More articles by

Anupam Dasgupta
Anupam Dasgupta


Pill of indictment

Drug overdose did not cause Indrani Mukerjea to slip into unconsciousness. So what actually did?

The drama surrounding the hospitalisation and subsequent discharge of Indrani Mukerjea, the prime accused in the Sheena Bora murder case, gives enough fodder for a plethora of conspiracy theories: That Mukerjea overdosed on sleeping pills; that she managed to hoard the pills given to her every day by not consuming them; that it was a failed suicide attempt; that it was a bid on her life by somebody who was, as one source said, “on the periphery of the case”. In the absence of specific details about what really prompted Mukerjea’s hospitalisation, the best one can do is to pick and choose from the many theories that are doing the rounds.

What is known is that Mukerjea was hospitalised on the mid-morning of October 2. Inspector-General (Prisons) Bipin Kumar Singh told THE WEEK that Mukerjea, who was moved from police custody to Byculla jail on September 7, had complained of giddiness around 6am. Thereafter she was monitored by a handful of ‘nursing orderlies’, constables who are trained to attend to ailing inmates. As her condition worsened, jail authorities called a doctor at Nagpada Police Hospital. But the doctor could not improve her condition, and Mukerjea was rushed to JJ Hospital.

And then began the drama. News spread that Mukerjea was spotted lying unconscious and that it was a case of drug overdose. “She wasn’t exactly spotted lying unconscious inside the prison’s general ward, where she had been kept all this while with several other prisoners. Rather, she first complained of giddiness and, on the advice of doctors, was shifted to JJ,” Singh told THE WEEK.

It seems the hospital staff jumped the gun in attributing the cause of Mukerjea slipping into unconsciousness to drug overdose. T.P. Lahane, the dean of JJ Hospital, was quoted saying on October 3 that “the urine report from Hinduja Hospital laboratory at Mahim is positive for benzodiazepines (a group of anti-anxiety drugs) with a level of 2,088 (which is ten times higher than the benchmark of 200)”. On the same day, however, Singh confirmed to THE WEEK that “the forensic report says no traces of toxic or psychotropic substances were found in the gastric lavage of Indrani”.

Hospital authorities had sent Mukerjea’s urine and blood samples to Hinduja laboratory and Forensic Science Laboratories at Kalina for screening and confirmatory tests. It is unclear why they chose to send the samples to both the laboratories and whether there were discrepancies between the reports. According to the head of the forensic science department of a public hospital, the results of a screening test and a confirmatory test should not vary. “A screening test will tell you a range of drugs that can be present in the sample, while a confirmatory test will pinpoint the exact drug,” he said.

CRIME Graphics: Deni Lal

According to him, there is a possibility of rapid metabolises of benzodiazepine in the body in the case of consuming a short-acting drug. But then, the metabolites will remain in the body and can be detected. “The benzodiazepine group of drugs, when given for psychiatric disorders, is detectable,” said a professor of pharmacology. “It matters how long the patient was on therapy. If the patient has been taking the drug for one or two months, the concentration will be sustained. But, if the patient has just started the therapy, the concentration will not be in the blood…. It would take around 50-60 tablets for a drug overdose.”

A top source familiar with the developments told THE WEEK: “It seems JJ Hospital might have botched it all up. Though it is not humanly possible to ensure that every jail inmate has properly consumed a pill, we do not accept the theory that Indrani had been stockpiling pills she was advised to take, and then had many of them together in one go.”

Another source told THE WEEK that Mukerjea could have developed hypoglycaemia, a condition in which a person's blood sugar goes below the normal level of 4mmol/L (millimoles per litre). This “reduction in plasma-glucose concentration” in the body can lead to seizures and unconsciousness. “But, in general, if a person becomes hypoglycaemic, he or she cannot remain unconscious for two full days, unless there is an insulin-secreting tumour inside the body,” said the source, who is a senior doctor.

It is said that Mukerjea was borderline diabetic and that the strain of the past few weeks aggravated her condition. But, even if she had become hypoglycaemic, it is unlikely that she could have remained unconscious for so long. And JJ Hospital is yet to specify the duration of her spell of unconsciousness. “Much of the hoopla over the overdose theory may have had to do with grabbing televisual publicity,” said the source.

Lahane clarified on October 4 that Mukerjea’s was not a case of drug overdose. “We treated the patient for overdose of drugs based on a preliminary report by the Hinduja Hospital,” he said. “However, the final report by FSL Kalina said there was no overdose.”

The ‘overdose’ theory was fuelled by reports that Mukerjea was taking Olanzapine and Etizolam, two drugs belonging to the benzodiazepine group that had been prescribed to her since September 9. When THE WEEK contacted Peter Mukerjea, who has been in and out of Mumbai ever since his wife’s arrest, he said, “I am not in a position to talk with you now. I will call you back.”

Even now, there is no information on Indrani Mukerjea’s drug regimen inside the jail. After she was discharged from the hospital, Mukerjea said she had not taken any pills. Said Gunjan Mangla, her counsel: “We had made no application to the court for any medication to be administered to Indrani. She was not on any medication.”

Law stipulates that undertrials apply to the court, with doctors’ prescription, for receiving any medication. If the court grants permission, it falls on the chief medical officer of the jail to administer the medicine. “The IG (prisons) has been asked to file a report,” said Mangla. “Indrani has to give a statement on whether she had consumed any medicine. The reason for her unconsciousness for so long has to be found out.”

Mangla had earlier told the court that Mukerjea was beaten up during interrogation, and that and her face appeared swollen. So it does not reflect well on investigators that Mukerjea had to be hospitalised while in judicial custody. In fact, the incident has put the spotlight on the investigation itself; or, to be precise, the tug of war between the state government and the police.

It began when the government decided to transfer Rakesh Maria, who, as Mumbai Police commissioner, began the inquiry into the case. Many police officers, both serving and retired, spoke for and against the transfer. Just when it seemed the furore over it had died down, it was revealed that Ahmad Javed, the new police commissioner, had met the Mukerjeas two years ago. The row over the revelation prompted K.P. Bakshi, the additional chief secretary (home), to take up the cudgels on Javed’s behalf. “There cannot be a fuss unless you assign a particular motive to the meeting,” he said.

The “clean chit” given to Javed, however, was followed by the government’s decision to turn the case over to the CBI. On September 18, the state government formally asked the CBI to investigate the case and its “economic dimensions”.

The transfer of the case, however, has not been smooth. Mukerjea’s hospitalisation led to a war of words between the CBI and the Mumbai Police. CBI spokesperson R.K. Gaur said that the agency had “no role” in the recent incident, as it happened inside a state jail. So naturally, he said, it was the responsibility of the Mumbai Police and state authorities to deal with the situation. Javed said the Mumbai Police could not register a case in connection with it if the CBI and the jail authorities did not file a complaint.

It is said that the CBI would soon seek the custody of Mukerjea, her driver Shyam Rai, and her former husband Sanjeev Khanna. Their questioning is expected to put the CBI on the murky money trail that is said to have played a role in the Sheena Bora murder. For the time being, however, the ball is in the Mumbai Police court: it is set to record Mukerjea’s statements on what led to her hospitalisation.

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