'I ask for bail in the name of justice.'
'Give me a chance to stay alive and see the trial till its end.'
Savera R Someshwar reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Indrani, by nature, seems expressive.
She smiles, sometimes politely, sometimes impishly.
She offers pleasantries.
She snaps irritably.
She issues instructions, sometimes forcefully, occasionally a tad pompously.
All this, as she sits on a slatted wooden bench outside Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai civil and sessions court, holding on to every minute she can before the "chala, chala (let's go)" from her police escort either summons her into Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's presence or chivvies her down three floors to the waiting police van that will transport her back to the Byculla Women's Jail.
In the courtroom too, she continues to communicate from the aaropi (accused) enclosure.
During the examination and cross-examination of the witnesses (19 witnesses have deposed so far), she conveys her opinion on the proceedings by arching her eyebrows, shrugging her shoulders, laughing softly, shaking her head...
Over the 90-odd hearings in the ongoing The State vs Indrani Mukerjea/Bora/Das/Pori and vs Pratim Mukerjea and vs Sanjeev Khanna trial that have been covered by Rediff.com, it has become clear that self-effacing is not an adjective you can use to describe Accused No 1, Indrani Pratim Mukerjea.
Her skill at self-expression, as well as a flair for the dramatic, was on display as she refuted the prosecution's arguments against her bail application.
Indrani's first bail application, filed on February 5, 2016, on grounds of 'deteriorating health' stated she was suffering from 'frequent blackouts' and had 'developed chronic small vessels ischemic changes (blockage in the blood vessels) as a result of which the supply of oxygen to her brain could get interrupted, leading to a life-threatening brain stroke'.
This is something that she has mentioned in her present application as well.
Her first application also said she had 'fallen unconscious in jail in October 2015 (two months after she was arrested) and there was delay of more than six hours before treatment began'.
The application was denied by the court.
In her second application, filed in August this year after a drug overdose in April that saw her admitted to the JJ Hospital and a second stint in hospital after she complained of 'difficulty in breathing', she requested bail on grounds of 'ill health' and a 'threat to her life'.
She said, in the application, that 'someone may have tried to poison her in jail'.
Her plea was rejected in September, with Judge Jagdale saying if there was a threat to her life, she would be safer in jail. He also found her claims of 'ill heath' to be exaggerated.
This was her third application for bail and one she had decided to argue herself.
Indrani's lawyer, the feisty Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola, "was wrapping up an another matter and expected in a few minutes," her other lawyer, Gunjan Mangla, assured Judge Jagdale, who has been impressively pushing the pace and doing his best to minimise delays, even threatening at the last hearing to issue a warrant against a missing witness.
"Let her finish her bail argument," requested Mangla, who had opted for a different look and left her hair loose, held back by a tiny clip; normally, it is firmly bound into a no-nonsense pony tail.
And so, on the humid afternoon of October 16, Indrani stepped into the witness box in and begged Judge Jagdale to "save her life" by granting her bail on grounds of "her deteriorating health".
"My deteriorating health condition," she said, had compelled her for file for bail under "Section 437 (of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973) under which a person under the age of 16, a woman or a sick person may be released on bail" even if the offence with which he or she is charged is punishable with death or life imprisonment.
How, she asked the court, did her request for bail amount to an attempt to delay the trial "as alleged by the prosecution"?
"To suggest I am trying to delay the trial is preposterous. I have been in jail for three years (Indrani was arrested on August 25, 2015). I filed for bail on October 4. How is that delaying the trial? Have we suggested delaying? On October 8, the witnesses did not show up. They are delaying."
Indrani was armed with a sheaf of papers and a tiny pair of reading glasses perched delicately on the middle of her nose. A yellow-capped bottle of water and a yellow-bordered napkin were her supporters against the humid October heat that has invaded both the city and the courtroom.
The prosecution had opposed her bail for the third time, which Indrani argued was unjustified since there were "six key changes in her health" that she was supporting with "documentary evidence".
This would, she said, refute the prosecution's claim that "there is no change in my health condition."
Detailing a slew of what she called "life-threatening" medical conditions, Indrani held forth for the next hour, serving up a mix of medical terminology interspersed with layman phrases.
She pooh-poohed the prosecution's suggestion that she be thoroughly examined by a board of doctors from either Mumbai's JJ Hospital or Delhi's AIIMS if required, saying it had been "barely two weeks since she underwent detailed examination at JJ."
