'When the forensics have collapsed, approver is clearly proved to be a liar from the beginning to the end... Does the prosecution genuinely believe that we ought to remain in judicial custody despite showing that their own story is not being corroborated by evidence, for another 192 witnesses?'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
The Peter Mukerjea, with fellow accused Sanjeev Khanna in tow, who, on Friday, February 7, 2020 got off the jail truck, that came to a rumbling halt at the rear of the Mumbai city civil and session court, who might be just six weeks away from bail, walked up the courtyard path, to arrive in court, had a large and sunny beam on his face.
He didn't bother to take the creaky lift this time, despite his back issues, and happiness saw him come hobbling up six flights of stairs where he was greeted and congratulated by his lawyers and other onlookers. Later friends/former colleagues brought little treats to celebrate with him.
It had been a long struggle (almost four years and four months) for his lawyer Shrikant Shivade to get him just this far and he told well-wishers he felt "elated, relieved" and able to see the "light at the end of the tunnel."
Bombay High Court Justice Nitin W Sambre had granted Peter bail just the day before, because he declared that prima facie there didn't seem to be any evidence against him. The order was procedurally stayed six weeks allowing the CBI to approach the Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court's view concurs with Justice Sambre, then Peter gets out of jail on bail by end March 2020 after four years plus nearly six months and surviving a multiple bypass in custody.
February 2020 completed for me three years of journeying to CBI Special Courtroom 51 at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, for the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Three years of seeing the impossible-to-ignore Indrani Mukerjea, Accused No 1.
Observing her. Feeling for her. Not feeling for her. Smiling at her. Occasionally chatting with her. Watching her. Laughing with her. Laughing at her, in amusement. Trying to understand her.
But the Indrani Mukerjea who took the witness stand on Friday, to argue her bail plea, for the second day (she started on January 21) was quite another Indrani you didn't know much about, but perhaps could appreciate better.
You already are acquainted with an Indrani with whom you might associate the adjectives: Lively, unstoppable, sharp, pushy, clever, never-say-die, demanding, annoying, strong, laborious, compulsive, impulsive, calculating, dramatic, complex, tenacious, charming. And have only a vague sense of the shadowy, dark parts about the Indrani that allegedly put her in judicial custody at Byculla jail.
The Indrani who argued her fifth bail application on merit, showed herself to be exceedingly articulate and persuasive, with a sense of humour.
But more than that, she, through her arguments, for the first time, also attracted some empathy. It was difficult not to feel for her after hearing the lonely account she was unpacking for the court.
And easy to understand, from her perspective, how very tough it had been, over nearly 54 months to suddenly rudely transition from being a tony upscale Worli apartment-residing Mumbaikar to a common prisoner (UT11) in crowded, wretched Byculla jail in 2015 and how she had to quickly pick up all the little smashed pieces of Indrani Mukerjea and glue them back to together and then start to fight for herself all on her own.
Empathy that you can summon up in spite of the fact that she is being tried for her elder daughter's murder.
Empathy in spite of the fact that she has money on her side.
Further the defence she mounted was emotional, in simple language and its lack of flowery legalese, that often encrypts the trial proceedings, made the story much more followable.
And plausible, even if that shrewd advisor Cynicism, sitting on your shoulder, near your ear, constantly warned you in an urgent whisper not to be sucked in.
It was still a tale of a lone woman, in India, who had suddenly found, one day, impossibly daunting odds stacked against her and had to grittily navigate her way out of its unfamiliar and cruel complexities.
And she has yet to be proven guilty for her daughter's murder and nothing -- I repeat nothing -- in the trial over the past three years -- including the crucial forensic evidence -- has made her guilt clearer to a bystander like me.
In defence of herself, Indrani tackled, point by point, the prosecution's reasons for denying her bail.
She first prefaced the rebuttal, with her list of reasons why the prosecution's evidence had fallen apart, she said colourfully, "like a house of cards."
