In the witness box, on bald embarrassing display, was not just Sub-Inspector Ganesh Dalvi, but the entire system of police investigation too.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
A fresh epidemic of amnesia swept into Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, April 3.
Its latest victim?
Police Sub-Inspector Ganesh Dalvi.
Prosecution witness number 1 (PW1) in the Sheena Bora murder trial, Dalvi, who worked at the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, was, astonishingly, on Tuesday unable to remember even the number of his own cell phone.
Or the contacts he might have on his phone.
He also seemed in a habit of not carrying his phone at crucial moments.
His phone was not in his possession on Tuesday in court either.
Nor apparently was it with him the day he arrested Indrani and Peter Mukerjea's driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai for possession of an illegal weapon on August 21, 2015, at Carter road, Khar.
The battery of defence lawyers have, since early December 2017, been working tirelessly at buttressing their charge that Rai (Accused No 3 turned approver) was never actually arrested on August 21, 2015.
Instead, they have put forward the view that he was in the protective custody of the police from much before that date as they alleged Rai had a yet undisclosed role in the supposed framing of a case against the Mukerjeas and Sanjeev Khanna, Indrani's former husband.
Since cell towers, you have learned, are now the crucial invisible witnesses in every courtroom these days, it follows that if Rai was indeed arrested on August 21, 2015, carrying that Mamta Suiting and Shirting plastic bag, that contained a country-made katha and the cartridges, then the cellphones of the key people present that day would locate them in that area too.
But Dalvi said he left his cell phone back at the police station that day. And unraveling the records of Rai's cellphone has been a much more uphill task then first believed, ever since the defence lawyers accused the prosecution of tampering with them.
Dalvi, who debuted in the witness box last year, came across then as a young, earnest cop with a straightforward demeanour, erect posture and possessing crisp, direct answers.
But the man occupying the box on Tuesday in CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's courtroom, was an altogether different individual.
Had the passage of a year had altered his persona entirely?
Under the narrow cross examination of Indrani's advocate Sudeep Pasbola, Dalvi shifted about the box uncomfortably, one raised brown shoe toying with its wooden slats, alternating his weight from one foot to the next and his eyes often slithering away from offering a direct gaze.
His negative answers or limp, unstarchy "Maahit nahins (I don't know)" came after pregnant pauses and were softly tendered, but still hard to believe.
Courtroom 51 seemed to back in Rai-Maloom-Nahin territory.
Dalvi's "don't knows" were not the more rude, obstinate "Maloom nahins" that Rai habitually offered during his long sojourn on the witness stand, but equally rigid road blockers to Pasbola's line of enquiry.
In between, Dalvi would frequently take refuge from the courtroom stress by taking long sips from the chota Bisleri bottle of water he brought with him, that he had placed next to his hat on the shelf in front of the stand.
When he had to painfully agree with Pasbola about the lack of certain information, he did so in unadorned monosyllables.
If confronted with conflicting facts he processed the information in a puzzled, concerned, manner, indicating he was deeply bewildered by the contradictions and trying to figure out how it came about.
In the witness box, on bald embarrassing display, was not just Dalvi, but the entire system of police investigation too.
The sub inspector admitted they had no documents to prove many aspects of the prosecution's version of the events leading up to Sheena Bora's alleged murder, barring taking driver Shyamvar Rai's word for it.
For instance, that Khanna -- Indrani's second husband and alleged accomplice in the crime -- had arrived from Kolkata on April 24, 2012 had not been verified through documentation.
That Indrani had allegedly booked his room at the Hilltop Hotel in Worli, south central Mumbai, was not confirmed.
Nor were there documents to prove that Sheena had been 'abducted' from outside the Jockey showroom in Bandra, north west Mumbai on April 24, 2012.
Additionally, Dalvi volunteered, "I don't have any documents showing that Shyamvar Rai and Indrani Mukerjea had fixed a plan to visit Gagode Khurd (the village, near Pen, Raigad district, that Indrani selected as the spot to dispose of Sheena's remains) on April 23, 2012 (the day before the murder). It had been disclosed by Shyamvar Rai."
Pasbola raised the fact that the FIR taken from Rai for his role in Sheena Bora's murder had exact dates missing.
For instance, Rai confessed in 2015 that Sheena's body was taken and burnt in April 2012.
Asked the lawyer of Dalvi: "The specific date is missing?"
Before Dalvi could answer Special Public Prosecutor Kavita Patil chimed in, "The day of the month is not mentioned. But the month is mentioned."
Said Dalvi: "Yes, the said dates and times are not mentioned by me in the panchanama."
Pasbola: "The dates (of what happened on April) 24, 25 and 26 are not mentioned in the complaint? Barabar (right)?"
Dalvi reluctantly: "Barabar."
Pasbola accused Dalvi of concocting the whole incident.
Dalvi calmly denied it and Judge Jagdale noted down for Dalvi in the court record: "It is not correct to say that myself and my senior officers have hatched a conspiracy to create a false case...'
