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Sheena Bora Trial: And Peter's back!

July 24, 2019 14:47 IST

The warmest reception came from his soon-to-be ex wife Indrani, who on spying him getting out of the lift, muttered an "Oh dear!" and walked over to him, trailed by her police guards, wreathed in high-wattage smiles.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

On Wednesday, July 24, 2019, Peter Mukerjea is eagerly looking forward to a special treat.

He will tuck into a few idlis after he reaches court.

It's a dish -- readily available to many of us -- that he may not have had in a long while. And missed. A motherly lawyer/friend, worried about his health, is bringing them for him.

"Sambar?" he asked hopefully, his lips already smacking in anticipation, whose love of food is legendary in these parts.

Peter made his maiden appearance in Courtroom 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, post his 13-hour bypass surgery in March, on a cloudy, obnoxiously humid Wednesday and was accorded a warm welcome.

Walking rather gingerly, leaning on a four-footed cane, his waist/chest wrapped in a broad beige Velcro back support brace, in a white shirt and khaki pant, a red thread around his right wrist, Peter looked exhausted but probably glad to be back, as he chatted with his lawyers and anyone who came across to enquire about his health. But his prognosis about his health was that he was getting worse.

 

The warmest reception came from his soon-to-be ex wife Indrani, who on spying him getting out of the lift on the third floor, muttered an "Oh dear!" and walked over to him, trailed by her police guards, wreathed in high-wattage smiles.

She hugged him and patted his cheek affectionately and he gave her a pat back (not on the cheek) in return. Indrani remained solicitous through the hearing, occasionally asking if he needed water or anything else.

Peter, who found getting into the jail truck at Arthur Road jail, central Mumbai, where he is incarcerated in cell block 12, slightly daunting, was not able to take a seat in the rear accused box in the courtroom, because it is a hard, backless bench and the box requires one to step up into it. Instead he was given a chair in the front row.

After lunch his position was changed again -- and he was given a chair at the back, next to the accused box.

On Tuesday the defence's cross examination of Prosecution Witness 54 Vijay Kamlakar Lad, 39, in the Sheena Bora murder trial continued.

The 'cross', which seemed like it had, to less knowledgeable eyes like mine, been concluded on Thursday, July 4, was actually only part-ways through at that last hearing.

Lad was the Mira Road-based (north of Mumbai) photographer the police had appointed in August 2015 to come with them to the site of the exhumation of the skeleton, said to be Sheena Bora's, at Gagode Khurd, in Maharashtra's district Raigad.

On July 4 he had stated that he indeed was the creator of a pile of 60 photos and of a video/s dating back four years, that was produced before the court to CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, by the prosecution. But copies had to be given to the defence and a compliance done.

That taken care of, the coast was clear for Peter's lawyer Shrikant Shivade to resume examining Lad on Tuesday.

Shivade spent two more hours questioning Lad in his thorough, persevering, fashion.

Think of a sculptor painstakingly working on a figure for hours and you can visualise Shivade. With his constant stream of questions, that never let up, he works on a witness, chipping, chiselling away, to reveal his true contours to the court.

Shivade's carving work was followed up by about 40 minutes of common-sensical, practical, rat-a-tat-tat queries by Indrani's lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola.

Lad, who began in the witness box July 4 as an affable, obedient photographer, who once did an assignment for the police, emerged from the box by Tuesday evening, after Shivade's 120 minutes of ceaseless sandpapering and Pasbola's 40 minutes of peppering, appearing to be quite a different man.

He was still a photographer alright, one felt certain, observing him, but his work for the police in 2015 seemed to have been an abnormal, offbeat event in his career. Peculiar at best.

Consider this:

  • He had never shot pictures of skeletons or human remains before August 2015.
  • He had never photographed them since his outing to Gagode Khurd in 2015.
  • He generally apparently shot wedding pictures for a living, it was said.
  • He was not given any instructions on how to shoot the human remains found near the Raigad village by the police either on video or through still photography.
  • He doesn't know how and why the Khar police called him out of the blue for this assignment or how they got his number.
  • Neither he nor his camera were vetted before he was taken on this shoot.
  • None of the pictures he took had a date or time stamp on them.

Lad's Facebook page, which reveals he studied at the National Institute of Photography at Dadar, central Mumbai, displays a huge variety of pics -- of beaches, Diwali kandeels (lanterns), motorcycles, birds, cutting chais, egg bhurjees (scrambled eggs), setting suns, but nothing remotely close to or as grim as skeletons, crime and violence.

Shivade began by asking Lad if he knew Inspector Dinesh Kadam, who once worked at the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, the station where the investigation into Sheena's murder started off.

Lad said he did, but could not remember if the inspector had been present when he was shooting the bones and remains that were coming out of a pit that morning in Raigad.

The advocate proceeded sequentially, checking each detail methodically:

Did he get to the venue in a police vehicle?

Did he take a pen drive with him?