None of her usual lawyers -- Gunjan Mangla or Sudeep Ratnambardutt Pasbola -- were present in court, maybe indicating that they were distancing themselves from her unorthodox but yet effectively-conducted arguments. But still arguments that might dilute the defence's closing arguments for all the accused and lay some cards on the table way too early.
Indrani rewound the testimony and cross-examination of a few critical witnesses who had appeared in court over the last three years, particularly the forensic ones, and picking out bits and pieces of their statements, to highlight why she felt their evidence was weak or had "collapsed."
Wearing a red bindi, sindhoor, a white kurta and churidar with red embellishments and a bandhini red chunni, her hair pulled off her face sideways, with a left parting, in a ponytail, Indrani is a captivating presence in the witness box.
She uses her hands in an electrifying manner as she speaks. They come up in the air in gestures of eloquence, fingers spread out or palms open upwards, like a dancer. At critical junctures she takes off her slim black reading glasses and knocks them against what she is reading to make a point.
Her voice though low was clear and loud on Friday. Her diction and language perfect. She smiled often, appealingly. Her large black eyes danced. She was an efficient communicator.
Her statements often went all over the place, but were generally in a cogent order and smartly put forth. She was meticulously prepared and had a written defence too with maps, charts, diagrams, distances and said she had attached 129 documents.
This was done by an Indrani, who averred, maybe poignantly, if you believed her, that till her arrest she had never seen a police station before or knew where Pen or the old Pune or old Goa highways were.
"My job has been in the last four years (this). Every single day I go through my chargesheet, different, different documents. That is all what I have been doing. It took me a year to recover from this entire... after that, all I do is this."
With regard to the forensic evidence that unfolded in court via the Forensic Science Laboratory at Kalina, north west Mumbai, DNA expert Shrikant Lade and doctors Sudhir Kumar Gupta, Shailesh Mohite and Sunil Kumar Tripathi, Indrani commented, backing up her statements with points from their evidence, that none of them had clearly or finally established the time since death of the skeleton, cause of death or if it was natural or unnatural and identity of the skeleton.
"Then this whole thing of homicide, murder flies out the window. And then the circumstantial evidence you know... You will see, I will come to that later," she declared, looking at the judge.
CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, who had been rocking his upper body back and forth, as he listened to her, at that point looked at Indrani quizzically, stroking his moustache, absorbing her arguments and their unusual presentation thoughtfully.
There did seem to be almost undeniably two skeletons, as Indrani once again reiterated, because Dr Sanjay Thakur, who had examined the first partially decomposed body, discovered in May 2012 in Pen, Raigad, had plainly stated in court that he had cut open the skull. But the 2015 exhumed skeleton had no such cut skull.
Also, the soil samples had differed, which Indrani took pains to prove via reports ("Soil can't change on its own, na?... We are all in judicial custody... So it is not that we went out and did anything?!").
But in an attempt to tie her to the incident that occurred in 2012 -- the burning of Sheena's strangulated body at Raigad --- the prosecution continued to refer to both skeletons though there were definite discrepancies.
She said Lade's "reports (of just the 2015 skeleton) are unreliable and manipulated. Mr Lade fudged DNA reports and I will show you why it is fudged" and Indrani pointed out that he had no acceptable explanation for why he had manipulated the "only machine-produced" printed data on his DNA electropherograms by adding or "cut out and changed" values in his handwriting "as per his own whims and fancies", roundly calling his reports "goof ups".
"It is like a cardiogram. Now if I go for a cardiogram on that peaks are there. Whatever is printed is printed. I can cannot come back to this court after putting my own numbers there and say: 'Look, I am having a heart attack, this is my cardiogram'. It is the same thing."
And Indrani declared that it was interesting to note that there were no added or changed numbers or alterations by hand, in the DNA report of Indrani's blood, but were only in the DNA report of the remains said to be Sheena's.
"Mr Lade has decided he is going to add me in (her DNA values) to whatever (was found in the other report). Why has he not done anything to my report? Why has he decided to delete, add, cut out in the report of (Sheena's remains)?... That is nothing but foul play in a deposition," taking off her glasses and tapping her notes emphatically with her pen.