"It is not correct to say that in order to implicate the accused in a false case these entire incidents were fabricated."
Pasbola then asked Dalvi what kind of details were recorded routinely in a Mumbai police station diary, delving to understand what kind of record-keepers these diaries were.
Were details of an ongoing investigation not recorded?
Dalvi thought for half a second and said, "Sometimes."
Judge Jagdale gave a hearty laugh. Pasbola smiled broadly too.
Dalvi continued clarifying: "Sometimes we note down important parts of an investigation or enquiry. Sometimes we may not."
Pasbola enquired that when the police went out on routine patrol did they make entries in their station diaries on the areas they would cover.
Dalvi replied that they did not always mention all the places they covered in the station diary.
But he specified that on the day Rai was arrested in 2015, there was mention in the Khar police station diary that they had gone to Carter road, but not that they had also gone to patrol in other areas of Khar like Linking road or Chuim.
"The rest of the places we patrolled that evening were not mentioned. I have no evidence, apart from my word, that we patrolled the other places," he added.
Pasbola wanted to know if details about apprehending Rai that evening were recorded in the station diary.
Dalvi offered a vague, covering all the bases, answer: "There was an entry in the station diary, but I cannot recall what was mentioned."
The facts surrounding Rai's arrest were as peculiar, as testified by Dalvi. Stranger still than what Rai had recounted last year, which already deserved a place in the Encyclopedia of Facts Stranger than Fiction.
Pasbola worked with Dalvi to retrace the events of August 21, 2015: Yes, it was indeed 5.20 pm when he was out patrolling in a police Tata Sumo with his colleagues.
Yes, they had come across Rai running on Carter road. He was indeed carrying a plastic bag and he ran some 25 feet before they caught him, after alighting from their jeep.
But Dalvi did not remember the colour of the said "theli" or if anyone looked inside the bag or if anyone asked Rai what was in the bag, till Rai had already been detained and the panchas (five witnesses are required for a panchanama) called for and arrived within the next five or ten minutes.
Why then was Rai detained, one wondered?
Dalvi subsequently did not remember the manner in which the plastic bag containing the country pistol was handled or Rai's cellphone by his colleagues or his Khar unit and said categorically that he had not handled Rai's cellphone.
Dalvi told the incredulous court said there were no witnesses around when Rai was apprehended at 5.30 pm on that Friday on a probably super busy Carter road back in 2015 and the panchas were apparently brought in by the team.
When asked how it came to be that one of the panchas, who lived in Mira Road, north Mumbai (30 km away), was at hand on Carter road that day, Dalvi had no answer.
Pasbola muttered blackly that these were "stock witnesses" who were "under their (the police's) thumb."
Pointed out too, with heavy underlining, were the addition of facts between the first FIR filed by the Khar police station against Rai in the arms case (possession of an illegal weapon) and later FIR filed for his complicity in the murder of Sheena Bora.
Dalvi merely looked stumped.
As Pasbola questioned Dalvi loudly and roughly in Marathi, Peter's lawyer Srikant Shivade, immaculately attired as usual, sat at the lawyer's elbow, whispering suggestions and advice.
Given the summer heat and the length of Tuesday's hearing, at points, Pasbola seemed to momentarily lose his way in his line of questioning, like when he spoke (ironically) about the abduction of Sheena "Mukerjea" (remember Sheena Bora was dating Peter Mukherjea's son Rahul Mukerjea and they were hoping to marry).
That led Indrani to give a quick titter of laughter from the back and Judge Jagdale to chide the lawyer amusedly: "Pasbola Sahib prashn kaye? (what is your question?)"
The CBI's probe into the alleged financial irregularities of the Mukerjeas' erstwhile company INX Media is progressing in parallel fashion with the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Courtroom 51 is frequently the venue where both matters crisscross, as it did, distractingly, on Tuesday.
Before Dalvi's cross examination began, Ramaswamy Parthasarathy, a CBI inspector from its EO-II branch, New Delhi, took the stand. He requested further permission and time slots to interrogate the Mukerjeas.
Last week, Parthasarathy said he had the opportunity to question "Pratim" for six days "from Monday to Saturday."
Judge Jagdale patiently and politely explained to Parthasarathy that any interrogation of the Mukerjeas had to be fitted into his court's timetable.
When Parthasarathy was allowed to approach the court after the two-and-a-half hour hearing, he requested time on Wednesday, April 4, to question Indrani in Byculla jail, central Mumbai, from 10.30 am to 1 pm. Judge Jagdale granted his request.
There were plenty of other moments of intersection, between these matters, in Courtroom 51.
When Accused 1 and 4 -- Indrani and Peter -- retired to the hallways after the hearing, it was the INX Media investigation that occupied their time with their lawyers.
Parthasarthy and his team also utilised those stray moments to chat with both the accused.
