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Sheena Bora Trial: And the skeleton surfaces...

June 26, 2019 13:12 IST

Shivade then asked if the skeleton finally came out of the ground in many parts.
It was difficult not to gasp aloud at that revelation.
Bhagat said that was true.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

You can spend months and months in a sessions courtroom attending a murder trial.

And file report after report on the murder and how theoretically or allegedly it was executed.

But are you any closer to getting a true sense of that grisly murder?

Can you really feel the violence of the crime?

And how a life was ferociously eliminated?

Or accurately imagine the blood, the gore and the macabre manner in which a killing took place.

Twenty-eight months later I can honestly say: No.

The crime hadn't become any more real for me. Even after hearing about it, day in and day out, since early 2017, from the mouths of accidental witnesses, police officers, an approver, a secretary, a husband and a brother, among others.

But then on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, a nayak from the police journeyed from the Raigad, Maharashtra town of Pen, first by ST bus, and then by train from Panvel, to the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, located behind Elphinstone College, in south Mumbai, to visit CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51.

He was the policeman who assisted the doctor in conducting a post mortem of the body found on May 23, 2012, near the Raigad village of Gagode Khurd, that was said to be Sheena Bora's.

 

When he, Prosecution Witness 51 in the Sheena Bora murder trial, spoke in court on Tuesday about recovering samples of burnt tvacha (Marathi for skin), hair, teeth and bones, suddenly and brutally the harshness of the crime came alive.

Discussions centred on where the skin was pulled off from; how the teeth were extracted; which portions of the skeleton still had skin; and how the strands of hair were retrieved. Conversations like these, between the witness and the lawyers, that were gruesome and quite stomach-turning succeeded where many an emotional testimony did not.

Last week, Prosecution Witness 50, a villager and police patil* named Ganesh Dhene told the court about how he stumbled on Sheena's remains hardly a month after she was allegedly killed.

He went home and called the closest police chowki (outpost) to him at Varsai (9 km away) and spoke to a V R Bhagat.

The policeman who took the witness stand Tuesday was that very same V R Bhagat -- his full name is Vinod Ramchandra Bhagat.

Bhagat, 49, a tall, sombre man, with black glasses, a thick, neat moustache, in uniform, who was once attached to the Varsai chowki, but now works at the Dadar Sagari chowki, Johe, about 12 km from the Karnala bird sanctuary, via his testimony, related in detail how they first took charge of the body/skeleton Dhene had found and described the method by which the doctor examined it during his on-the-spot post mortem and how they disposed of it.

Bhagat's 'testimony in chief' was conducted by CBI Special Prosecutor Ejaz Khan.

Through his 20-minute testimony that started off closer to 1 pm, Bhagat, his hands held together behind his back, spoke in a plodding, serious, earnest, dutiful manner.

He recounted in the courtroom in Marathi how on May 23, 2012, when he was posted at Varsai (before that he had been posted at Alibaug), along with colleagues, Havaldars Sanjay Magar and K K Mhatre, he got to know from Dhene that there was a 'human skeleton lying near Gagode Khurd.'

Khan: "Phone aa la? (did you get a phone call?)"

Bhagat agreed and in Marathi added: "I had gave this message to Havaldar Mhatre."

He was instructed by his senior at the Pen police station, Inspector Suresh Mirghe, to head to the spot along with Magar and meet Dhene there.

After having a look at the skeleton, Bhagat called Mirghe again. Mirghe and a sub inspector named Dhande also showed up at Gagode Khurd and together they prepared an inquest panchnama.

Bhagat filled out the forms, he said, in Dhande's presence and they both signed it.

A medical officer from Pen hospital was then officially called in (by formal request on paper for a post mortem signed by Bhagat and Dhande).

Dr Sanjay Thakur -- who will be PW 52 on Wednesday -- arrived to take samples and "removed hair, teeth, a bone from the hand, burnt skin from the hand from the skeleton."

It was not particularly evident why the corpse was still being referred to (since last week) in Marathi as a skeleton when it was more of a semi-decomposed corpse. Judge Jagdale also remarked thoughtfully, "Later on it has become a skeleton."

