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Sheena Bora Trial: Did the Pen police botch the case?

Last updated on: July 25, 2019 19:34 IST

If an FIR had been registered by the Pen police -- instead of a mere entry in the station diary -- an investigation could have taken place and the body might have been identified as Sheena's, leading to the case being cracked much earlier.
Savera R Someshwar reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

A piece of packing material, looking eerily like an extra-large human spine hung out to dry, dangles from the overhead metal bar that supports the grilled gate just outside Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai civil and sessions court in south Mumbai.

The dull sunlight, bravely battling the nimbostratus clouds that have darkened the city's skies after a week of sweaty, humid heat, lends this sinister looking object a greyish-white hue, making it look even more real.

Inside Courtroom 51, devoted to CBI cases and presided over by Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale for over two years, the'Examination in Chief', conducted by the Prosecution, and 'Cross Examination', conducted by the Defence, over the last six to seven hearings in the infamous Sheena Bora Murder trial have been about a half-burnt kankala (skeleton in Marathi) found in Pen tehsil in Maharashtra's Raigad district on May 23, 2012.

The skeleton, discovered by a police patil with a penchant for fresh mangoes, remained a cog in the investigation system until, nearly three years later, an apparently unexpected confession by a thin man arrested for having an unlicensed gun in his possession on August 21, 2015, in Mumbai, revealed that he, his 'madam' boss and her ex-husband had murdered her 25-year-old daughter and disposed off the body by setting it on fire within the security of the thick foliage that covers Pen's Gagode Khind.

The police and the CBI claim the half-burnt skeleton is Sheena Bora.

 

Nearly four years later, on July 23, 2019, after the cross-examination of Mira Road-based photographer Vijay Kamlakar Lad -- whose answers raised more than a few questions in the minds of those listening -- unflustered CBI Special Public Prosecutor Ejaz Khan called retired police inspector Suresh Eknath Mirge to the stand.

The tall, bulky, swarthy-skinned Mirge has been 'on call' for the last three hearings; Khan, who has set a perky pace after he took charge of the prosecution a little over a month ago, seemed determined to use every minute the court would grant.

So, instead of calling an end to the day's proceedings at 3.55 pm on Tuesday, July 23, when Lad's 'cross' ended at the hands of Accused No 1 Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer, the feisty Sudeep Pasbola; he called Mirge to the stand.

But not before Peter Mukerjea's lawyers -- headed by the genteel Shrikant Shivade -- got permission from the judge for Accused No 4 -- who has returned to court for the first time since his marathon 13-hour bypass surgery -- to eat some fruit.

Peter was leaning on a three-footed walking stick; a grey back support brace wrapped around his midriff. Judge Jagdale, who seems concerned about what Peter is eating, agreed he could eat some fruit.

The 'chief' took place, in Khan's matter-of-fact familiar style, fairly quickly, fairly desultorily and in the witness's preferred language, Marathi.

On May 23, 2012, a month and a day after Sheena Bora was allegedly murdered by the first three accused in the case -- her mother Indrani Mukerjea; her mother's ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna; the Mukerjea's' driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai, who has now turned approver -- Mirge, the station house officer at the Pen police station at the time, received a call from "Police Havaldar Mhatre" that a half-burnt skeleton had been found at Gagode Khind.

Around 15, 20 minutes later, "Police Sub Inspector Dhande", whom he had "dispatched" to the venue along with the "DB staff" (probably cops who specialise in procedures that need to be followed when a dead body is discovered), confirmed the discovery of the kankala.

Mirge himself reached the venue 15, 20 minutes later, and re-confirmed the gruesome discovery. He apprised his seniors -- Sub-Divisional Police Officer Pradip Chavan and the superintendent of police for Raigad district -- and instructed Dhande to conduct the spot and inquest panchnamas and call a doctor to conduct the post-mortem before proceeding to investigate another case at Vavoshi, approximately 7.7 kilometres away.

On his way back, at around 4.30 pm, he noticed that Chavan had joined the police team at The Spot.

When they finally returned to the Pen police station, "on instructions of the superintendent", said Mirge, the details were entered in the station diary.

Mirge was shown a page that he confirmed as the "utara" (copy) of that particular entry in the station diary.