The newly printed signs that hang in several places on the walls outside Courtroom 51, that declare videography and photography to be illegal on these premises, is evidence of the fallout of the heightened media interest -- interest in illegal funds with political connections trumps murder hands down in our country -- in the Mukerjeas, ever since the INX Media probe began.
The INX Media investigation too seems to have yet again changed equations in the accused box at the back of the courtroom.
As the hearing of evidence from Dalvi in this trial for the murder of a 25-year-old woman plods on, sometimes in a painstaking, tedious, fashion, it seems, it often loses the attention of the accused.
Firstly, because most of the proceedings are now happening entirely in Marathi and it is virtually impossible for a non-Marathi speaker to catch the drift of the cross examination even at the front of the court, let alone at the back, as Judge Jagdale murmurs an English translation, drowned by the racket of the fans, for the court records to the court stenographer.
Secondly, Peter and Indrani, who meet only in the accused box, every fortnight or so, appear to be using the time, perhaps, to update each other on the more immediate issues affecting them.
They sat together on Tuesday, a team once again, their mutual animosity forgotten -- she looking youthful and, as always, lively-faced in a pearl-white blouse and brown trousers and he in his usual white shirt and khakis -- whispering urgently to each other, while Khanna sat quietly at the other end.
At one point during Tuesday's proceedings Indrani needed to visit the toilet.
The procedure for an accused to request permission to visit the loo during a hearing is as cumbersome as anything else on these premises.
She had to first try and catch the eye of one of her police escorts who were sitting in front of her and not looking her way.
When she finally was able to alert them, a lady cop came to the accused enclosure to find out what she needed.
The lady cop then went to Indrani's lawyer to take permission.
The lawyer then put it to the court clerk who then put it to the judge.
The message back to Indrani again travelled through the court clerk to the lawyer to the cop and to Indrani and she was then allowed to exit the room for the toilet.
Tuesday's hearing ended with a mother of war of words between Pasbola and Judge Jagdale.
When it had been finally established that the cell phone Dalvi was still using had the same number as the one he was carrying when Rai was arrested (Dalvi covered up his earlier fantastic memory lapse about his own phone number saying he thought he was being asked about the handset and not the SIM number), Pasbola began to ask him further questions about the phone.
He wanted to know if Dalvi had the number of his senior colleague Dinesh Kadam, who had a key role in coordinating the Sheena Bora murder investigation, stored on his phone.
The sub-inspector prevaricated and said he was not sure, but conceded that he probably did.
Pasbola then asked if Dalvi had brought his phone to court and maybe it could be ascertained, right there and then, if he had Kadam's number stored.
Dalvi said he had not brought the phone to the court. "I cannot check the number from the phone because I do not have it with me in court."
Pasbola sarcastically: "Very good."
The lawyer then asked where the phone was.
Dalvi appeared blank.
Special Public Prosecutors Kavita Patil and Bharat Badami began mumbling amongst themselves, unhappy at the way the line of questioning was meandering off.
The judge then interceded at this critical juncture saying: "It is not relevant!" And that Dalvi had no reason to answer the question.
Pasbola disagreed: "That is an evasive answer."
He said at least his question had to be recorded, regardless of whether Dalvi answered it or not.
Judge Jagdale quickly lost his temper, indicating he knew what he was doing and he didn't need Pasbola to tell him.
"How is it relevant?!" the judge roared.
The judge -- who is ever aware of the speed of the trial and was perhaps worried that the defence would table fresh "unnecessary applications" possibly even for Dalvi's call data records -- said such a line of questioning was wasting time and they had to be mindful of the fact that the accused had been undertrials for two years already.
If Pasbola had anything further to say on the issue, the judge said he should give it in writing or take up the objection with a higher court.
The room instantly heated up with this blistering exchange of words as Pasbola held his ground, reiterating stubbornly that he still had the right to have his question put down in the court records.
Angrily, Judge Jagdale conceded, dictating: "On the same point it is not permitted to put a question to the same witness!"
Pasbola grimly, but courteously: "Grateful sir."
As the proceedings came to a close, drama quietly peaked, unexpectedly, with the arrival in the court at 5.30 pm of a handwritten letter in Hindi from Shyamvar Pinturam Rai who is in Thane jail.
In the one-page letter Rai requested bail for economic reasons.
The letter stated that the conditions at his home were poor and his family -- his wife, daughter and son live in Mosambi Tabela, Vakola, north west Mumbai -- was not able to support themselves.
Given that he was the only earning member (his wife works as a domestic help in his absence, a CBI officer had said earlier) he requested permission to go home since he had already finished his deposition for the trial.
The CBI was instructed to reply by Wednesday.
The next hearing is set for Wednesday too, after Indrani's interrogation in jail by the CBI's Delhi team.
Peter (who loudly and happily sucked a Frooti to beat the heat after the hearing), Indrani and Sanjeev spent another 15 minutes with their lawyers before heading back to their respective jails in central Mumbai.
- MUST READ: The Sheena Bora Murder Trial