"And Your Honour, a reliable electropherogram can only be machine printed."
"No court in the world is going to accept something like this," she stated, her hands flying about for emphasis.
Judge Jagdale magnanimously allowed Indrani Friday whatever amount in court she wanted for her bail arguments granting her in total almost four-and-a-half hours (between Friday and last week) and listened to her with rapt attention, often prodding her to elaborate. But there was still a sort of chasm between what Indrani passionately was telling the court and his careful absorption of it, his discomfort at points, visible.
She concluded brightly, mimicking the CBI's thought processes: "They (prosecution) have zero forensic evidence. Because it is all manipulated. 'Let's get a skull. We have not found a skull. Let's get a skull. Let's put a skeleton here'. It doesn't work that way. 'This has been sent for DNA test. This doesn't match the DNA. So now we will decide that we will give DNA report for something else'... Basically, prosecution has failed... Very apparent."
"All a big concocted story." She recited in a monotone: "A body found in 2012 May, buried in the same spot. Came out of the same spot. This is the body. 2012. 2015. Nothing of this sort happened Your Honour. Because the soil cannot change. The earth does not lie! And why is it manipulated? Your Honour, your eyes will pop out when I talk about the CDRs (Call Data Records) (and show) how much manipulation has been done."
Judge Jagdale strategically and commonsensically added: "And why."
Just before the lunch recess and post it, for a considerable length of time, Indrani attacked the reliability of approver and Accused No 3, former Mukerjea driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai, who she referred to as "Shyam Rai", stressing his poor conduct and that "he lied and lied and lied about everything."
Before becoming an approver, it was explained to Rai that that he was being made a prosecution witness and was being pardoned and no punishment would be awarded to him, subject to the fact that during the course of trial whatever he deposed in court would be the truth and nothing but the truth.
Translating, she said Judge H S Mahajan, Judge Jagdale's predecessor, told Rai "Agar sabit ho jaate hai ki aap jo kuch depose kar rahein hai jhuta nikalta hai toh iska parinam bahut kharab hoga aap ke liye (If it is established that whatever you have deposed is untrue, then the consequences will be very bad for you)."
But the former driver denied, three months later, that this was explained to him showing "disregard for the honourable court", she felt.
Pointing out the whole tissue of lies that Rai had peddled before the court, she laid emphasis on how he had offered "callously" and with "arrogance" two entirely different versions of how Sheena's body had been disposed of and that was "no small detail", but about a murder and not like remembering whether you ate "Pani puri and pav bhaji.
Indrani said during his cross examination his "memory loss was beyond imagination" and that he had said "more than 400 times" that he could not remember a fact or detail.
Additionally, the CDRs, which were only obtained after Rai's deposition ended, totally exposed the incorrect and false sequence of his tale of events, in the days proceeding the murder, and on the day of the alleged murder on April 24, 2012. "His own CDRs are not supporting him!" she exclaimed.
As per the CDRs, Rai was not 1. in Raigad at the times he said he was on April 22 (to look for a spot to dispose of, a corpse at Indrani's alleged say so), but was instead there at in the evening, causing Indrani to comment "which fool on earth goes at 7.30 in the night to look for a place to dispose of a dead body... really absurd, in the dark, in the jungle he goes around looking!"
2. He was at Santa Cruz airport early morning on April 22 for unknown reasons.
3. He was in Goa in early April, which he never disclosed.
4. He was at Worli, near the Bata showroom, south central Mumbai, on April 24 without Indrani (that morning she was supposed to have purchased the shoes used and run other errands).
5. Though he was doing work ostensibly for Indrani, and maybe Peter or Sanjeev, his records showed only calls to Indrani's son Mekhail Bora, the peon Pradeep Waghmare and her secretary Kajal Sharma, during that period, "everyone else except me or the accused. We are the (so-called) conspirators."
