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Sheena Bora Trial: A game of chess

February 19, 2019 11:54 IST

Sameer Buddha was just the kind of witness Indrani's lawyer Sudeep Pasbola dislikes.
Someone, who had temporarily dumped his memory before entering the court.
He answered most questions, one after another, one after another, one after another, with a monotonous, deadpan:
'I don't remember.'
'I don't remember.'
'I don't remember.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Mexican standoff.

Impasse.

Stalemate.

Those were some of the words that came drifting into one's mind through the Monday, February 18, 2019 hearing in the Sheena Bora murder case at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai.

Sameer Buddha, 41, was meant to be just the kind of witness who might add new dimension/twist or insight to this trial since it started in February 2017.

But the Sameer Buddha who arrived at the box at CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51 for cross-examination didn't turn out to be that kind of witness.

Instead, Sameer Buddha was just the kind of witness Accused No 1 Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer Sudeep Ratnambardutt Pasbola has said he dislikes.

Someone, who had temporarily dumped his memory at perhaps the enterprising chaiwallah's stall near the signal at Kala Ghoda, like one does shoes at a temple, before entering the court.

He answered most questions, one after another, one after another, one after another, with a monotonous, deadpan:

"I don't remember."

"I don't remember."

"I don't remember."

Till after a bit, one felt frustrated enough to holler on Pasbola's behalf: "But then what do you remember Mr Sameer Mohammed Siddiq Buddha?"

 

It wasn't even a cat and mouse game between witness and defence lawyer. Pursuit of any kind was missing. The cat was fed up and the mouse was bored. There was no spark to the play.

Almost like both Mr Cat and Mr Mouse had tuned out of the game and were looking at their cellphones or doing something more millennial-ish, other than the conventional chasing of each other.

The utter lack of expression on Buddha's face -- the inert eyes that were like dull blank panes of glass, the unsmiling mouth -- added no colour to the proceedings either.

There was nothing to read off his face -- resembling a computer monitor in blue screen mode.

From time to time, he, wearing black-and-white check shirt, black pants, black belt, black shoes, spectacles, would shift his position to stand with his legs apart or take one hand from behind his back and place it on the railing.

There was an absence of body language too. No tell-tale scratching of an ear or rubbing of a suddenly twitching of a nose.

He might have not even been in the stand, so colourless was his demeanour.

From the prosecution point of view, of course, he was the ideal witness. Poker-faced. Sphinx-like. Giving not a thing away.

It was not like Pasbola didn't come to Courtroom 51 Monday heaving over his shoulder a large, Santa Claus-size bag of tricky questions for Buddha. The advocate, who you could describe as swashbuckling, had a stock of queries, that was both rich in variety and depth, including even a peculiar one asking Buddha when he started wearing spectacles. Or maybe Pasbola threw that cute, curved-ball Q at Buddha just to irritate him, for time-pass.

But in response to each or any question, Buddha behaved as if he was being asked something mundane as the chances of snow in Mumbai in late April or if the price of kanda (onions) could become Rs 1.57 per kilo before the elections.

He was disinterested and showed no curiosity or even irritation or even a slight sense of being riled. At most he smiled once in a way -- no guffaws or anything such like, please, just the occasional brief, aloof smile.

This was that Sameer Buddha, who from the start of the trial had numerous connections with the events going on in 2012 and seemed to know everybody and anybody related to the crime -- Indrani's son Mekhail Bora, Sheena Bora, the Mukerjeas's driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai, Indrani's secretary Kajal Sharma, the cops at the Khar police station, the Mukerjeas's friends and, naturally, the Mukerjeas themselves.

Pasbola's questions, under ordinary circumstances should have been flabbergasting, considering these were some of the questions put to him:

Had Buddha met Sheena at Taj Land's End, Bandra, north west Mumbai, on April 24, 2012, the day she was allegedly murdered, to give her a BlackBerry and a dongle?

Was Buddha at Marlow, the Mukerjeas's residence in Worli, south central Mumbai, on April 24, 2012, the day of the murder?

Had he been responsible for having Rahul Mukerjea (Peter's son) and Sheena Bora's abandoned Maruti Alto towed away from the airport in 2012 after the murder?

Why had he been in touch with Rai, Accused No 4, multiple times during 2012, even the day after the murder?

Had he accompanied the Khar police station cops, who first handled the investigation, and his brother Suhail Buddha, a former policeman, to the site in Raigad district outside Mumbai, where Sheena Bora's body was allegedly exhumed?

None of these queries astonished Buddha. Intrigued him. Or shocked him. He didn't act taken aback or even seem to make an effort hide any surprise.

Unlike other witnesses who had used the box for a bit of often convenient histrionics, Dramabaaz was a guy who had probably never walked past Buddha before. One could only surmise that this former home guard with his khatara (broken down) memory was actually a class act, the smoothest witness the trial has seen, till date.