The make and brand of his camera.

Did all the police vehicles reach the spot at the same time?

Did he receive instructions from the police on how to conduct the shoot?

Did he make a plan on how he was going to conduct the shoot?

The bearded Lad, very neatly turned out for his court appearance in a long-sleeved checked blue-grey shirt, brown trousers and black shoes, could not remember a whole lot and repeated in Marathi quite often "Naahin recollect hoth..." He didn't even recall the model of his camera, but knew it was a Sony.

Shivade in Marathi: "Did a large crowd gather? Who was in the crowd?"

Lad slowly: "Gardi hotee (A horde of people)" but he didn't know who was in the gathering.

The lawyer then significantly asked in Marathi: "Were there any other still photographers? Did the police call any other photographer? Did you notice, while taking photographs, that another person was taking photographs?"

Lad said he didn't know.

That was when Shivade and his assistant Viral Babar took out a laptop and walked over to the witness stand to show the calm but perhaps slightly trepidatious Lad a few clips.

Together, in a private showing -- like they were absurdly taking a bit of time out in the middle of the courtroom, even as everyone watched, to catch a bit of a Netflix serial or TikTok video -- they viewed the clip.

From the prosecution's side P K B Gaikwad came over and popped his head among the three others viewing the screen. CBI Special Prosecutor Ejaz Khan also craned to have a look.

After viewing the footage, Lad finally admitted that another photographer, who had donned a black mask, was also taking pictures at Gagode Khurd on August 28, 2015.

It was someone, as per Shivade's description, who did not belong to the media, but was there for the police.

Lad looked slightly unnerved but kept it together. He took a deep breath as if in anticipation of the next round of Shivade’s onslaught. The lawyer also pointed out that Kadam could be seen in the frame.

The photographer was asked if he now remembered the other man taking pictures. He said he didn't and added defensively in Marathi, "I was focusing on my work."

Peter watched the proceedings intently, a notebook open, but not taking notes. He looked slightly listless.

Shivade fished about, checking random facts, like how Lad moved his camera from video to photography mode and if he had noticed any doctors in white coats/aprons working.

It surfaced that when Lad reached the spot, the process of exhumation had already begun and he missed out on taking pictures of the earlier activity.

It also came out that the description he gave of what he saw after his arrival at the site of the exhumation, to the court, during his 'testimony in chief' on July 4 was slightly different from what he told the CBI and the police in 2015.

To the court Lad had said, "We alighted from the car and went towards the spot. There were some people were digging the ground. I have seen two-three pits, but, nothing was found."

Lad shrugged when asked why the versions were different and later added in Marathi cleverly, "I was apprehensive of the police and the CBI."

Shivade reserved half an hour of his cross-examination of Lad to understanding when the skull appeared.

Did it appear after all the bones came out? Or before?

What time did it appear?

Did Lad capture it on video or camera?

Did he take a video of the skull as it was found or later?

The lawyer in Marathi: "You don't remember if you have a video of the skull coming out?"

Lad shook his head and said later he could not remember, using English words, the "exactly sequence".

Shivade, baldly: "Taking out the skull was not a mahatvpurn ghatna? (important occurrence?)"

Lad agreed.

The lawyer whipped out the laptop again and trooped over with his lawyer colleague to Lad for further clip viewing.

There was no video footage of the skull being unearthed or of the skull at all.

After being reminded by the clips, Lad sheepishly admitted there seemed to be no skull footage created and that he had not verified if there was coverage of the emergence of the skull from its shallow Raigad grave when he gave the video to the police.

Next, Peter's lawyer analysed in great detail how exactly Lad had transferred the material from his camera to his home desktop computer and then to a pen drive and how the pen drive and the photos and videos were transferred to first the photo studio for developing and later given to the police.

Perhaps, since Shivade's own way of functioning -- evident from the precise way in which he tackles a witness -- is obsessive and meticulous, he asked Lad about his owns checks and balances and was appalled to find he had none.

Lad had not verified if all the material went off from the camera's memory card to his comp. Nor had he checked the video before giving it to the police.

The photographer said it was a "general practice" to not double-check if all the material had been transferred from the camera's memory card to the computer.

Shivade questioned in Marathi aghast, skilfully building drama into this dialogue, that ran something like this: "Why didn't you? This was a serious murder case? The general practice that is followed for the video (photos) of a wedding is also followed for a murder case?!"

His voice rose a few octaves in disbelief, as if he was racked by horror and a kind of Shakespearean element of theatrics flowed into the courtroom.

Finally at the end of his cross examination, Shivade dissected rather sternly with Lad why in 2019 he said the photographs had been developed by Elite Images Photoshop and Colour Lab, opposite Amarsons Collection, Bandra West, north west Mumbai, and brought them to the police on September 3, but in 2015 mentioned that he had asked the police to develop the pictures at Digital Studio.

