal strategy, spoke to Hindi-speaking Bharti in Marathi.

Badami said he also chose Marathi for two other reasons. It is the main language of the police. And since much of this case had been argued in Marathi till date, Marathi, the prosecutor felt, was the language of continuity.

Bharti, it emerged, belonged to the 1994 batch of the Indian Police Service and had joined the Maharashtra cadre after he qualified for the IPS.

He was appointed to his current post in 2015 and had all of Mumbai city's police stations in his jurisdiction, including the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, where the investigation into Sheena Bora's alleged murder began.

Judge Jagdale verified from Badami: "How many statements (had been taken from Bharti during the investigation)?"

Badami: "Two."

Badami confirmed the dates of Bharti's statements -- October, 28, 2015 and November 26, 2015.

The police officer agreed that he along with Rakesh Maria, then Mumbai's commissioner of police, as well as others had "gone to Khar police station three or four times", following up on this case.

Later the investigation of the murder was handed over to the CBI and Bharti's association with it ended.

Bharti's earliest link to the case were when Peter and Indrani Mukerjea approached him, in 2012, to trace the mobile of a "relative" of theirs.

He said he knew who the couple was because, from 2002 to 2007, he been the Foreigner Regional Registration Officer at Mumbai.

"That time they had come to my office for visa extensions or PIO cards," he explained to the judge.

"In 2012 I was posted to the crime branch as additional commissioner crime. In April 2012 Peter Mukerjea and Indrani Mukerjea had approached me for the mobile location of one of their relatives. I directed Inspector (Nitin) Alaknure (the Khar police senior inspector who had given his testimony last week as prosecution witness 5) to find the same -- the location of the mobile."

"Accordingly I had intimated to Peter and Indrani Mukerjea the location as provided by Inspector Alaknure."

"After two or three days Peter and Indrani Mukerjea informed me that the same relative had been found and asked me not to proceed (any further). Accordingly I instructed Alaknure."

Three years later the Mukerjeas once again walked across his radar, in entirely different although strangely related circumstances, when "I visited the Khar police station in 2015."

"At that time I told Alaknure that it appears that number that was given to him (Alaknure) for tracing that belonged to a relative of Peter and Indrani Mukerjea was connected with the same case."

Bharat Badami asked Bharti if he could identify the Mukerjeas. He said he could and, in what seemed a deliberately impassive manner, pointed to them in the back of the courtroom without actually looking into their faces.

Peter's face was blank too.

Indrani, wearing gleaming white again and a bright red bindi, red rubber chappals, looked tickled and offered the room in general a big smile, maybe enjoying her tiny fresh moment in the sun, on a grey cloudy day.

Badami mentioned to Bharti that Peter and Indrani Mukerjea were Accused 1 and Accused No 4.

With the identification of the accused done, the first part of Bharti's testimony concluded.

Ten minutes went in figuring out how Tuesday would unfold.

The judge asked Ayaz Khan, who is also Indrani's lawyer, why he could not do the cross examination, since the testimony was a short one. Khan demurred saying Pasbola would handle it on Tuesday.

Judge Jagdale questioned Anup Pandey where Peter's lawyer Shrikant Shivade was and why he could not begin his cross-examination of Bharti, then and there.

He was told Shivade would conduct his cross examination along with Pasbola on Tuesday.

Judge Jagdale made a face. He looked exasperated and aggravated. Delays always annoy him tremendously.

His displeasure with the defence was sharp.

Badami joined in and emphasised, "We have been very accommodatingggggggggg", playing on the word in exaggeration. "And are not taking objection..." He didn't add the 'but'. His meaning was clear without it.

Given that this case has around 200 witnesses or more, the objective is that the time spent, between the prosecution and the defence, on each witness be pared down some.

Unforeseen and inexorable postponements will always make trial schedules go haywire in Mumbai be it an excess of monsoon rain, traffic or a shortage of resources or manpower.

Hence the abiding need for a judge and the lawyers on a case to take powerful ownership of the parts that can be speeded up in this legal process, like tackling witnesses with smaller testimonies quickly, an advocate explained to me.

In ideal circumstances, several witnesses, who might have very little evidence to offer, could be cleared in a day. That certainly didn't happen on Monday.

Tuesday was the only day available next for Bharti to appear for his cross-examination Badami said to the judge and the defence.

After that he would be busy with the Maharashtra legislature's monsoon session in Nagpur.

Bharti put on his cap, gave Judge Jagdale an elegant salute and departed as swiftly as he came, trailed by his juniors, only stopping to confer with Singh for a few minutes.

The accused stayed on till 4 pm meeting their lawyers.

A few doors down, the Tulsiram Prajapati alleged fake encounter trial, was struggling, at that time, with its own delays and challenges, as another witness turned hostile, reminding one of what a lawyer had agonisingly mentioned just a few minutes before "Trials are not enough about justice."

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com