Dr Thakur handed over his samples (termed 'articles') in a box to Bhagat with a letter addressed to the superintendent of police mentioning the parts collected from the skeleton, for him to take them over to the Pen police station.

The skeleton had to be laid to rest. That was not the job of the police, who don't dig pits for corpses.

Mirghe therefore called in a few labourers to make a ditch.

Khan interjected, philosophically mumbling an observation about the use of the word ditch. "Not ditch. Ditch carries a sense of criminality. To ditch..."

The corpse was buried right there, as is the procedure for unclaimed bodies.

Bhagat recalled to the room the details of his next trip to the site of this skeleton on August 28, 2015 with a team from the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, who began the investigation into Sheena's murder in August 2015, before the CBI took over later that year.

It was a big party of people who descended on this remote, deserted, jungle spot in rural Raigad on a humid monsoon day, a spot that had probably never seen so many people before.

There were well over ten people -- Bhagat with his colleagues Magar and Mhatre, Khar Inspector Dinesh Kadam and his deputies, forensic science laboratories staff from Kalina, north west Mumbai, then deputy SP of Raigad Datta Nalawade and a naib (deputy) tehsildar named Dilip Vadker.

They arrived at Gagode Khurd at around 6 to 7 am. A crowd of 30 was already waiting. The press and television news cameras showed up too.

The policeman said he took the group to where the skeleton had been buried. Digging began and after a bit the "the body parts were visible," Bhagat explained in Marathi. These parts were removed from the pit and the Khar police personnel took photos and video recordings.

A few days later, this Pen policeman visited the Khar police station to give his statement

Bhagat made a third journey to the location of the skeleton to meet CBI Investigating Office Kaushal Kishore Singh there on October 1, 2015 and his statement for the CBI was recorded.

Indrani Mukerjea's trial lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdatt Pasbola, who was able to make it to Courtroom 51 by early afternoon, in spite of the many engagements/appointments and cases he has to check in on daily, given he is one of the most busy lawyers in these corridors, handling a huge roster of cases, commenced his cross-examination of Bhagat.

The senior lawyer, you imagine, after umpteen years of experience, has a special select tone, that he roughly yanks out of his deep, deep, bulging lawyer bag of magic/tricks just for his 'crosses' with policemen, perhaps for rather strategic and calculated reasons.

His approach is always considerably more aggressive and loud. Intimidating. Doubly doubting. A tone that he hopes might break a man in khaki and make him say a few key, revealing, things or flub a bit.

Cops are tough witnesses, even someone like Bhagat, who, apparently, has not testified in a trial before, even after 24 years of service. They can be very dead pan and are, it would seem, schooled to offer the driest and most carefully ambiguous answers in the witness box.

Bhagat was not that different, even if he was inexperienced. While he often paused to think before he answered or there were long silences before he conceded an "aathwat nahin (don't remember)" or a "ho", his answers weren't elaborate and he was absolutely not given to meandering off orally, to give a defence lawyer rich pickings.

He spoke most of the time in a low, soft voice that bothered Pasbola who often had to ask exasperatedly: "Jara mothyani bola, bhau! (Brother, speak louder!)"

Pasbola's 'cross' began pre-lunch and continued after the break too, lasting totally perhaps an hour across 30 to 40 questions.

He significantly enquired of Bhagat if any photographs had been taken by him or his colleagues the first time the police examined Sheena's remains in 2012 and if they were carrying phones. Or if he had seen any photographs.

Bhagat could not remember, he said/claimed. He also said he had not seen any pictures.

The judge speculated there were probably not many smart phones about in 2012. Maybe not in the sleepy backwaters of Raigad

Pasbola, sternly and sagely: "Zala Smart Hindustan (Hindustan had become smart)"

The lawyer proceeded to the subject of police diaries and what record had been made of the May 23 2012 outing to Gagode Khurd, the "skeleton" post-mortem and burial either in the diaries/logbooks belonging either to the Pen police station or the Varsai chowki or in Bhagat's own constable diary.

Bhagat evaded the question. It was rephrased. He prevaricated. Khan cut in with an explanation about station diaries.

Pasbola's mercurial temper was unleashed. "Don't tell me the purpose of station diaries! My question is very specific."