Which made both Shivade and Pasbola protest; they wanted the original station diary in evidence.

Khan, on the other hand, did not want the pace slowing. "This is the recital. Let it continue," he requested the judge. "The original (station diary) is not on the record."

He assured his defence colleagues that he would provide them with the station diary before the cross began.

The "recital" continued.

The next day, Mirge dispatched "certain body parts of the skeleton" to Mumbai's JJ hospital, with a letter dated May 25, 2012. Mirge confirmed the "lac" seal on the letter.

A second letter accompanied a bone from the skeleton's right hand, and a tooth, to the directorate of forensic science laboratories in Kalina, opposite the sprawling Mumbai University campus in the north western part of the city.

Both letters were signed by Mirge.

"Constable Sakpal", who delivered the "body parts", brought back an acknowledgement from the JJ hospital. There was no mention of any acknowledgement from the forensic lab.

The three letters, verified by Mirge, were introduced into evidence.

Mirge completed his 'chief' by stating his "badli (transfer)" took place to to the Neral police station on June 3, 2014.

Pasbola took over the 'cross' and quickly established that the Khar police did not question Mirge, that he only submitted his report to the CBI and that Mirge -- who retired on June 30, 2019 -- is facing a departmental inquiry for lapses in the investigation about the half-burnt skeleton.

He had received the "aarop patra" (chargesheet) six to seven months ago, but is yet to respond.

The court adjourned for the day, but Khan and his team were still at work. They conversed with Mirge, who looked a little lost on the witness stand.

At noon the next morning, the courtroom is filled with black lawyer coats. There is Khan, Special Public Prosecutor P K B Gaikwad, Shivade, Amit Ghag, Anoop Pandey (representing Peter), Gunjan Mangla (representing Indrani), Sreyansh Mithare and Harshman Chavan (representing Sanjeev Khanna).

Pasbola, who is to continue his cross of Mirge, is late and, as the minutes pass, Judge Jagdale's mood seems to be turning as black as the weather outside.

Shivade, who is representing Peter, is not sure if he wants to cross examine the witness; he tells the judge he will decide after Pasbola's cross.

At 12.24 pm, in response to an impatient inquiry, Pasbola's junior, the petite Gunjan Mangla, assures the judge that her senior is "on his way from the high court where a matter had gone on longer than expected".

The judge was not happy. "The whole courtroom is waiting for him," he snapped at Mangla.

Six minutes later -- probably in deference to the judge's increasing irritation, and to his defence colleague -- Shivade begins his cross.

Mirge, in a white linen shirt and grey trousers, took the stand; evident on Tuesday, and even more so on Wednesday, he looked lost.

Many of Shivade's longwinded questions saw Mirge peering at him through his square-rimmed glasses for clarity.

Peter's lawyer carefully confirmed that all the details about finding the skeleton had been entered into the station diary.

"And that station diary is preserved till the case is disposed off?"

"Yes," agreed Mirge and added, gazing ublinkingly at Shivade, "but it remains in the station."

This was underlined by Khan the previous day, who informed both the defence lawyers that the station diary would not be brought to court.

"The rules say the dairy should be maintained for 30 years if the case is not solved?"

"Yes," agreed Mirghe.

Shivade next focused on the Khar police station, whose investigation of the case was alleged to be inept and warranted the case being transferred to the CBI.

"Did anyone from the Khar police station come to meet you?"

"I had been transferred. I don't know if they went to Pen."

The witness's thick voice sometimes made his answers difficult to understand. And his confused looks made one wonder if he got the gist of the questions.

Shivade seemed in sympathy with the witness.

"Did you personally meet them? Did they call you?"

"Yes, but there was no chaukashi (questioning). They said khub gadbad hoti, chaukashi hou shakat nahi (There were a lot of problems so the questioning could not happen).

"Gadbad about this case?"

"Yes."

Mirge said he could not remember the exact date, but that he had met the case's then investigating officer Dinesh Kadam.

While his statement was never recorded by the Khar police station, he said he was later summoned twice -- but does not remember when or the gap between the two summons -- by the CBI to their office at Nariman Point, south Mumbai. He was interrogated on the first visit and his statement was recorded on the second.

Though he was aware the case was gathering increasing media attention, he told Shivade he "never felt he needed to volunteer the information he had to the police or the CBI".

