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Sheena Bora Trial: Travels with Indrani and Peter

February 13, 2019 14:34 IST

It might have been the season of Basant Panchami, but for Pasbola it was definitely Halloween as he set about scaring the wits out of Rangwala, his tone growing harsher.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Courtroom 51 held a mini travel agents convention on Tuesday, February 12, 2019, on the third floor of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court.

Employees of two different travel agencies deposed on Tuesday and a representative of Jet Airways comes in Wednesday to testify in the Sheena Bora murder trial.

Not surprising considering the amount the Mukerjeas travelled, especially in 2012. Their staff too. And the number of tickets purchased.

Julian William Hector Paul, 52, who once worked as a travel assistant at Mystic Travels Pvt Ltd, Colaba, south Mumbai, became Prosecution Witness No 32 when he took the stand first, after the lunch recess.

Rather earnest. Slightly nervous. Obliging. It was clearly Paul's first time in the hot seat.

His job as witness was to confirm that he had, at the say so of Kajal Sharma, Indrani Mukerjea's then secretary, made all these bookings he had in 2012.

Paul seemed to not have been examined by the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, who began the murder investigation in 2015, but had been first called in as a witness by the CBI.

For the CBI he had prepared a special chart, in his neat hand, of all the tickets he had booked from January to April for the Mukerjeas.

There were some 21 or so entries for tickets purchased for Vidhie Mukerjea (Indrani's daughter from her second marriage to Sanjeev Khanna), Indrani Mukerjea, Peter Mukerjea, Mekhail Bora (Indrani's son from her first relationship) and Peter's sister Shangon Das Gupta.

The originating point and destination had been listed, the prices and the ticket status.

Destinations varied between Kolkata, Goa, Delhi, Guwahati, Bagdogra, London and Mumbai. A few of the ticket listings had been crossed out and converted from 'OK' status to 'Cancelled'.

There were a flurry of bookings between April 19 and April 30, 2012, crucially some just after the alleged murder of Sheena Bora on April 24, to Kolkata and Goa.

Paul told the court he would buy tickets usually "in the name of Pratim (Peter) Mukerjea and Indrani Mukerjea" after hearing from Kajal either on the phone or on e-mail. They were all air ticket bookings, he confirmed.

Other than that, Kajal and he interacted over cancellations of tickets and for the payment of the bills which had been paid by cheque.

The agent was asked to verify papers associated with the case, including a letter from Mystic Travels to CBI Investigating Officer Kaushal Kishore Singh, as well as the list of flights he had put together for the CBI.

 

Paul, a short man, had a lean, spindly build. He was grey-haired, with a thin grey toothbrush moustache. Wearing a green-striped shirt, grey trousers, a black belt and black shoes, the pressure of testifying began to worry him especially when the cross examination commenced.

His eyes would pop and dart about the room. And his neck would elongate slightly further in anxiety. But he took pains to answer queries meticulously and was a helpful individual.

Indrani's lawyer Gunjan Mangla was all set to cross examine Paul, but said she would wait five minutes in case senior advocate Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola could make it.

Meanwhile, Peter was doing his homework and seemed to be examining Paul's painstaking list. He came forward from the accused enclosure to point out some details to his lawyer Shrikant Shivade. The advocate, in the interim, got up to cross-examine Paul.

Shivade enquired why some of the entries had been struck out. Paul said he had done that. Shivade, tut-tutting, wondered how he could have so clumsily without initialling -- "Weren't you aware that you were making a very serious document?"

In a further attempt to discredit Paul, Shivade asked: "A foreigner has to give his passport number while booking an air ticket. Mr Pratim Mukerjea is holding a foreign passport. Are you aware of that?"

Paul: "I am not aware of that. Kajal never mentioned it. They were all domestic legs."

Shivade ascertained from Paul that in spite of the chart -- which was signed by his boss Noshir Antia -- he had no way of confirming if any of these passengers had actually travelled.

Paul agreed and said he would have only gotten to know that a ticket was not utilised if it had been sent in for cancellation.

Then there was the matter of Peter's bookings on April 30, 2012. Shivade wondered how Peter could have been booked to go to Mumbai from Goa at both 4 pm and 11.15 pm -- the first flight by Jet Airways and the next by GoAir and how was it possible he had made two trips from Goa in one afternoon-evening.

Shivade: "Both tickets could not have been used by Mr Pratim Mukerjea?"

Paul: "Probably."

Shivade, firmly "No probably."