"Going to AIIMS means doubting the credibility of JJ. If they were suggested I get checked at a private hospital, it would have made sense. What sense does it make for me to go to AIIMS? Can the prosecutor guarantee there will be no procedural delays at AIIMS?"
As Indrani stared at CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat Badami -- who she is more often than not pleasant with -- the judge's glance fell on Peter, leaning deeply over the barrier of the dock for the accused, his hand cupped behind his left ear, straining to listen.
With his gentle smile, the judge nodded at Peter, "He wants to listen."
Indrani shrugged apologetically, "I can't...", indicating she could not speak louder.
The judge nodded at her encouragingly and her volume did increase. Peter no longer had to strain to hear his wife's words.
The idea of her appearing in court through a video conference if her health was ailing, as suggested by the prosecution, drew a dramatic reply.
"It is my right to appear at every hearing, even if I have to come in a wheelchair. Unless I am brain dead, which could happen any time," she glared at Badami.
"There is a fine line between prosecution and persecution," she flung at him.
The prosecution, in its reply to her bail application had said that there was no family to look after her: 'Prima facie, it appears that her daughter Vidhie is in the UK and she and Accused No 4 Pratim (Peter) Mukerjea have filed divorce petition before the Honourable Family Court, Mumbai.'
Indrani accused Badami of "misleading" the court.
"My daughter is in India since two years. In September 2018, she left for Spain to study tourism and will be back in December. She may have go back sometimes until April."
Accused of, and on trial for brutally murdering one daughter, Indrani indicated she did not expect her youngest child -- the daughter of Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna, adopted by Accused No 4 Peter Mukerjea -- to put her life on hold to look after an ailing mother.
"I won't depend on my daughter. It is my decision as to how many chefs, bodyguards and doctors I want to employ."
She bristled at Badami's reference to her divorce proceedings, saying it was "private matter".
"If a woman is single, separated or divorced, does it mean she cannot dare to fall sick? If she has the misfortune to fall ill, does it mean she has to go it prison because that is the only place she can be taken care of?" Indrani asked.
She had already discussed her living arrangements, in case she got bail, she explained to the judge.
"I will be staying for a few months with Trichy and Veda Radhakrishna, they have invited me. He is a lawyer, a former central government employee and a former Star employee. She is a professor at St Xavier's College (Mumbai). Like me, they are vegetarians. When I am better, I will move to Worli with my caretakers, bodyguards, cooks..."
The prosecution, she said, was "in denial about rapid and serious deterioration" in her health in "three weeks".
"I ask for bail in the name of justice."
The changes in her medical condition since September 2018, she says in her bail application, include 'new neurological complications in her brain'.
She has, she says, 'suffered facial paralysis because I may have had a minor stoke in jail. It can lead to a major stroke and heart problems'.
An MRI on September 26, she says, revealed a 'grade 2 neurovascular conflict of the left 7th and 8th nerve complex with ispilateral anterior inferior artery'.
"The 7th nerve," she explained, "is connected to the facial muscles and the 8th nerve to the ear and the throat. They are conflicting and causing facial spasms. This conflict can completely stop blood supply to the brain" and her brain, she says, is already suffering from "serious complications."
Another MRI conducted on September 29, she adds, shows "chronic ischemic changes in the brain are irreversible". Her application says she been under treatment for "ischemic changes in her brain vessels" since October 2015 (when she filed her first bail application).
"If my bail application had been accepted then, I would not have had to face such serious health issues now. These two complications did not exist earlier."
Since September 20, 2018, she says, she has been suffering from "frequent unbearable headaches and blackouts".
On September 24, she says she suffered an episode of "visual binocular diplopia (double vision) that lasted for about 30 minutes".
On the same day, she said, on examination at JJ Hospital, it was found that her blood pressure "had dropped to 96/70" and she had more from "hypertension (high blood pressure) to hypotension (low blood pressure)." This, she says, could reduce the blood supply to her brain.
From September 24, she said, the incidences of her headaches, double vision, blackouts, facial muscle weakness and twitches increased even as her blood pressure remained low enough to qualify as hypothermia (90/70).
She referenced her latest discharge paper from the JJ Hospital and quoted extensively from media reports where statements were made by the JJ Hospital dean, and by her treating physician, Dr Wiqar Shaikh, described on LinkedIn as the honorary professor of medicine at the JJ Group of Hospitals and the honorary physician at Byculla Jail.
