India gripped by Indrani Mukerjea murder mystery

The ex-media tycoon, is accused of killing her daughter in a bizarre case that has taken the country by storm.

Indian police are surrounded by media as they escort former media executive Indrani Mukherjea from a city court in Mumbai on August 31. AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // A murder investigation involving a former media tycoon and her slain daughter has gripped India, revealing sordid details of deceit, hatred and a pre-meditated plan to kill.

Last week, Mumbai police arrested Indrani Mukerjea, 43, the former head of the New Delhi-based INX Media group, on charges of murdering her daughter Sheena Bora in 2012. Bora was just 22-years-old at the time of her death.

Ms Mukerjea’s ex-husband, Sanjeev Khanna, and her driver, Shyam Rai, have also been arrested for allegedly being part of the plot.

The three accused appeared in a Mumbai court on Monday, where a judge extended their police custody until September 5.

Police began investigating Ms Mukerjea about four months ago, following an anonymous tip, according to police statements.

However, the investigation only picked up after Mr Rai confessed to being involved in Sheena’s murder, following his arrest two weeks ago on unrelated illegal firearms charges.

The case has all the trappings of a murder mystery. For unknown reasons, Ms Mukerjea would introduce Sheena as her sister, instead of her daughter. It was only after Ms Mukerjea’s arrest that Sheena was revealed to be her daughter from the first of her three marriages.

Even Ms Mukerjea’s current husband, Peter Mukerjea, the former chief executive of Star TV in India, did not know the truth about the relationship. “I feel like I have been kept in the dark about major parts of my marriage for 15 years,” he told the news channel NDTV last week.

Mr Mukerjea was in London when this crime was committed.

Following police questioning, Mr Rai said he had on April 24, 2012 driven Ms Mukerjea and Mr Khanna to pick up Sheena in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. Afterwards, they took her to a quiet street and Mr Khanna strangled her.

The act was pre-planned. Mr Khanna had flown in to Mumbai from Kolkata especially for this.

Later that night, the three stuffed Sheena body into a bag, put it in the car’s trunk and drove to the woods in Raigad, roughly 70 kilometres away. There, they doused the bag with petrol, set fire to it and buried the remains, according to Mr Rai’s confession.

Raigad police found the burned body about a month later, but were unable to identify the victim. It wasn’t until Mr Rai’s arrest that the body was connected to Sheena’s disappearance.

Peter Mukerjea’s son from a previous marriage, Rahul, and Ms Bora’s brother Mikhail had filed a missing person’s complaint in 2012. At the time, Ms Mukerjea insisted Sheena had moved to the United States.

Police sources said that Mr Rai’s story was corroborated by Mr Khanna’s confession, after his arrest on August 26. Ms Mukerjea, arrested a day earlier, has also been interrogated, but police have not revealed details from the questioning.

As yet, no explanation has arisen for why Ms Mukerjea and her accomplices would have murdered Sheena, although some media reports have mentioned a financial dispute between mother and daughter.

Adding additional confusion to the case, at the time of her murder Sheena had been engaged to marry Rahul Mukerjea, technically her step-brother.

Ms Mukerjea was born Pori Bora in Guwahati, in Assam state, where Sheena and a brother named Mikhail were also born. Their father is believed to be Siddhartha Das, a businessman with whom she was briefly married.

Leaving her children in the care of her parents, Ms Mukerjea moved to Kolkata in 1990, where she changed her name and married Mr Khanna. They have a daughter named Vidhie.

The family moved to Mumbai in 2001. Soon afterwards, Ms Mukerjea divorced Mr Khanna and, in November 2002, married Mr Mukerjea. She introduced Sheena and Mikhail to her new husband as her siblings.

While Sheena and Vidhie moved in with the Mukerjeas, Mikhail continued to live in Assam. Mumbai police sources have told reporters that Ms Mukerjea made four attempts to have Mikhail killed as well.

After INX Media racked up billions of rupees in losses, the Mukerjeas sold their stake in the company in 2010 and resigned from the board the following year. Since then, they have divided their time between homes in Marbella in Spain, Bristol in the United Kingdom and Mumbai.

The case has dominated India’s news cycle for the past week, similar to the murder trial of former US athlete OJ Simpson in the 1990s.

Abhinandan Sekhri, the co-founder of Newslaundry, a New Delhi-based web site that critiques the Indian media, told The National that the case has "brought out the worst in news coverage."

“It’s about a person who is known to most people in journalism and TV at a social or personal level,” Mr Sekhri said. “This, more than anything else, makes it delicious. The insular, gossipy nature of all we do has set this on fire. Time for colleagues who disliked her to get even, and for others to sit back and enjoy the show.”

But even people who don’t know Ms Mukerjea personally find it difficult to look away.

Archana Gupta, a healthcare consultant based in Hyderabad, admitted that, more than once a day, she searches the Internet for the latest updates to the case.

“I feel a little guilty when I do it, because I know I shouldn’t be this interested in a murder case,” she said. “But the details are just so bizarre here, and every day something more bizarre is revealed. It’s impossible to not be curious.”

ssubramanian@thenational.a