Paul, who quite obviously knew his flights and routes rather well, wasn't particularly startled and was quick to say that it was achievable because it was just a one-hour flight. But he nevertheless leaned down and began to examine his sheet with a fine-tooth comb, squinting at it and could not be distracted from this obsessive process, while the court waited.

Finally, CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale tried to end Paul's intense study: "Let it be. Yes Mister?"

Then Shivade: "Hello?"

Paul, looking up, concluded: "You can use both the tickets in one day. He can come back late at night."

Shivade pointed out there was no ticket from Mumbai to Goa on his list and again Paul couldn't know if the tickets had been used. Paul conceded that was right.

What was apparent, but not brought up, was that Paul's list was that of a well-heeled family who may have made multiple bookings but not used many of the tickets or cancelled them either. As per his list between April 1 and April 30 2012 somewhere in the region of Rs 152,000 had been spent in tickets.

Shivade put it to Paul that parts of his list had "incorrect records" at the instance of the CBI investigating officer.

Paul baffled to discover that his earnestness was being disputed looked awfully uncomfortable.

Judge Jagdale smiled gently at Paul, calming the waters: "He is sincere man."

Pasbola started up. He wanted to know when Paul had cancelled Indrani's booking on April 25, one day after Sheena's murder, from Mumbai to Kolkata, which according to the chart was on Jet Airways flight 9W615 flight leaving Mumbai at about 7 am. Paul said he didn't know. Or when a fresh ticket for the same sector was issued.

Indrani's advocate asked a few more questions about the e-mail IDs from which the bookings were made and then barked loudly that Paul was deposing falsely.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Not understanding this part of the proceedings, where a defence lawyer procedurally calls out the version of a witness, poor Paul's face crumpled and he looked shattered. Horrified. His eyes were even wider. It was difficult to control the urge to take a handkerchief to him.

Again, Judge Jagdale, who is careful to look after the welfare of the witnesses, soothed him, trying to make him understand. But it must have been quite a broken Julian William Hector Paul who departed the court feeling more like a criminal than a witness.

Munira Hassanbhai Rangwala, wearing a red and black checked kurta and chunni over blue jean leggings, with brown slip ons, carrying several bags, took the box.

She worked at Gayatri Tours and Travels in Thane, in the same building as INX Media, after it relocated to Amrapali Arcade, Vasant Vihar, Thane west. And she got to know Kajal for whom she did some personal bookings.

The Mumbra resident told the court in an enthusiastic rush, that sounded almost like an ad spot, that she and her agency handled: "Air tickets. Railway tickets. Bus tickets. Holiday packages..."

She said she had booked air and rail tickets at different times for: "Kajal Sharma, Pradeep Waghmare. Indrani Mukerjea. Prashant Chakravarty. Maya Singh." These were all members of the Mukerjeas's domestic and office entourage.

The payment mode had been both cash and cheque and the bookings were forwarded on e-mail. She had maintained a record of these transactions. CBI Special Prosecutor Kavita Patil pulled out that record which was a xerox, that would not have cut it in court.

The judge asked why it was a xerox, as the defence lawyers shook their heads in dismay.

Rangwala said she had a fresh print out and there was elation with her efficiency.

Pasbola exaggeratedly: "No objection. The only document I will not object to in the entire case."

Rangwala, who would have been in her thirties and was something of an enthu cutlet, spoke like the proverbial express train, her voice racing along faster than even Rail Mantri Piyush Goyal's Vande Bharat.

The copy she produced were of tickets booked right from 2012 through to 2014-2015. Patil confirmed from Rangwala that the list was from her ledger, where she had kept a record of tickets issued to Kajal Sharma and INX.

Pasbola got up to quiz Rangwala.

From starting Pasbola, for whatever strategic reasons, was super severe with Rangwala. In a gruff and stern voice he asked her if she had been first called by the Khar police station.

Rangwala in a rush: "Yes sir. Yes sir."

Patil remarked she was answering as if her train was about to be missed and suggested a slow down.

It might have been the season of Basant Panchami, but for Pasbola it was definitely Halloween as he set about scaring the wits out of Rangwala, his tone growing harsher.

Pasbola roughly: "Statement likha tha police ne? (Did the Khar police write your statement?)"

Rangwala: "Ha (Yes)."

Pasbola, pointing to the sheet, questioned in a bit of a bellow: "Wahan ye file kiya? (Did you file this there?)."

Rangawala took off like the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani with a garbled, hurried, explanation about not recalling if she had and that at present she could not remember.

Pasbola ticked her off: "Zyada bolo mat! (Don't talk so much!)"

Rangwala, contrite: "Sorry sir."