'No surgical intervention at present.'
'Nil active surgical management at present.'
Pointing to these two statements in her discharge sheet, Indrani said, "This is the first time the word surgery is used in my medical report. Though it is not required now, it clearly means it may be required in the future. It is also the first time the word irreversible has been used."
Painting a grim picture of procedural delays in getting her medical care -- this includes the process the jail authorities need to follow to get her from the Byculla Women's Jail to the JJ Hospital, the police security needed, payment for her treatment, the struggle in reaching on time for her medical appointments, the difficulty in contacting the jail doctors if something happened to her between 6 pm and 6 am and the lapses in getting her medicines – Indrani said it was causing additional, unnecessary harm to her health.
As Indrani listed her travails, it made you wonder about the thousands of other prisoners one never hears about. As a high profile accused, each hearing of whose gruesome case makes it to the daily newspapers, Indrani has both access and voice.
She stood in the witness box for over an hour, detailing her case, referencing annexures, referring to specific lines in her discharge report, her voice never faltering.
"I find it difficult to eat because of my facial paralysis. I cannot chew food properly," she told the judge. "Had I been treated at the right time, I would not have faced so many problems."
"My fragile condition needs care. I need access to specialists and hospitals. I need the stress-free atmosphere of home. I need strict adherence to medicines. Otherwise, I could have a brain stroke in the next 15 days."
"Despite court orders issued by (the previous) Judge (H S) Mahajan and you, my quarterly check-up has happened only twice."
Indrani has, since her arrest in August 2015, made multiple visits to the JJ Hospital after she complained of various ailments.
"I cannot be cured," she told the judge. "It could be a matter of months, weeks, days... I should not say this in open court, but my doctor told me that I will die soon if I don't get out of prison."
"My lawyers will be annoyed with me for saying this, but I have spent three years in prison for a crime that I have not committed. Innocent until proven guilty..."
"Home is the only place I can attempt regular medical appointments after court hours, at the convenience of the court. Otherwise, my visits to the hospital will become more and more frequent."
Her eyes moist, she said, "I have been in prison for three years. It has taken a mental and physical toll. Getting better is 50 per cent medicines and 50 per cent will. I have lost the will to get better."
"Give me a chance to stay alive and see the trial till its end."
"I am an undertrial, not a convict. I have no criminal antecedents."
It was Indrani at her most dramatic self, sometimes overly so, fighting for her right to bail and probably her health.
Did that mother miss her oldest child?
Did her eldest daughter's abrupt, untimely and horrific death impact her health mentally and physically? Did it affect her will to live?
There was no indication.
Badami's response was almost disinterested; it seemed as if Indrani's over-an-hour-long rebuttal had sapped him. Or, maybe, it was just the October heat.
"We are concerned about the physical and mental health of all accused, just not Accused No 1. It is the State's duty," the CBI prosecutor told the court.
The lawyer, who normally dons a veneer of aggression when it is his turn to speak, was comparatively subdued. He pointed out that she is getting "adequate treatment" and admitted that procedural delays were there because "procedures had to be followed".
Probably, since his reply was already filed with the court, this was a matter on which he did not want to spend too much time.
Badami pointed out that her discharge summary stated that there was "no surgical intervention" needed and she was "neurologically fit for discharge".
"If her condition is beyond the scope of JJ, then we will take her to a private hospital."
"She is under constant protection and watch by two lady members of the police force. She has Z plus security."
"We don't want someone's mind to be disturbed. We are taking maximum care of her personal life and liberty. We want her safety and security."
Sounding rather like an concerned elderly uncle, Badami said, "Who will take care of her, that is a million dollar question."
Even Indrani smiled.
"There was no mention of Radhakrishna in her application. And we all know about bodyguards... what can happen."
The reference, clearly, was to the Gurugram incident last week where an additional sessions judge's wife and son were shot at point blank range by their bodyguard who, incidentally -- did the fact slip Badami's mind? -- was a police constable.
Shrikant Shivade, Peter's lawyer, had been in court though the proceedings; now, his hand was fisted is on the table, head resting on it, as he stared at the floor. Pasbola, Indrani's laywer, has stepped out once again.
"Diabetes and sugar are a common problem in Mumbai," Badami raised chuckles. "And our blood pressure rises if trains are delayed."