The photographer told the court July 4, when Shivade asked him, that he took the pen drive to Elite to have the CDs and photographs developed.

But he told the CBI in his 2015 statement that he took the pen drive to the police station the day after he returned from Gagode Khurd ie August 29, on a pen drive and asked them to have it developed at some place called 'Digital Studio'.

Lad, now exhausted, uncomfortably shrugged that off, pulling elaborate faces, saying that portion in his statement to the CBI was false -- "At the time I didn't realise it had been falsely stated."

He said had no idea how that bit got there, though his statement had been read back to him.

Shivade, completing the 'cross' declared to Lad that he had fabricated the evidence for the police and was deposing falsely.

Lad looked at the lawyer and smiled for a long 30 seconds, a dimple in his cheek twinkling. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head.

The lawyer had a few more accusations: "Dinesh Kadam was known to you and therefore you deposed falsely. The original skull video was destroyed by you and these are falsely-prepared photographs."

Lad again smiled to himself, not saying nothing.

In between, Shivade stuck in a few more questions he had missed, asking Lad how the bones had been packed and in how many bags. Lad didn't know/remember/couldn't answer/couldn't recall etc.

Shivade also enquired that when he was initially hired for the assignment through a phone call from a constable on August 27, 2015, did he know it was for a murder case. Lad had not.

Judge Jagdale looked a bit startled at these sudden not-in-order last questions from Shivade and asked with a smile in Marathi about the lawyer's strange sequencing.

Shivade laughed and said, "My memory card kharab zaala (My memory card has gotten damaged)."

Since Shivade had done most of the extensive, exhaustive, spadework, Pasbola confined himself to tackling two thorny but key issues that had been kicked up through Lad's testimony.

He explored how and why the police decided to choose Lad for this assignment.

Why had they asked him to take on this assignment?

How did he happen get that call out of the blue from the police on August 27, 2015?

How did they get his number? Did he have a photo studio of his own?

Did he know any of the police officers/constables at the Khar police station?

Lad denied any knowledge or connection. He said he was a freelance photographer and had no shop/studio of his own.

Pasbola, as is his style, likes to occasionally make use of a leg spinner's prize secret weapon and threw the wedding photographer a googly.

He quickly asked Lad where exactly he was when that call from the police for the Gagode Khurd assignment in August 2015.

Not missing a beat, Lad: "Ghari (at home)."

The second oddity Pasbola addressed at length was the matter of the lack of time and date on all of Lad's grim exhumation photographs.

The lawyer wondered how come the police didn't ask him if his camera would produce pictures with the date and time on them.

Didn't his camera automatically put the date and time on its pictures?

Had Lad purposefully deleted or "edited" out the date and time from the pictures?

Had he told Elite to remove the date and time while printing?

Lad played dumb.

While saying the date and time should have been stamped on his pictures he could offer no earthly explanation why they were missing, implying, as he pulled faces,that he was as mystified.

Before he closed his cross, Pasbola highlighted the fact that in an earlier statement Lad mentioned giving two CDs to the police and in his testimony he said he gave just one.

Pasbola also asked Lad while shooting the videos and photographs who was directing him. "Aap cameraman the. Kaun tha director? (You were the cameraman. Who was the director?)"

Laughter all around. Lad too.

In Marathi, Lad answered that it was two or three policeman/officers not known to him.

The advocate gave a deep ironic laugh, incredulous, grinning: "Anolkhi (unknown) police officers?!"

Pasbola in conclusion to Lad: "You have prepared these photographs and this video at the say so of the police. These photographs and videos were not taken in Pen. You erased the date and time on them. They were (created) at some other point in time."

"The date and time would have been reflected (in the photographs) on the memory card and in the pen drive. You therefore destroyed both."

Lad's dimple was back.

So was that enigmatic slow smile.

He held the railing with both hands. He was silent. His amusement was his answer.

His deposition was over. He departed and Suresh Mirghe, former police inspector from Pen, the nearest police station to Gagode Khurd, took the stand.

Khan, as promised, was keeping the witnesses flowing.

Before Indrani left to go back to jail, the judge spoke to her. She got into the witness box to reply. The conversation, especially her replies, was indistinct.

Later, as she was swiftly exiting the court surrounded by policeman and lawyers, Indrani breathlessly explained to everyone and anyone listening, her eyes saucer-sized in her excitement, and with the importance of the matter, that the judge had instructed her not to speak to the other accused -- presumably Peter -- now that she was an approver in the Karti Chidambaram case.

Indrani said earnestly she had promised the judge she would not.

As she disappeared from view, once again one concluded what a confusing bag of contradictions Indrani is.

Accused No 1.

Girl-Woman at even close to 50.

Alleged murderer of her eldest child.

Wife of three men.

Yet Indrani still has a child-like innocence about her and self-indulgent sense of her own importance. Like she never grew up.

You ask yourself for the 110th time, since 2017: Is she really a killer?

VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL / Rediff.com
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