Unlike with some of the earlier witnesses, Shivade did not belabour the point.

Instead, he moved to The Spot were the skeleton was found.

Gently, he introduced Mirge's familiarity with the Pen Khopoli road and established that the road -- which was "15 to 20 feet higher", according to Mirge -- was not visible from The Spot.

"There were zada-zhudpa (trees and shrubs) there?" Shivade asked.

"Yes, but it was May," the witness volunteered, implying the foliage was not as dense.

But yes, Mirge agreed, one could not make out the type of road -- tarred or dirt, Shivade cited as examples -- from The Spot and no, they had not measured the distance from The Spot to the popular Baapdev temple, which Shivade estimated was 3 kilometres away.

Peter's lawyer then asked him about the farmhouses in Gagode Khind, one of which once belonged to the yesteryear Bollywood actor Ranjeet.

Mirge, who was once a senior police officer in the area, seemed unaware of this fact. Or that, in a strange real life imitating reel situation, five to six skeletons had been found near Ranjeet's farmhouse.

"Not during my time," Mirge maintained doggedly.

Khan jumped in. "He has volunteered that only one skeleton was found during his tenure as SHO. That should be taken (in the record)."

"He is worried that if more skeletons turn up, mere pe aayege (it will be my responsibility)," joked the judge, who then told the witness, "Don't worry about defending yourself. Answer the questions correctly."

Shivade wanted to know if many skeletons had been found in the area.

"Not to my knowledge," Mirge was resolute.

"Are you lying or you don't know?" Shivade can ask even the most barbed questions in a soothing manner.

"Mala mahit nahi (I don't know)."

Shivade then wanted to know if Mirge had seen the inquest panchanama prepared by Dhande.

"I was not there when he prepared it."

After multiple questions, including one about Dhande's competence as a police officer, Mirge agreed he knew Dhande claimed he suspected the half-burnt skeleton was a victim of murder and it was the role of the investigating officer -- in this case, Dhande -- to investigate every lead.

"So you have started investigating him," laughed Judge Jagdale.

Shivade smiled and said he was merely pointing out that the responsibility of ensuring a case was properly investigated belonged to the senior officers, including SDPO Chavan, as well.

"He would love to say that," said the judge. "Everyone would like to absolve themselves of responsibility."

"He (Mirge) has been made a scapegoat," said Shivade, his manner polite but insistent.

In 2015, then Maharashtra director general of police Sanjeev Dayal was tasked with looking into how the Pen police had handled the investigation following the discovery of the half-burnt skeleton in Gagode Khind in 2012.

Dayal's report, according to the Mumbai Mirror newspaper, is believed to have castigated (external link) the conduct of the three senior officers -- Mirge, Chavan and then Raigad superintendent of police Raosahib Shinde -- and recommended action against them.

If a suo motu first information report had been registered by the Pen police -- instead of a mere entry in the station diary -- an investigation could have taken place and the body might have been identified as Sheena's, leading to the case being cracked much earlier.

Other than the station diary, every police station has an inward and outward register that records, though an assigned number, every letter that comes or leaves the police station.

The letter sent to the Kalina forensics lab -- again Shivade worded the question carefully -- was prepared by Mirge -- "in consultation with his seniors", a statement he repeats once again a few minutes later.

While Mirge later pointed out that he had dated his signature in the letter sent to the J J Hospital, he verified that the letter sent to the Kalina forensics lab had "no date, no outward number and no signature."

Ejaz Khan insisted that, since the defence had referenced the J J hospital letter, it should be entered as an exhibit.

Shivade agreed, but only after Mirge verified that there is no date at the top of the letter.

As the two lawyers argued, Judge Jadgade subdued them like a stern parent. "Ata bhanu naka. Dogeshi ekmat aahe (Now, don't fight. Both of you share the same opinion)." The letter becomes exhibit 564.

Mirge also confirmed that the "body parts" that were sent to the J J Hospital and the forensics lab had been sealed in his "absence -- I have seen the skeleton, but not the parts" -- and packed in a box.

Which caused a few minutes of confusion before Mirghe clarified that all the parts of the skeleton were individually wrapped but placed in the same box for transport to Mumbai. He did not unseal the wrapped parcels, each of which, he remembered, was a different size.