Once again, the concerned uncle made an appearance.
"She should have medicines and healthy food. She has lost 18 kgs in 3 or 4 months."
Indrani looked annoyed.
"Not so much exercise."
She donned a surprised look and shrugged.
"No wilful starvation."
"What is he talking about?" she mouthed.
"I see everything," Badami said softly. "Relatives comes for someone. No relatives for someone else."
Someone from Peter's family or a friend is there at every hearing, bringing him food and sitting through the hearing. This time, it is his sister from Bengaluru, Shangon Das Gupta, who seems to have put her life on hold since her elder brother was arrested.
Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna is supported by either his Mumbai-based cousin or his brother from Bengaluru.
The only person who seems to visit Indrani is Radhakrishna, and only when she has instructions for him.
Indrani wanted to rebut, but Judge Jagdale, whose ears are finely tuned to the ticking clock, was not happy.
"Even patients suffering from cancer and TB (tuberculosis) are discharged unless they are about to die. JJ has over 3,000 OPD patients. It is not possible for them to keep all of them. It is not possible for them to keep me," Indrani stated.
"If I am fit, why am I on such strong medication?"
"If he is concerned about my mental and physical health, then why is he opposing bail? It is like being convicted with committing a crime. Will the CBI take responsibility for the loss of my life?"
Indrani took umbrage to Badami's reference to "wilful starvation".
"Even when I am on a fast, I eat every two hours," she told the judge.
Indrani added said she would give an undertaking to appear at every hearing and began to repeat her earlier points. Judge Jagdale, in his gentle manner, indicated it was time to proceed with Witness No 20.
Faisal Nisad Ahmed, director, A M Motors, clearly had a friendly relationship with Peter. The two were having a clearly pleasant conversation at Peter's designated spot before the hearing began. There was some talk about one of them "losing weight" that left both of them laughing.
In the witness box, this garrulous, seemingly pleasant man -- who has a connection with the car in which Sheena Bora was reportedly murdered -- disappeared.
The owner of A M Motors, located opposite the Four Seasons Hotel on Dr E Moses Road, Worli, stated that he owned and ran the well-known car service centre (it was established in 1975) for 20 years.
"Are you a member of a club?" Badami asked.
Ahmed's responses were clipped, abrupt.
The Willingdon Sports Club, where some of South Mumbai's wealthy residents hang out, is where Ahmed and Peter met for the first time -- "somewhere in 2008-2009," Ahmed later told Pasbola -- and became friends.
The club is located close to the Haji Ali Circle, where thirsty, less wealthy Mumbaikars stop at the hugely popular roadside stall, Haji Ali Juice Centre, for a snack and a juice.
On April 22, 2012, like almost every other day, the juice centre would have been crowded.
As would the nearby sea-facing pavement, bordered by a low wall. Many would be sitting on that wall, or standing near it, gazing at famed, sea-locked Haji Ali dargah.
If the time of the day was right, they would probably watch people walking the narrow path leading to the dargah, now exposed by the receding tide.
On April 22, 2012, Ahmed received a call from "Kajal, the PA at Peter's office. They asked for a car since Indrani was coming in the next day from England."
Rai picked up the metallic grey Chevrolet Optra, licence plated MH01 2605.
Peter was standing, listening intently.
"Haan, how many days?" asked Badami.
"The car was used for five days."
Once the car was returned to A M Motors, it was sold to "Mr Kedar from Auto Palace for Rs 85,000."
In August 2015, police officers from the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, visited Ahmed at his office. They had questions about the Optra; questions, says Ahmed, that he answered.
On August 31, 2015, he was summoned to record his statement and a month later, in October, he was called by the CBI which had taken over the case from the Mumbai Police, to once again record his statement.
Badami handed over the witness to Pasbola with an introduction flowery enough to make him smile. "No need to introduce me."
Judge Jagdale smiled and told Ahmed, "Lawyer of Peter Mukerjea."
The smoothing over clearly didn't help; for some reason, Ahmed was acerbic with Pasbola.
"Do you maintain a record of the cars that come to you for sale?"
"Sometimes we do."
As Pasbola dug deeper, it became evident that the only record of a car being given to A M Motors to be sold was the delivery note.
"There is no record that the car is there every day," Ahmed told Pasbola curtly, seemingly offended by the questions.