Indrani explained to the court that she and Peter had hit on the idea of starting an old age home back in 2012 and for that reason had started looking for property in both Goa and in the Khandala/Lonavla area and that the CDRs would show calls to property brokers.
Hence, the trips to both places. But Rai, Indrani said, did not reveal to the court that they had done property reconnaissance in Goa too because that would not fit into the CBI's account of the murder.
Indrani: "We had given up the media business. A4 and myself had decided that we were going to start somewhere, either in Khandala side... The property search continued till our arrest, till our arrest... That we are going to buy a plot of land and we are going to open an old age home there. Since he (Peter) is sitting here he can say a yes or a no. If I am lying he will say I am lying."
Judge Jagdale muttered jokingly: "Parallel trial."
She added that wanted to tell the court, before she forgot, that she had two driving licenses for India and UK as did "A4" (Peter) and that A2 (Sanjeev) was a rally driver. "We don't need Shyam Rai to sit in the car and drive... If three of us had to get together and commit a murder we did not need Shyam Rai."
Further, on the evening of the murder, April 25, as per Rai's testimony, Indrani, Rai and Sanjeev Khanna all reached Amarsons, a shop in Bandra, north west Mumbai, where Indrani was said to have met Sheena at 1855.
But he told the court, with great assurance, that they reached Taj Lands End, Bandra, at 1900 (exactly and only five minutes later), where he and Indrani were supposed to have gone after the murder.
That meant Indrani had met Sheena, bought her a sari at Amarsons, she and Sanjeev had sedated her and murdered her in a lane they located in Bandra, drove to the Taj, "all in five minutes."
Indrani interestingly recounted to the court that after all their arrests, when she and Rai had travelled to court, before the trial began, for nine months, in the same jail van, together with Peter and Sanjeev, she had had every opportunity to influence a witness -- Rai who turned approver.
She then said, adding first that "it is your discretion to believe it or not", but was telling this under oath, that Rai had attempted to blackmail her.
"Before giving his '164 statement'... had a very clear conversation with me... He told me 'Aap mere ko 50 lakh rupaiya de do, mein kuch nahin bolunga (Give me Rs 50 lakhs and I will not say anything)." He then kept reducing the figure he demanded to Rs 15 lakhs, then Rs 10 lakhs and asked Sanjeev for Rs 5 lakhs. "None of us budged... I could have influenced him", but she said she told him to go and say whatever he wanted.
Judge Jagdale, looking concerned and a little taken aback, questioned Indrani as to what exactly was she implying and how she could have paid him.
Not exactly losing her nerve, she explained, insisting, "I could have."
Indrani took about 20 minutes to piece together the facts that emerged from her son Mekhail's testimony and subsequent 'cross' and earlier statements and showed the court that he had never said he was afraid that she would kill him ever initially, but was instead worried that she would "'put me back in rehab centre' (for drug abuse) or something" and that his version slowly changed as the investigation proceeded.
"This whole story of attempt to murder... After my arrest... they created this story... Why that story was created for sensation... not an iota of truth, Your Honour, in all this..."
Judge Jagdale cut in and asked if she really meant to indeed say that the prosecution did this to create sensation.
Indrani backtracked it a bit, but said her submission was that it was done with the intention "to add more masala" and that there was no physical evidence that Mekhail had been in Mumbai on the night of Sheena's murder.
And till 2014, Mekhail and she had a good relationship with him. "You can put it in, drag it, pull it, stitch in here and stitch in there (into a testimony) but doesn't work that way."
The granting of bail to Peter by the Bombay high court, Indrani argued, should have an effect on her bail application. She said she was seeking "parity", she said with a smile, because he was a co-accused, co-conspirator and also a UK passport holder.
He, she declared, was more influential than her and if the high court did not think he could influence witnesses or evidence, given the key upcoming witness was his son Rahul Mukerjea, why should this court think she could.
Indrani then came to the time required to finish the trial. The prosecution had said they had 253 witnesses in this case and 192 witnesses still remained to be examined.
