Indrani Mukerjea's divorce plea is likely to be a legal strategy to aid Sheena Bora murder trial

The Sheena Bora murder investigations, and the stories unfolding around the key accused took a new turn on Tuesday, when the CBI court hearing the matter framed murder charges against the three accused — Indrani and Peter Mukerjea, and Indrani's former husband Sanjeev Khanna, under sections 120B, 302, 203 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

However, in  this long sordid saga of a family affair gone terribly wrong, the biggest twist in the tale came in the form of principal accused Indrani seeking the court's permission to file for divorce from Peter. In ordinary circumstances, such a decision or announcement would be considered entirely within the private domain of the couple involved and would not entail any further analysis as to why such a demand was being made. However, this case — and this instance — is different.

Indrani and Peter Mukerjea. CNN-News18 file image

Indrani and Peter Mukerjea. CNN-News18 file image

The timing of the decision and the carefully calibrated attempt to ensure this was brought out before the CBI court (divorces matters are for family courts) elicit some educated guesses as to the motives, and the timing of the decision.

We must always bear in mind that the narrative and context underlying the entire Sheena Bora murder case has been one hinged on complex and convoluted human relationships — and a significant amount of wealth at stake. It is in this light that the act of seeking a divorce becomes particularly relevant. The second underlying thread that a trained eye can find from the media reportage on this case is the consistently confusing statements provided by the various accused, which could possibly point to guilt, but could also be a well-designed defence strategy once the trial begins.

Therefore, it's reasonable to believe that the decision of divorce may either be fueled by a motivation to sort out issues regarding ownership of properties or is a desperate attempt to put an arm's length that will allow each of the accused and their counsel to pursue a line of defence that may suit them.

Of course, it could also be something genuinely personal and not otherwise connected to the case and its consequences at all, even though that possibility seems incredibly remote given the circumstances! Here are a few of the possible motivating factors:

The property angle

At the outset, it must be stated that as mere observers we are not yet aware of the grounds under which Indrani Mukerjea will seek divorce, or even whether this will be an instance of divorce by mutual consent. However, in the event they do go in for a divorce by mutual consent, it will be reasonable to assume that the decision has been taken with a specific motive to achieve an objective in law, which is different from or in addition to the obviously stated objective of ending the marriage.

It is well known from all the media reportage that the Mukerjeas have ownership (both joint and individual) of a significant number of properties worth a fairly large sum of money. A divorce — and the subsequent separation of properties — will be an opportunity to clearly delineate ownership. It will help Indrani in ensuring a certain inheritance for her daughter Vidhie and also keep Peter's son Rahul Mukerjea from ending up as the sole heir of most of the jointly held properties

also ensure that Rahul Mukerjea does not end up as the sole  heir  of  most of the jointly held properties. It has been considered in some reports that the entire murder could have been motivated by the urge to deny Sheena Bora of the right to claim any of Indrani's properties. A divorce may result in some jointly held properties being transferred entirely to Indrani, and even some additional properties being settled in her favour.

This is by now an age-old method to protect properties, and have often been used by couples to protect properties from creditors or from attachment in ongoing cases. However, what strikes one as odd about this theory is that the facts of the case do not in any way suggest that the Mukerjeas' wealth is in any danger of attachment since it's a case of murder and not financial in nature.

The reasonable doubt strategy: Conspiracy antidote

The entire case of the prosecution seems to stand on driver Shyamvar Rai's confession, some circumstantial evidence and some corroborative evidence to support the same. However, the thread tying the case together is the charge under Section 120B, which once brought into doubt, could effectively unravel the prosecution's entire story.

Now, the marriage of Peter and Indrani could play a crucial role here, as ether of them can continue to prevent the other from testifying on communications between the two during the course of their marriage. Before conjectures and speculations on this issue of marital privilege run wild, this may be a good time to point out that this privilege will sustain itself for all such private communication made during the marriage, even after its termination. So a divorce now will not deny either parties' counsel from effectively using the privilege to block admission of any communication between the them during the course of the incidents leading up to the murder of Sheena Bora.

That said, it is also equally likely that Indrani's advocates will follow a strategy of denial and blame in order to entirely obfuscate the facts and create enough doubt over the chain of events in order to successfully establish "reasonable doubts" in the minds of the judges. Given the way these charges have been framed and the prosecution's case stands today, any successful attempt at confusing the link chain for establishing conspiracy will help unravel and spoil the case.

We must wait to see what grounds Indrani takes for her divorce and further wait for the trial to commence to see the strategy followed by the defence to be able to say with certainty the exact motives behind the decision of filing for divorce. However, based on the limited facts available right now in the public domain, it would be reasonable to infer that this is a divorce necessitated by legal strategies more than any actual marital issue.

The author is an advocate and co-author of Red handed: 20 Criminal Cases that Shook India

Published Date: Jan 18, 2017 13:31 PM | Updated Date: Jan 18, 2017 13:31 PM

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