Rewind of Wednesday February 13: Sameer Buddha took the witness stand for the first time to give his testimony in chief. His testimony did not offer any terribly exciting details except that he had interacted with Sheena Bora a few times when she wanted advice for buying a laptop. And that Rai had been an irregular employee of his security company and had taken leave prior to his arrest.

One again wondered why the prosecution had bothered to produce him -- As target practice for the defence?

Pasbola, who arrived a tad late to the proceedings on Monday, inaugurated his cross-examination with a few questions about Buddha's position with the Maharashtra home guards and if as platoon officer he had ever any reason to liaise with the Mumbai police.

Buddha said he did.

The advocate asked about Buddha's company, which seemed to have prospered and now had offices in Mumbai, Indore and Delhi. Pasbola wondered curiously and mischievously if the office in Mumbai was opposite the Khar police station.

Buddha disagreed and said it was 200 metres away.

Pasbola enquired if he knew various members of the Khar police station force like Dinesh Kadam, S Kadam and Sukhlal Varpe. Buddha did.

Pasbola: "Did it ever occur to you to disclose the facts (that you offered) in the examination in chief to Mr Dinesh Kadam?"

Buddha: "No. There was no occasion."

Pasbola said it was not about occasion or opportunity, but if Buddha had felt the necessity.

Buddha, dismissively: "No, no."

Pasbola spent almost half an hour unsuccessfully unearthing the real connections between Buddha and Rai. And it was not for lack of trying.

According to Buddha, Rai contacted him for a job in the end of 2012, but only became an employee at Star Protection Private Limited in late 2013. But as per Call Data Records there had been communication between the security company owner and the driver before that.

Systematically, one by one, Pasbola pulled out the dates, times, duration of the way too many calls between Rai and Buddha in 2012 -- January 7, January 9, January 1, April 19.

These were calls Buddha had made to Rai and calls he had received from Rai. There were many SMS messages too.

There were calls the day after Sheena was murdered that Buddha had made to Rai at 8.19 pm, 8.40 pm and 8.42 pm. And then again on the morning of April 27. Calls between an accused driver and a former employee of INX Media.

To each of these questions, Buddha merely offered a distant, po-faced "I don't remember" like it really didn't concern him.

He looked bored. His eyes, glassy, wandered to the unpainted, dusty ceiling, showing it was infinitely more interesting, or off into the distance, as Pasbola rattled off the chronology of interactions between him and Rai.

Rai had also been in contact with Buddha between 2012 and 2013 before Rai actually began working with Buddha. Buddha nonchalantly: "He may have. I don't remember."

Next up was the exact details and nature of the communication between Buddha and Sheena.

Pasbola: "Now, Mr Buddha, as far as Sheena Bora (was concerned) you had some exchange of messages on 21, 22, 23 April (2012) of three messages, five messages, three messages?"

Buddha: "I don't remember the dates, but I remember (sending) the laptop configuration she wanted (advice Sheena was seeking from Buddha on Indrani's suggestion to buy a new laptop as per his testimony)."

Pasbola: "Do you recollect on April 13 and April 17 (2012) you had an exchange of messages?"

Buddha: "I don't remember the dates, but I shared laptop configuration."

Pasbola: "Do you recall on 14 April (2012) at 11.08 am she had called you and spoke to for 133 seconds?"

Buddha, off-handedly: "I don't recall the date but (she) must have called for the laptop."

The lawyer asked if he at any point was meant to give a BlackBerry and dongle to Sheena.

Pasbola didn't lose his famous temper with this witness. There was no bellowing or thundering on Monday. Or even that much abruptness.

Perhaps he sensed that with a witness as slick as Buddha none of these things would work and that Buddha would be a hard nut to crack.

Every time an umpteenth "I don't remember" tripped out of Buddha's mouth, Pasbola didn't even question it. He was, oddly, the picture of patience.

But the advocate did point out logically, in an even tone: "Mr Buddha, you recall when you visited the office of the CBI, but you don't remember the context of any discussion you had with Sheena Bora and Shyamvar Rai?"

Buddha looked unperturbed. His eyes narrowed, but were vacant. That kind of warm flicker of recollection, that hesitantly crosses the faces of most people when asked something, never attempted a journey across Buddha's bland face.

If the security chap's face was perpetually wiped of expression, Indrani by contrast, made up for it from the rear, her face shooting off whole paragraphs of views, without uttering a word, like Snapchat personified.

A vision in white Monday, she monitored every second of the hearing, occasionally signalling to second-lawyer-in-command Gunjan Mangla, a message or coming up front to whisper something urgently.

How was it that Buddha didn't have the foggiest memory of conversations he had with a dead girl a few days before she died, even if he had deleted the messages?

Or why he had been in touch with the driver of his employer for longer periods of time than most would have with their driver -- beyond the usual 'gaadi kaha lagaya hai? (where is the car parked?)' or 'gaadi leke aaiye (bring the car)'?