Pasbola, irritated but grinning: "Ek saath char jawab dene ka zaroorat nahin hai? (Is there need to give four answers at one time?)"

The judge mediated, suggesting to Pasbola something to the effect that he use a gentler tack.

Pasbola checked if the list was handed over to the CBI.

Rangwala, still careening along at 110 km per hour, nouns, adjectives, words, sentences, spewing out, said she had and they had examined and kept it.

Pasbola commented: "Aapki gaadi itni fast jati hai (Your vehicle goes very fast)."

The advocate told Rangwala that she was probably aware of what he would ask next which was "Is (list) mein Shyamvar Rai ka naam nahin hai? (On this list Shyamvar Rai's name is not there?)"

This was the ticket that the defence had alleged in 2017 had been booked for Shyamvar Rai to go to Goa during that crucial period where he was meant to be somewhere else as per the CBI's version.

Rangwala looked anxious, agitated and upset as she attempted to answer that.

Judge Jagdale: "Tension nahin lena (Don't get stressed)."

Pasbola agreed tartly. "Aap witness hai and Singh Sahib pahucha hua aadmi hai (You are a witness and Singh Sahib is an influential man)."

Pasbola: "Ek minute baat sunna dhyan se. Aisa hua ki Shyamvar Rai ke liye vimaan ke ticket book kiya? (One minute, listen carefully. Did it happen that you booked an air ticket for Shyamvar Rai?)"

Rangwala: "Nahin Sir." Rangwala's deference -- through a series of "Sorry sir"s and "Nahin sir"s -- to Pasbola was evident.

Pasbola wondered why it was in her statement to the Khar police.

Rangwala looked uncomfortable almost teary-eyed.

She insisted, bravely: "Lekin mein nahin bola (But I did not state so)."

Pasbola, disbelievingly, dissatisfied, expressed his deep puzzlement.

Rangwala beseeched: "Mujhe kya lena dena hai? (What do I have to gain?)"

Pasbola laughed bleakly: "Singh Sahib ko lene dena hai! (Singh Sahib has something to gain). That is his business!"

Patil objected to the allegation.

Singh smiled inscrutably at Pasbola. And the room at large. It was the kind of long, sizing-up smile shatranj ke khiladi might give each other over a chessboard. In this case a game of chess over human lives that would go on for innumerable years.

The judge smiled too: "Tham le (Now hold it there)."

The cross-examination was over.

Pasbola, after putting Rangwala through the ringer, offered a polite "dhanyavad" to the now-glued-back-together Rangwala as she left with her bags, who thanked him in turn too.

Indrani had a word with the judge about documents not received from Peter towards their divorce. Wearing floral layers of red and pink she took the stand to state this.

Peter swiftly came across the room and took the stand next to her, like the husband and wife they will soon never be, and stated that it was not that he didn't want to hand over these documents to her but that they were valueless unless notarised.

He and his lawyers were still trying to figure how his documents, given that he was in judicial custody, could be notarised. Maybe it could be done in court when he came for a hearing. Or at the jail.

The judge suggested the jail. The lawyers looked glum. Apparently it was not hard to find a notary who would come to jail but there was a lot of paperwork involved in getting permission for a notary to come to the Arthur Road jail, south central Mumbai.

The judge gave permission to Sanjeev and Peter to eat.

As their lunch proceeded the constable in charge of Peter, who referred to him bossily as "Pratim" started getting increasingly edgy. Finally, he stomped into the courtroom yelling, for anyone to hear, that Peter was not using the half an hour or whatever allotted to eat and was wasting time.

Peter looked at him, calmly resigned, and wrapped up his lunch.

The constable ordered Sanjeev to stand outside, while Peter picked up his belongings.

The rudeness of constables, who are probably overworked, is par for the course. Other prisoners, one can see, are far more roughly handled. Comparatively, the cops don the finest of kid gloves around Peter, Indrani and to a lesser extent Sanjeev.

But given that most prisoners are still in judicial custody, for many days/months/years/decades longer than they ever need to be -- not yet proven guilty -- none of this can be deemed acceptable.

So the trio headed back to jail -- Peter to Barrack 12 where he is at that moment either the solitary occupant or one of few and where he doesn't have a bed but he does have a broom.

And Sanjeev Khanna to his round anda cell -- solitary confinement, because he is considered as dangerous as 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab, who occupied this barrack earlier. A transfer out of solitary confinement has not still happened for inexplicable reasons.

Indrani to Byculla jail where she has another "vc" (video conference) with officials in Delhi in a day or so.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com
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