Bhagat first said chowkis, that are not police stations, didn't have such diaries. He later declared he had not seen any entry anywhere pertaining to the Gagode Khurd excursion nor had he made any entry anywhere.

Later in his 'cross' he corroborated that he had not made any statement to the Pen police about the skeleton discovery. As per press reports nothing was filed with the police in 2012 about the recovery of this unknown corpse.

Pasbola made some enquiries about timelines.

Bhagat's chronology for the operation done on the skeleton on May 23 didn't match Dhene's of the week before.

The policeman said he arrived at the spot at 9 am and was there till 6 pm and then went to Pen to deposit the box of samples.

Dhene had said, if one heard correctly, that he had been the last to leave the spot on May 23 and that had been 4 pm.

The lawyer's next set of questions were especially shrewd, offering a few new insights.

How had the police marked the spot where the skeleton was finally buried?

In what manner was the skeleton buried?

Had the doctor or anyone discussed the cause of the death?

How much more overgrown was the spot three years later?

Wasn't the identity or the sex of the skeleton ever confirmed?

How far was Bhagat from the doctor doing the post mortem?

Was the skeleton buried in the same position? What was the position of the skeleton?

Was the area and greenery around the skeleton burnt, including the grass?

Were samples of the burnt plants taken or of the ash on the ground?

Was this Bhagat's first 'interaction' (as was stated) with a skeleton?

How many skeletons had been found in that area?

Where was the record for the wireless message that directed him to meet Kadam and company at the spot in August 2015?

The burial spot, which later got quite overgrown, had not been marked, Bhagat acknowledged. The identity of the skeleton or the cause of death was never considered.

Pasbola's question about the skeleton's position being intact when it was buried was met by bafflement. Bhagat could not process it.

He conjectured if Pasbola meant was it buried east wet or north south. After many rephrasings he said the skeleton went into its burial place intact or as he termed it "akand" with no re-arrangement of position.

Bhagat took a few long minutes to answer the question about the position of the skeleton. He sensed it was a tricky question. He deliberated, lost in thought, wondering how to answer the question, before agreeing that it was in a saral (straight) position and not wakre (crooked) and it had been face downward into the ground.

Indrani, looking about 20 in a cheerful red top that was virtually sleeveless, with tiny cap sleeves and brown leggings, who was a much more active participant on Tuesday, perked up at that question.

Standing in the accused box in the back, her eyes heavily lined with kohl, she listened attentively for Bhagat's answer.

How it could have been in a saral position when it had been kept in a suitcase in a garage in Worli while rigor mortis set in, was probably something Bhagat was not aware of.

For that matter at no time did the suitcase figure in the testimony and the cross.

Hadn't Sheena's body been left alight in the jungle along with the suitcase?

Why had no one asked if the remains of the burnt suitcase had been near her remains?

Surely its wire frame or something was found?

Why had no one asked about the clothes on the corpse?

The corpse, Bhagat explained, had been wrapped or actually tied in (unmarked) "saphed kafan kapde (white coffin cloth)" before being interred five feet into the earth.

While Dr Thakur performed his post mortem, which was referred to confusingly through the hearing by the short form of 'PM', the policeman said he was standing about five feet away.

Judge Jagdale laughingly reproached Pasbola for his questions about distances saying one cannot enter in the court record folksy terminology that include "from the end of your hand to your nose" etc.

When Pasbola was finished with Bhagat he made his final accusations telling the policeman in Marathi in no uncertain terms: "No skeleton/body was found at that spot. No panchnama was prepared there. A false panchnama was prepared and the documents (Exhibits 539-541) are fabricated at the instance of the Khar police."

Bhagat calmly: "Galat (Wrong)."

Peter Mukerjea's lawyer Shrikant Shivade then began a punctilious one-hour long cross-examination of Bhagat. The contrast between Pasbola and Shrikant Shivade is always startling to note, both in appearance and style.

Pasbola is as fiery and interestingly pungent as a bhut jolokia red chilly. Shivade cool as a cucumber in summer most of the time.

Shivade has a quiet presence and always converses with his witnesses in a soft, reasonable tone, as if they could be friends (woe betide the witness who thinks that). Pasbola in his comportment and bearing and brisk stride attracts notice.