Pasbola wondered if the CBI had confronted him with any details of the Call Data Records either of Rai's or Sheena's and why he himself had not felt pressed to offer these details to the CBI.

The lawyer also suggested that Buddha mislead the CBI when he said there had been just a few messages between him and Sheena when there had actually been quite a few more.

These suggestions sparked no reaction in Buddha. Nor anger. Forget dismay. Just more disinterest.

It was as if Sheena's murder had absolutely no connection with him, was something that happened in a space and time distant from him and the lawyer and his questions were of no consequence.

Pasbola brought up a few more odds and ends points like:

  • The trip on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway to see fog

"Now Mr Sameer Buddha on August 27, 2015 (a few days after Indrani's arrest) at 9.25 am did you post (on your Facebook timeline) 'chasing the fog?'"

For a moment there was a bit of bafflement in court. CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat B Badami was puzzled at what was implied: 'Is it the fog?'

The judge wrestled with how to put that on the court record.

Judge Jagdale: "Posted?"

Buddha, with a hint of a smile, laconically: "Status."

Pasbola checked if Buddha had replied to one of his friends on Facebook with the message: 'It is an undercover chase'.

Buddha cracked a smile. So did Badami.

Pasbola: "That day you had accompanied the Khar police station for the exhumation of the body?"

Buddha, forcefully: "I had never gone anywhere with the Khar police."

Pasbola wondered if his brother had also been with them.

  • Buddha's interactions with Mekhail Bora

Pasbola: "Do you know Mr Mekhail Bora."

Buddha: "Yes. Met him once or twice."

Pasbola: "Did you have any occasion to pick him up from Pune at any point of time?"

Buddha: "I don't remember."

Pasbola: "Do you know the name Chaitanya Institute for Mental Health?"

Buddha made a face and shrugged.

Pasbola: "You have never been there to pick up Mr Mekhail Bora (as per testimony of a previous witness)?"

Buddha: "I don't remember."

Pasbola: "Do you know Mr Peter Mukerjea?"

Buddha: "Yes."

Badami interjected helpfully: "He knows your client also. Peter yes too."

Pasbola: "Of course."

  • Towing an Alto car

Pasbola enquired if Buddha had at any time gone to the airport to pick up a Maruti Alto car in 2012. Buddha said that he didn't remember the exact details but he had been asked to pick up the car by Peter and have it dropped to the garage.

Buddha was not aware who was using the car or that Sheena and her boyfriend/fiancé Rahul Mukerjea had been using it or that it was registered in West Bengal, but said it belonged to INX Services.

Indrani from the back was deeply interested in this portion of the 'cross' about a deserted car.

Pasbola: "Did you come to know how long it had been lying in the airport?"

Buddha: "No."

Pasbola: "Did it have dust on it."

Buddha: "Yes."

Badami again helpfully: "Ek din mein dust aa jaata hai (In one day dust comes)."

Buddha: "Yes, covered in dust."

Pasbola: "Could you make out it was lying there for days?"

Buddha cautiously: "I don't know how many days. Lying there for a while."

He acknowledged that a "crane" had come been called in to take the car, but didn't know who called the towing services, the name of the towing service or where the car was taken. But he put in a bill with Kajal Sharma for the expenses incurred.

Pasbola: "Mr Buddha I put the case to you that you are lying when you said the vehicle was towed away."

Buddha, emotionlessly: "I told you don't remember. It was 2012."

While wrapping up the cross examination Pasbola made two accusations.

Pasbola: "Would it be correct to say that on April 24 you met Sheena Bora at Taj Land's End to deliver the BlackBerry and dongle?"

Judge Jagdale recording: "Taj End?"

Pasbola repeated: "Taj Land's End.:

Buddha: "Post INX I have not met her at all."

Pasbola also declared that the discussions he had with Sheena were not about laptop configurations. And after finding out if Buddha had ever been to Marlow, the building where the Mukerjeas lived he asked: "On April 24, 2012 you had an occasion to visit Marlow."

Buddha ending the 'cross' in exactly the way it had begun, bringing it to a full circle: "I don't remember."

After the cross examination closed Buddha mentioned to the judge that he would not want the media to publish his phone number in their reports. He said that had happened earlier (in 2015) and the number of calls he received were unmanageable.

Buddha departed.

Judge Jagdale did too, exchanging his white judge collar for a blue striped tie, on his way for an inspection to the Arthur Road jail.

The accused lingered on dealing with lawyers and lunches.

Downstairs, a huge group of handcuffed Africans, charged in no doubt some Narcotics Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act case awaited their prison bus in the sun.

Buddha, the man who spoke not more than 50 memorable words in court, Monday, has, one discovered, a garrulous Facebook presence. The 'chasing the fog' post has been deleted from his timeline, as well as all posts between 2011 and 2017.

His post hardly a few hours before entering court read: 'When I am bored I send a text to a random number saying "I hid the body... now what?"'

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com
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