Peter's lawyer paints Indrani as a master manipulator, looking to waste the court's time.'
'She is "trying to exonerate herself," the lawyer argues, and accuses Indrani of "trying to lay a trap" for Peter "and attempting to malign his reputation"...'
Savera R Someshwar reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
At 2.30 pm on November 27, the long corridor leading to Courtroom 51 on the third floor of the five-storied civil and sessions court in south Mumbai was deserted.
The afternoon sun had crept in, its rays finding dusty corners, but there was no clang of the lift's gate, no stomp of policemen's boots, no buzz of their conversation as they guarded the three prisoners whose case, The State vs Indrani Mukerjea/Pari/Indrani Bora/Indrani Das/Indrani Khanna and others as well as vs Pratim Mukerjea/Peter Mukerjea, was due to due be heard before Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale.
There was no Indrani Mukerjea, her sharp eyes darting around, flashing an occasional smile, seemingly missing nothing as she either whispered to her ex-husband and co-accused Sanjeev Khanna, shuffled through some documents on her lap or spoke animatedly to Gunjan Mangla, a young lawyer working with Sudeep Pasbola, who is spearheading her defence and doing a mostly patient job of cross-examining Accused Number 3, now turned Approver, and formerly the Mukherjeas's driver, Shyamvar Pinturam Rai.
There was no bespectacled Sanjeev Khanna, whose daughter Vidhie has been adopted by his ex-wife's present husband Peter Mukerjea, clutching a cloth bag, either sitting quietly next to Indrani or chatting with his minders or his Bengaluru-based brother, who tag-teams with his Mumbai-based cousin, to lend moral support, bring in a change of clothes or some food for his imprisoned brother.
And there certainly was no Peter Mukerjea, once a big shot in the world of Indian television, dressed in his by now trademark khakhi trousers and white shirt, tucking into a warm box of food or carefully diced fruit, almost usually brought for him by his Bengaluru-based sister, Shangon Das Gupta.
But seated on a bench, waiting patiently, was Peter's lawyer Srikanth Shivade who had arrived from Pune -- a journey that could take you about four hours by road if one is not constrained by traffic -- and faced the shut door of Courtroom 51.
There was confusion if the hearing for the day would take place in Courtroom 51 and whether the hearing -- where the judge would listen to the response from Peter's lawyer, the counter-response from Indrani's lawyer and, finally, the response from CBI Prosecutor Bharat Badami -- was actually listed in the docket for the day.
"We won't go in if the matter is not going to be heard," Shivade tells his assistant, who quickly, if with some effort, pushes open the groaning door of Courtroom 51.
A few minutes later, there is a flurry of activity and Shivade is standing before Judge Jagdale who wants him to proceed on the matter of placing his reply to Indrani's dramatic application, presented before the court on November 15, immediately.
Shivade is reluctant to do so until Pasbola arrives.
As Judge Jagdale, with his calm, gentle, smile, urges Shivade to begin, Pasbola whirls in, "deeply apologetic" for having lost track of the date of the hearing.
He requests the judge to postpone the hearing by a day to give him time to prepare.
"But he is prepared," the judge says firmly, nodding at Shivade.
The lawyer for Accused No 1, Indrani Mukerjea, however, does get 24 additional hours to frame his reply as Shivade proceeds.
He begins his reply to Indrani's appeal, where she has requested for Peter's call data records for the periods of the year Sheena Bora was allegedly murdered -- January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012; according to the CBI chargesheet, Sheena was murdered on April 24, 2014 (How and Why Sheena was killed, according to the CBI) -- and from January 1, 2015, to December 31, 2015, the year the Mukerjeas were arrested.
Indrani was arrested on August 25, 2015. Peter was arrested on November 19 the same year.
Shivade quickly paints Indrani as a master manipulator, looking to waste the court's time and use the media to manipulate public perception about his client. "They want this relief, but they don't have any reason," he says.
