Did the murder of Sheena Bora at the hands of mother Indrani Mukerjea have anything to do with the Rs 900 crore that was siphoned off by her and her husband, Peter, to secret accounts abroad?
By Ajith Pillai
With each passing day, the Sheena Bora murder case has thrown up the trademark characteristics of a 19th century Russian novel — a complex and twisted plot, a surfeit of melodrama and the darker side of human greed revealed in a multi-layered modern saga. In fact, comprehending the story involves delving deep into the life and liaisons of Sheena Bora’s mother, Indrani Mukerjea, who allegedly plotted the murder of her daughter with the help of her present husband, her ex-husband and her driver. Could it get more complicated than that?
The plot has only thickened since Indrani’s current husband, ex-media baron Peter Mukerjea, was formally arrested as an accomplice on November 19 by the CBI. New stands of information have suddenly emerged, adding a shocking twist to the tale. These seem to suggest the following:
* There may be a direct link between the murder and the monies stashed away abroad by the Mukerjeas after the sale of their company, INX Media (which also owned NewsX channel) in 2009. The CBI told the special court in Mumbai on November 26 that as much as Rs 900 crore illegal funds from the INX Media transaction were parked through shell companies abroad, including in accounts opened for Sheena Bora in HSBC, Singapore. Was the murder then a case of Sheena trying to extort more share of the loot and invoking the ire of her mother and her husband? Did they think she was better off dead than alive and demanding?
* Peter Mukerjea was fully aware of the plan to bump off Sheena. He was not a gullible husband and a nice guy as he wanted the world to believe. It is now revealed, through a series of emails he had sent to his son, Rahul, that he was very much part of the plot and knew virtually every step his wife was taking.
* Sheena was bumped off by her mother to ensure that her other daughter, Vidhie (from Indrani’s earlier marriage to Sanjeev Khanna), who was later adopted by Peter, would be the sole inheritor of the wealth of the Mukerjeas.
* Sheena would have had a claim to the inheritance if she and Rahul (Peter’s son from an earlier marriage), who were in a relationship, got married. Eliminating Sheena was seen as the only way out to ensure that only Vidhie and Rahul would be the rightful heirs.
* The wealth the mother was eyeing for her daughter, we were earlier informed by the CBI, included a flat in upscale Mumbai, a house in the UK and the monies in overseas accounts in Peter’s name.
But was murder most foul committed for just that? Going by what the CBI told the court, there is obviously much more than meets the eye. The agency has now gone back to a 2013 probe report of the Serious Fraud Investigation office (SFIO), under the ministry of corporate affairs, which looked into the dubious sale of INX Media (which included News X). Hundreds of crores changed hands in the deal and Peter and Indrani seem to have funneled the money abroad to secret accounts.
In fact, SFIO’s draft report had recommended a criminal investigation into the sham transaction in which “the buyer and the sellers were one and the same”. SFIO had then launched its investigations under instruction from the government following a revelation in the Radia tapes that PR consultant Niira Radia was liasoning with the then NewsX management on financial matters. These included day-to-day running costs on behalf of a top Mumbai-based Fortune 500 corporate house with strong political links and interests in petroleum and the media.
SFIO’s draft report was never followed upon, though it identified those involved in the selling and buying of the news channel through a maze of shell companies in India and abroad. Some of these were linked to the corporate group in question. It also revealed that Indrani Mukerjea was at the center of the entire deal, acting on behalf of Peter.
The SFIO report made this pertinent observation about the INX Media sale: “It is important to highlight that the cost of purchase of shares between March 2007 (Rs 208.24 per share) and January 7, 2009 (Rs 208.23) differs only by a decimal, that is Rs .01 only. However, when the shares were sold on January 7, 2009 the share price was taken at Rs 10per share. There is no reason to show such a sudden decline in the share price by Rs 198 per share, especially when the company is not listed on the exchanges. Even in the case of listed companies a fluctuation of more than 20 per cent raises a red flag which invites the intervention of SEBI.” SFIO had recommended a detailed probe but neither the UPA government nor the current dispensation has so far moved on it.
The CBI has taken cognizance of the SFIO report, although it may look at it only within the narrow ambit of the murder investigation. An official of the agency explained the situation to India Legal: “We have sought Interpol’s help to identify Peter Mukerjea’s overseas accounts. But the investigation into the fraud transaction and the mechanics of how it was carried out will be outside the scope of the murder investigation we have been mandated to carry out. In fact, that aspect calls for an entirely different probe into a financial crime by an appropriate agency like the ED or the revenue intelligence. However, if monies did change hands and were parked outside the country as Peter has told us, then we would be interested because it would provide a far more substantial motive for the killing than Peter’s properties in Mumbai and his declared personal bank accounts.”
According to him, there is also the point about the Mukerjeas having siphoned off operational funds from INX Media while they were involved in the running of NewsX and other associated entities. It may be recalled that in 2007-2008 when INX Media was launched, Peter leveraged his influence and equity as a successful former CEO of the Star Network to attract investments into the new company.
On record, there was an inflow of about Rs 750 crore into the company and much of the funds came from equity companies like Temasek, New Silk Route Advisors, Kotak Mahindra Bank and New Vernon Private Equity. There were also unofficial money infusions. Much of the funds that came in were shown in the books as expended or as losses and allegedly siphoned to offshore accounts by Indrani with her husband’s knowledge.
The staff of NewsX who were given pink slips when its parent company changed hands, wrote to the then I&B ministry complaining about the misappropriation of funds by the Mukerjeas. The ministry forwarded their complaint to the finance ministry for action but nothing came out of it except a notice to Peter Mukerjea from the Enforcement Directorate.
The big question which emerges from this narrative is whether Sheena was aware of the money that was allegedly stashed away. More importantly, was she using the information to blackmail her mother and Peter? The investigators are not ruling out that possibility.
A police official in Mumbai who has been following the case closely told India Legal that high stakes must certainly be involved for someone like Sanjeev Khanna (Indrani’s ex-husband) to get himself entangled in the sordid mess. Remember, he was a fairly successful and respected businessman in Kolkata, owned an upscale restaurant and dabbled in real estate and the hotel development business before he was implicated in the murder. “Why would he get involved? The explanation that he willingly joined the plot so that his daughter Vidhie’s interests would be served and she would become the rightful heir to Peter’s wealth is too simplistic. It may be recalled that Sanjeev was dumped by Indrani and their daughter was legally adopted by Peter. Why would Sanjeev agree to be part of the murder unless there were big bucks involved and he was promised a share?” he asks.
There are several questions that have bewildered investigators ever since the sensational murder came to light in August this year. What has complicated the case further is the fact that those linked to the crime, including the Mukerjeas, have emerged as people with no real emotional bonding between each other. And yet their lives criss-crossed.
As for the killing itself, it was speculated that Indrani’s own insecurity and misgivings may have made her strangle her own daughter. It was even said that she was simply a person with a diseased mind. But if that was true, then what about the others who were willing accomplices to the crime? How did Indrani convince them to come on board?
We now know that money was part of the murder matrix. And that too big money…