Around "10-12 cars", said Ahmed, had been entrusted to A M Motors to be sold.
"All these cars were being rented out for hire?"
More probing revealed that the only car rented out in 2012 was the Chevrolet Optra.
"It was not rented," Ahmed was almost fuming. "It was given to Peter Mukerjea's office since he was friend."
"How many such friends did you rent cars to?"
"Not at all. Never."
"Apart from your word that you gave this car to Mukerjea, there is no record?"
Later though, under the lawyer's questioning, Ahmed would admit that he lent cars to Peter five or six times during their association and would receive a "small, unspecified" remuneration from Kajal for which "no invoice was raised".
By now, Ahmed was rushing in with his answers without letting Pasbola complete his questions. But the lawyer, who can be quite ruthless in his questioning, was being comparatively patient.
"Listen to me, Mr Faisal, did you give the delivery note to the CBI?"
"To Khar police station."
Pasbola wanted to know if Ahmed had occasion to visit the Santa Cruz police station, also in north west Mumbai.
"Are you aware that there is a police station called Santa Cruz police station?"
"Yes, I am aware." One can almost imagine Ahmed grinding his teeth.
"Did you see the car again at the police station?"
"Which police station?"
"Any police station."
Ahmed questioned Pasbola aggressively, probably not realising the mettle the lawyer is made of.
"Do not question me," Pasbola said.
The judge intervened, smoothing ruffled feathers.
"No," Witness No 20 stated.
After the car was sold, Ahmed said, he never saw it again.
Pasbola then explored the connection between Accused No 3-turned-approver, Shyamvar Pinturam Rai -- the driver who is accused of participating in Sheena Bora's murder and helping dispose the body -- and Ahmed and whether Rai contacted Ahmed for a car.
"By his boss's name. I am understanding you, go on..." Ahmed said.
"By his requirement?"
"Not by his requirement."
This led to the discrepancy in his statement to the Khar police station, written in Marathi and translated to him in English. According to that statement, Ahmed said he gave cars as per Rai's requirement.
As Pasbola pushed the point, and the fact the Khar police translated the statement for him in Hindi, Ahmed snapped, "I don't recollect, I am repeating myself one more time."
"Faisal, recorded in your statement..."
Before Pasbola could finish, "Are you harping on this?" Ahmed asked.
Judge Jagdale stopped Ahmed, indicating he had crossed a line. "Be cool and calm," the judge advised in his gentel manner that hides a core of steel.
But Ahmed, who has only been staring at Pasbola in a rather Alpha male fashion, misses the cue.
"I don't recollect," he stared at Pasbola, "so I can't say."
Pasbola has found another discrepancy; in his statement to the Khar police station. Ahmed has made a statement thrice in 2015 -- to the Khar police station on August 31, 2015; to the CBI on October 7 and to the magistrate on October 30.
Ahmed's statement to the Khar police station does not mention the fact that Kajal informed him Indrani was coming to India.
"What do you have to say?" Pasbola asked.
One of Rai's multiple cell phone numbers is mentioned in Ahmed's statement to the Khar police but Ahmed denied giving it.
"Did the Khar police show mobile call records between you and Rai?"
But Rai's number may have been on his phone, Ahmed said because he had interacted with the driver "many, many times" before 2012. "He maintained our cars."
Ahmed's statement to the CBI, which was recorded in English, also mentions Rai's number.
"I don't recollect at this point. They must have had the number and written it."
And, Ahmed added, he must have not noticed the number when he was reading the statement to confirm its accuracy.
Peter and Sanjeev Khanna were both standing, listening to the statement intently; Indrani seemed disinterested.
Pasbola moved on to the statement Ahmed gave before the magistrate.
"You did not remember the registration number of the car."
"That is right."
The clock has chimed minutes past 5.30. Pasbola requested Judge Jagdale for permission to ask a few more questions but Navratri celebrations were looming, especially for the judge's clerks who wanted to go home.
Shrikant Shivade, Peter's lawyer, wanted to ask the witness a few questions.
"Let him ask him questions," Ahmed said magnanimously, a hint of smile on his face.
"No, no," says Judge Jagdale. "He will finish (indicating Pasbola) and then he (indicating Shivade) will ask."
And all the asking will happen on October 19, after Dushhera, after Lord Ram vanquishes Raavan.
- MUST READ: The Sheena Bora Murder Trial