By this time, CBI Prosecutors Kavita Patil and Badami -- who has 31 years of experience as public prosecutor and been prosecuting cases for the CBI since 1991 -- are in their chairs.
"She is trying to exonerate herself," Shivade argues, and accuses her of "trying to lay a trap" for Peter "and attempting to malign his reputation... She wants a backdoor entry so that she can file her next appeal in the matter."
He terms "her attempt to influence the media and create a prejudice against any one accused as nothing short of criminal contempt of the court."
Indrani, Shivade states, earlier attempted to malign Peter's younger son Rahul as well. He questions why her appeal was not filed by Indrani's lawyers, but by the accused herself. "... Shows that her lawyers are not agreeing. It is her personal strategy."
"We do not want to indulge in any mudslinging which will only be enjoyed by the media," Shivade says. "We have nothing to hide."
As long as the "legal procedures are followed and the legal grounds are there, calling for the CDRs are fine by me," he adds. But the reasons for calling for the CDRs, he points out, "have not been connected."
Charging Indrani with trying to "delay and distort" the court proceedings, he states that her allegations against his client "are not admissible."
He also points out that her personal, handwritten, letter to Peter a few weeks earlier could not be considered "a privileged communication between a husband and wife" since it was all over the media and that it was yet another attempt do destroy Peter's image in the public perception.
If she continued to attempt to manipulate the media to create a negative perception about his client, Shivade warns, "We will have to request an in-camera trial."
With the next hearing scheduled for November 28, for which Shivade has excused himself, stating that his assistant will make any replies that are needed, Peter's lawyer leaves the courtroom.
Outside the courtroom's moisture-swollen door that gets stubbornly stuck before moving open gratingly, Shivade and Pasbola's assistant are engaged in a quick discussion about the day's proceedings.
"She must withdraw and file in the proper format on proper grounds," Shivade says.
"We cannot withdraw," Pasbola's assistant replies, "she has to..."
Inside the courtroom, Judge Jagdale wants to know from Badami who his next witness is. Badami evades an answer.
The judge is persistent. "Is there going to be any other witness as detailed as this one (Shyamvar Rai, the Mukerjeas' former driver)?"
Badami smiles and shrugs, "We shall see as we go along."
"I don't want to reveal my hand," the CBI prosecutor says later. "Besides, depending on how the case proceeds, I may even decide to change the order of the witnesses."
If Indrani was presented as a manipulator on November 27, the next day she was "a mother who wanted justice for her daughter" and "emotionally distressed because of the amount of time she had spent in prison."
Sudeep Pasbola, her lawyer, may have been more than half an hour late, but quickly gets to the point. "There is no malice or ulterior motive in my client's application," he tells the court.
Nothing untoward, he insists, should be read into the fact that this latest application was filed by the accused in person instead of it being filed through her lawyers.
"It is not that my advice or opinion is final. She may have instructed us, but we didn't... This does not mean it (her application) cannot be heard by the court. It should be seen if it will help the cause of justice."
He also clarifies that "it is a not a fishing enquiry or that we are trying to find information against a particular accused. Since there is a charge of criminal conspiracy, we are asking for the CDR."
He also points out that since the CDRs of Accused 1 (Indrani) and Accused 3 (Rai) are were filed along with the chargesheet, and additional CDRs of Accused 2 (Khanna) are being obtained, there was no reason to object to the CDRs of Accused 4 (Peter).
The dock that normally houses the three accused is empty -- Peter is not straining to hear the proceeding; Indrani is not seated there, her mobile face reacting to the proceedings; Sanjeev is not there seated, as he nowadays is, between the warring husband and wife.
The front rows in the courtroom are masked in black and white as lawyers file in to hear the arguments.
Countering the CBI's contention that this is an attempt to negatively affect the concentration of the accused-turned-approver (Shyamvar Rai) whose cross-examination by Pasbola is in progress, the lawyer asks, "How will the concentration of Rai get affected? Unless he has not told the truth and this new information may help" to reveal that.