He could not, however, remember if they had been wrapped in plastic or placed in glass containers. "Aathvath nahi."

Mirge's letter to the forensics lab raised five questions:

  • Did the skeleton belong to a male or a female?
  • What was the age of the person whose skeleton it was? (Shivade wondered a bone from the right hand and a tooth, which was what was sent to the Kalina forensics lab, would reveal these details).
  • How long ago did the person die and could a DNA test be done?
  • What was the cause of death?
  • What caused the kazali (the black layer/marks) on the skeleton?

"Without knowing the cause of the death, you could not proceed with the investigation?" Shivade asked.

Further questioning revealed no written correspondence from the Pen police station following up on when the forensics report would be delivered. "I used to send staff," said Mirge, but there was no sense of urgency. "We were told it was in the process", but, while Mirge was SHO, no forensic reports were delivered.

As the 2 pm lunch hour inched closer, Shivade -- after a quick eye at the clock -- squeezed in a couple of statements stating that Mirge had been pressured by the CBI to fabricate evidence.

"Sudeep, Sudeep, Sudeep, Sudeep..." the post-lunch somnolence of Courtroom 51 is broken by Indrani's trill.

"Sudeep" has not heard her, so she rushes up and taps Pasbola on the shoulder for a quick confabulation before he begins his cross with the missing outward number, date and signature.

Mirge's name is there as the author of the document.

Pasbola's aggressive manner -- like Shivade earlier, his questions too are longwinded -- seems to have left Mirge confused.

As Pasbola broke down his question, Judge Jadage is curious. "Who prepared this letter?"

The letter, Mirge says, "must have been prepared by the police station's writer" under Mirge's instructions.

The skeleton -- once a living breathing human being -- has now been reduced to its parts. "Were the hands and feet straight?" asked Pasbola, stiffening his own arms.

"It was burnt."

Pasbola has no patience with inexact answers.

"It wasn't saral (straight)," says Mirge.

"Was the position of the skeleton recorded?"

"It must be in the inquest panchanama."

"To your knowledge." You can almost hear Pasbola click his tongue impatiently.

"No."

Pasbola wanted to know if Mirge has read the inquest panchnama.

"Not now..." says Mirge slowly. He tells Indrani’s lawyer he had read it in 2012 but remember its contents.

So what did he "tell the CBI about the paristhithi (condition) in which the body was found?"

"I told them it was found," came the befuddled answer.

Khan and Pasbola have a little spat over the translation of the word paristhiti.

Pasbola to Khan: "Condition la paristhithich mahntath, sahib (,em>Sir, paristhithi means condition)."

Pasbola to Mirge, with a touch of irony and the inquest panchnama 'which you saw then... Is there any description about the position of the skeleton's hands and legs?"

Pasbola wanted Mirge to read from the inquest panchnama, but Khan felt it can be read in the judgment.

"Don't tell me," Pasbola's voice rises, "not to ask a question."

He then asked the witness why the skeleton was not photographed before it was moved.

"I told them," Mirge replied apologetically. "I don't know why they didn't take."

Pasbola pointed to the document in Mirge's hands.

"It is written there that the photographs were taken."

Mirge agreed, but said they were taken on a mobile phone and they could no longer find the photographs. And, since "I was not there then, I does not know who took the photographs".

Pasbola's next questions revealed that Mirge has actually not seen the photographs; he was told by the "police karmachari" that the photographs had been taken.

"The best proof of the position and condition of the body -- kasha partisthih -- were the photographs?"

Mirge agreed and said the information was sent to the headquarters, to the SP and the SDPO.

That, with a reiteration that Mirge had fabricated evidence at the behest of the CBI, ended Pasbola's cross.

Mirge, who ended his career in the police force, as an inspector for Thane and Pune, looked relieved to be able to step off the stand.

It did seem strange that, when bone samples were collected, it did not occur to this senior and experienced officer, who was 51 years old then, to suspect foul play.

Or that the discovery of the only skeleton, in his words, during his tenure in Pen deserved a more serious investigation.

As it progresses, the Sheena Bora trial throws up more questions than answers.

SAVERA R SOMESHWAR / Rediff.com
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