Both lawyers perfectly complement each other and have often been working together as a team on this case -- Pasbola, it would, seem sometimes preparing the ground in his crashing, bulldozer, raze-the-landscape way for Shivade's subsequent discreet onslaught.

For instance, Shivade followed up Pasbola's question about burnt dry grass at the discovery spot of the skeleton with a question to Bhagat about forest fires that occur in summer in that area of Raigad.

Shivade began by, in deep puzzlement, pondering aloud to Bhagat -- his ponderings immediately attracting Khan's objection that it was a hypothetical question -- this question/statement: "If an anokhit (unknown) body is found it is the duty of a police officer to determine the identity of the dead person and (discover) whether the person death was because of a suicide, khoon (murder), accident or a natural death?"

Bhagat had no answer.

It was Shivade's numerous and meticulous questions about teeth and the skin on the corpse -- he often gesticulated indicating using his own face or hand, the portion of the body to Bhagat -- that brought the murder home to anyone listening on Tuesday.

He checked, gradually covering anatomy, exactly which part of the corpse still had skin in May 2012, when Bhagat first saw it.

To most questions, Bhagat had one answer: "Athwat nahin."

When he asked Bhagat about teeth, he responded with a "Where?"

Shivade retorted: "Where else will teeth be?"

Laughter.

The judge remarked teasingly that some people have fallen teeth.

He asked detailed questions on if the corpse had long hair and how the hair was removed.

Bhagat answered with a safe one word: "Kit box."

Shivade moved to his next strategy, that he often employs, which is to always incrementally build up a cogent line of questioning. He is particular about the words he chooses.

He, bit by bit, asked Bhagat how difficult it was to re-locate the skeleton in 2015. His questions went approximately something like this: "So the first time you dug four or five feet and? You dug again in another spot... And another spot..."

It emerged that it took five or six attempts to relocate Sheena's skeleton.

Asking Bhagat what implement was used to dig, the lawyer delved about for the right English word. The judge had dictated spade. Shivade looked around the room, especially at the journalists, smiling, his moustache bobbing, for better suggestions.

"Pick axe," a journalist volunteered.

"Sickle," someone else suggested, "Like the CPM symbol."

There was huge amusement.

But this approach was all about Shivade setting the stage, building drama.

He then asked in an almost audible but loaded tone if the skeleton finally came out of the ground in many parts. It was difficult not to gasp aloud at that revelation.

Bhagat said that was true.

Shivade spent the last 15 minutes examining the inquest form that Bhagat filled at the site of the corpse that May, extracting maximum impact for the fact that the form clearly stated that photographs had been taken in 2012 and that the policeman had left the column for sex of the skeleton blank.

Bhagat, who by then was worn out by the gripping heat and from standing in the box for nearly five hours, softly said in a dignified tone: "Rah gaya (It got missed)."

While ending the cross, Shivade told Bhagat peremptorily: "You have given false evidence."

Tuesday was a very long hearing, with the dawdling heat -- that was still viciously ruling, as all awaited a tardy monsoon -- paralysing thought and action of anyone in the room.

It affected the accused in the back too. Indrani alternated between keen involvement in the hearing to dropping off into few-minute snoozes, her head resting on her arms.

Sanjeev Khanna played with the court cat, nicknamed Sheena, who kept straying into their enclosure.

At one point Indrani got up to gently and kindly lift the cat out.

Peter remained absent. His family too.

In the corridors, Bhagat, while talking to a fellow witness, and later to whoever was listening, mentioned how difficult it was to testify seven long years after an incident.

Meanwhile after the hearing, Indrani spoke, maybe about her bail application or the Delhi case, to yet another lawyer named Yug Mohit Chaudhry, who has a reputation of being something of a saviour/ambassador for the accused and convicted.

The ever-efficient Khan has another witness lined up for Wednesday. And yet one more for Thursday.

Dr Sanjay Thakur, the man who did the post-mortem on the skeleton will testify at 12.30 pm Wednesday.

*Patils are the key officials of many villages in Maharashtra, since not every village has a police station.

VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL / Rediff.com
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