Pasbola repeatedly underlines that Indrani is not making any accusations against Peter. "Any error (in the wording of her application) may be condoned because she is not a lawyer. I emphasise that today we are not accusing Accused 4."
And since Peter has repeatedly said he has nothing to hide, why should there be any objection on his part to making his CDRs part of the record, asks Pasbola.
Judge Jagdale points out that the application, Exhibit 189, has "other wording".
Indrani, in her application, has stated that she has 'strong reasons to believe that Accused No 4, Pratim Mukerjea, with the assistant of other persons, including Accused No 3, Shyamwar Pinturam Rai, may have conspired and abducted my daughter, Sheena Bora, in 2012 and made her untraceable and subsequently destroyed evidence.'
She has also stated that she believes 'Accused 4 along with other persons may have manipulated circumstances to frame me and influenced witnesses, situation and information to lead to my arrest for a heinous crime they may have committed, aided and abetted.'
'I am convinced that if we are able to obtain the CDR of Accused 4's mobile number, we will be in a better position to ascertain if Accused 4 and other persons were involved in the disappearance of my daughter Sheena, and there will be more clarity if Accused 4 and other persons have a role in framing me.'
She had ended the letter with 'sincere gratitude to your Honour... to provide justice to my daughter Sheena who may have lost her life on account of greed, betrayal, jealousy, hurt and ill-will of persons whom she dearly love and trusted.'
Even as Pasbola continues to insist that Indrani is not accusing anyone, Judge Jadale points out, "The contents of the application are speaking another language."
"You are saying that there are no accusations being made against Accused 4, but this is a criminal trial and the court has to decide the criminal liability."
Pasbola counters that "today, there is no question of criminal liability" and that the court should decide this matter on the basis of "relevance and not admissibility."
He appeals to the court not to go by "hypertechnical objections" and reiterates that "today, I am not making any accusations."
If the CDRs of the other accused are part of the evidence, Pasbola argues there is no reason why Peter's CDRs should not be included as well.
"There is material in existence," he says. "I'm saying that material should be brought before the court... Please go by the essence and spirit of the application... Let this be judged in connection with relevancy and not admissibility."
"Every relevant fact is not admissible, but once relevancy is shown, the opposition has to show why it is not admissible..."
"This is a trial court where fact finding is important. There should not be a question of this material could have been included, so why was it not?"
Indrani, he insists again, is not pointing a finger as her husband.
"Emotions cannot be left out. It was an emotional outburst as she wants justice for her daughter. The accused has been in court for such a long time, she is under emotional distress."
"She is not a publicity seeker nor is she trying to divert the attention of the court."
It is the prosecution's turn and CBI Prosecutor Badami has no objection to Peter's CDRs being introduced since the CDRs of the other accused are included as well.
"No one can take away the right of an accused to submit an application," Badami tells the court.
The prosecution, he says, is "watching who is joining hands with whom... an application should be judged on its merit... the honourable court has to decide the best course for justice."
Judge Jagdale asks Pasbola "If one accused wants to know if one accused can use the help of the court to bring evidence against another accused who clarifies that the CDR cannot be Accused 4's statement. CDRs only show the connection between two numbers, the duration of the calls..."
Amit Ghag, Peter's lawyer, has an objection. "What is the ground for seeking the CDR if the allegations in the application are withdrawn? The application has to be rejected."
"I am going over and above those allegations," Pasbola counters. "I am not subscribing to those "
On which note the day's session ends.
Indrani, in her application, has not directly accused Peter of murdering Sheena, a daughter she introduced as her sister for many years. But she has made other allegations which her lawyer now says were probably made "under emotional distress".
Is Indrani, as contended by Peter's lawyer, cleverly manipulating the media to influence potential witnesses and darken Peter's image in the public perception?
Is the application for Peter's CDRs a red herring or will it shed new light on the case?
Indrani, a mother who may have cold-bloodedly murdered her daughter and attempted to get rid of her remains, may not have been in court on November 27 and 28, but Accused No 1 continues to dominate the proceedings.