"I feel -- this is my view -- when the forensics have collapsed, approver is clearly proved to be a liar from the beginning to the end... Does the prosecution genuinely believe that we ought to, or does this honourable court feels that we ought to remain in judicial custody despite showing that their own story is not being corroborated by evidence, for another 192 witnesses?
"(The evidence of the 60 witnesses so far has shown) that there is no reasons why I should be in judicial custody. There is now another accused out... We can all come to court from home."
If it was all about worrying that she could influence Rahul and they were waiting for Rahul to prove the motive of the crime, "if he was the 192nd witness" then the prosecution was wasting the judge's time and their time which was "running into years."
"We don't know if Rahul will be the 192nd witness. We are going to keep waiting here. And now no question (that it was about influencing Rahul) because the father is already out."
The judge objected with a smile, saying he wasn't out yet.
Indrani came to what the prosecution was her believed motives for having murdered Sheena. That, she stated, the prosecution "illogically" believed she had committed murder because of money, even though Sheena Bora had one lakh of rupees in her account as of 2015.
She went further: "If one day my worry was she gets married to Rahul Mukerjea and then Peter might give his property to Rahul Mukerjea then Rahul Mukerjea gives it to Sheena Mukerjea, Sheena Bora. That is my motive. What was my motive to kill Mekhail?"
Indrani explained that already she had, at the time, ownership of certain properties as well as joint ownership with Peter -- 75 per cent of assets -- and whatever else was left Peter had already willed to her and vice versa.
So why, she asked the court should she make a plan to kill a woman who was going to get married to his son?
"Where is logic in all this? Now Mekhail Bora was not going to marry Peter's son? And (therefore why) I am going to try to kill Mekhail Bora? Peter has an older son also, who has got girlfriends. Rahul Mukerjea also had girlfriends, before (Sheena). Everybody is alive... So logically I should kill Peter, no?"
The judge smiled. Peter look momentarily shocked. Everyone laughed heartily. She smiled then too.
Finally, towards the end she answered the judge's "Why" question.
Indrani spoke about being framed and why she felt it significant that she had been arrested one day before her younger daughter Vidhie's 18th birthday.
There was a hushed and astonished silence in the courtroom as she stated baldly that she believed her arrest was timed to occur on August 25, 2015 to prevent their "20 crore, 30 crore" Marlow flat at Worli from being transferred to Vidhie, as had been planned.
It now stands in the name of Peter's eldest son Rabin Mukerjea after Peter issued a letter to the society at Marlow asking the transfer on the flat to Vidhie on August 26, 2015 be deferred.
This, she said, she discovered when she heard Marlow society manager Madhukar Kilje's testimony in court early 2019.
She spoke about her initial days in police and later judicial custody and how alone she had been, with no visitors or family, and the thoughts that crossed her mind and how she had been advised to not sign away her access to her bank accounts, her only advantage at that point, by jail authorities.
"Why is it that a day prior to Vidhie's 18th birthday I got arrested? And a day later I am in police custody, your honour, somebody who has never seen a police station in my life, my husband has gone and given a letter to say that please do not transfer that property. Why?"
Wishing she had said this while Peter was in court -- Peter and Sanjeev had just left -- Indrani said, regardless of the implications, she had still needed to say it and that it continued to be a "niggling feeling" in her head.
Was that it? Or was it an attempt to make it a zero-sum game?
She closed her arguments past 4 and shortly after left the court to go downstairs to the jail truck. Peter and Sanjeev were still waiting for their transport in the courtyard.
From afar one could see, before departing, she had gone across to Peter to say something.
Maybe she told him what she had just told the judge in closing.
And then with brisk movements, a flurry of white and red, she clambered into the truck with her security, exiting the court, probably wondering if her 270-minute arguments had changed her destiny in any way.
And if tomorrow might shine brighter.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel covers the Sheena Bora Murder Trial for Rediff.com.
You can read her brilliant coverage here.