In a verandah at the city civil sessions court, Indrani Mukerjea is surrounded by women constables, who try to prevent journalists from speaking to her through the sliding grills. The 44-year-old former media head honcho sits with a pile of papers—she is bespectacled, neatly dressed in a reddish salwar with beige dupatta, and her hair has been recently coloured. Seen just outside courtroom number 51, the accused in a high-profile case is composed, open to conversing, and even engages in small talk. Only that the police snap the chatter when the subject strays on to a more recent development: the death of fellow inmate Manjula Shetye.
It’s July 4 and the trial proceedings in the Sheena Bora murder case have resumed after a gap of four months. At the back of the courtroom, Indrani is sitting with her ex-spouse Sanjeev Khanna (who is an alleged accomplice in the case) and her husband Peter Mukerjea (from whom she sought divorce earlier this year). Amid the infrequent chat, they find it hard to listen to the barely-audible court proceedings. What’s on is the deposition of the first prosecution witness, Ganesh Dalvi. He is narrating the events that unfolded after prime accused-turned-approver Shyamwar Rai was arrested in an Arms Act case.
Indrani, Sanjeev and Peter remain grim and quiet throughout the proceedings. Peter requests the judge to allow him to sit in the front for want of audibility. Indrani pays keen attention once the court takes up her application for medical reports and filing of a non-congnisable (NC) offence instead of an FIR over an incident of jail assault this June.
Well, there are at least two different distinct sides to Indrani, the accused. One, who allegedly murdered her daughter (Sheena Bora) in 2012 and remained tight-lipped about it for three long years. Two, who has decided to stick her neck out and lead her fellow jail inmates, who, till the other week, included Manjula. While the murder and conspiracy charges are yet to be proven, her dogged pursuit about what happens in Byculla jail that lodges women undertrials, including her, has earned her some appreciation—spoken and unspoken.
On June 23, Manjula, a convict serving last few months of her jail term, died of blunt injuries from an alleged assault by jail officials. Six of them have been arrested and suspended for beating her so much that she died soon after. Manjula, who also worked as a warden, was reportedly fighting with the jail staff for more food allowance for the inmates. The 35-year-old’s death prompted the inmates to protest—from the terrace of the jail. They were booked for rioting, following which public debate was rife about the alleged atrocities the inmates have been facing at the hands of jail officials.
The issue gained its real push following a police complaint Indrani filed. It clearly states that Manjula succumbed to injuries from the “gruesome and severe” assault. Indrani was not only a witness to it, she persistently asked the jail staff about Manjula’s subsequent condition—until they found out the next day that she was dead. Some reports said Indrani led the protest, while others questioned her role.
The three-page complaint with the Nagpada police station further says the episode traumatised the inmates. She requested an FIR be registered against jailer Manisha Pokharkar and five others. Indrani not only claimed that she was assaulted and threatened by the jail staff; she also says jail superintendent Chandramani Indurkar verbally abused her. “He will do whatever he needs to do to make life difficult for me and other inmates,” notes the complaint. She showed the injury marks to her lawyer Gunjan Mangla, informed the sessions court and got a medical examination done. After this, an NC complaint was registered at Nagpada station. On July 4, her lawyer Gunjan Mangla requested for the medical reports of injuries on Indrani’s body so that they could further press for registering of an first information report.
Mangla says the jail authorities will obviously try to blame the jail-mates, including Indrani. “But she wants to pursue this matter. Let us hope it helps the issue,” Mangla tells Outlook. Earlier, when reporters tried asking Indrani about the various aspects of the issue, the undertrial prisoner (since 2015) said she was doing fine. Indrani said she had given the copy of the complaint to Mangla. She was also in agreement about getting used to a life in jail, which followed a remark about looking better than before.
Maharashtra women’s commission says a judicial inquiry will be conducted. “We have taken suo motu congnisance and an SIT has been formed,” points out Vijaya Rahatkar, head of the body. “It is very painful that something like this happened. The inmates are humans and deserve to be there without fear. We have the right to inspect the condition of the jails and we will be doing that as well. Jail authorities were summoned and asked about what action they have done. We will look into Manjula’s death, Indrani’s complaint and the root cause behind what happened.”
Susieben Shah, a former head of the commission, says Indrani’s intervention may help. “She is an educated, trained mind. If she is using it for betterment, why not? She is a woman and is living in similar conditions as the other inmates,” she says. “Indrani probably also knows that her fate is sealed. But she recognises that she has a voice, and people listen to her. So it may just help.”
Aseem Sarode, a lawyer who has been working on conditions inside the prison and rights of the inmates, says Indrani has an opportunity to make a difference, “She has the financial and legal wherewithal. She is lodged inside the jail and can see for herself,” he points out. “Indrani should look at this incident and case separately from the Sheena Bora murder trial—and try to file a petition with the higher courts. Usually, it is very hard to know what goes on inside jails because they are so heavily guarded.”
Writer Shobhaa De has given voice to another theory: “…Indrani was supposedly the brainchild who suggested using children of inmates as human shields, and burning clothes, books and paper to attract maximum attention. The matches came from a prisoner who has court permission to smoke.” In her recent column in Mumbai Mirror, De says, “This sounds like pure, uncut, unadulterated Indrani—the woman accused of murdering her own daughter Sheena Bora, who for years was forced to pretend to be her mother’s sister. Only someone with as sharp a mind as Indrani’s could be capable of plotting and executing a plan this complicated and ambitious (the jail revolt and subsequent accusations against the staff), and convince other, more gullible inmates to participate in such a foolhardy mission. Let’s hand it to Indrani. She is beginning to resemble Charles Sobhraj in drag. But one good thing to emerge from this tragedy is this: Indrani has accomplished a major feat by drawing attention to the widespread malaise afflicting overstuffed prisons.”
Certain television channels raised red flags over a possibility of Indrani , who co-founded INX media in 2007, using this incident to her advantage.
So, will her filing of this case help Indrani change her image from a cold and clinical murder-accused to a torchbearer for jail inmates and human rights? Will it have any bearing on the Sheena Bora murder trial? These are matter of speculation. True, the trial in case on her daughter’s murder will go on for long, continuing to horrify people with evidences that are put up before special CBI judge J.C. Jagdale. Yet, Guwahati-born Indrani might just prove to be a good Samaritan to the 291 women currently lodged in Byculla jail if she succeeds in making even a minor move towards a life of safety and dignity for prisoners.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai