As the residents of Jamalpur, one of Ahmedabad’s minority dominated areas, were breaking their Ramzan fast Wednesday evening, the crime branch that has earned notoriety in the community opened the doors of its executive office — Gaekwad Haveli, a fortress from the Maratha era — to the public for the first time.
Chief Minister Anandiben Patel inaugurating the “Bandhutva Smarak”, a memorial to two men who died trying to broker peace between Hindus and Muslims, inside the crime branch compound also marked a major outreach move by a BJP CM in Gujarat, who waved at the crowd having fairly large representation from the minority community.
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For the last eight months, officers of the crime branch were working to renovate and rebuild this 18th century watchtower on the haveli premises, to house a memorial to the two friends —Vasantrao Hegishte, a Maharashtrian from Ratnagiri, and Rajab Ali Lakhani, popularly known as “Khoja Muslim”, from Limdi in Surendranagar —who were killed when communal riots broke out during the rath yatra of July 1, 1946, in Jamalpur. Hegisthe and Lakhani were members of Congress Seva Dal.
Though the watchtower has no connection with the men or their death, the crime branch decided to build the three-storey air-conditioned museum there as also part of its “image makeover” bid ahead of this year’s rath yatra on July 18, which coincides with the Eid festivities.
Jamalpur, which has a Jagannath temple that hosts the rath yatra, has witnessed several communal clashes. The site where the unarmed Hegisthe and Lakhani were actually killed by a communally-charged mob is around 400 metres from the memorial in Khand Ni Sheri.
The brick and stone tower with a wooden spiral stairway, built in 1738 by the Gaekwads to keep a watch over Ahmedabad and functioned as the “anti-Pathan cell” in the British era, was occupied by the crime branch till it moved inside the haveli, said SP Anti-Terrorist Squad Himanshu Shukla. “Till the renovation started, it was home to a police inspector,” noted DCP (crime) Deepan Bhadran.
The event was attended by top state BJP leaders and IPS officers, including former crime branch officials ADGP P P Pandey and DIG Abhay Chudasama, besides ex-DGP PC Pande.
Conspicuous by its absence was the family of Lakhani, even as Hegisthe’s nephew Uday Jagusthe, his wife Nita, and others from their family were present. Nita Jagusthe told The Indian Express: “After they became martyrs, the Lakhanis moved back to Limdi and two families never stayed in touch.”
Shukla, who began the tower project last year as DCP (crime), said: “The image that this place had acquired over time, was somewhat exaggerated, wrong, and… we are not like that. What better message can you give the walled city than this?” Gaekwad Haveli had earned a bad name after the CBI investigations into the police encounters saw many of the crime branch officers being arrested.
Asked why police decided to build a memorial to the two after decades, who, till now had only been remembered by the Left or the peace activists, Shukla, an investigator in the Supreme Court -appointed SIT that probed the 2002 riot cases, said that he learnt of their story only last year. Professor of history in a Gujarat university college, Rizwan Kadri did the research for the museum, collecting newspaper reports, documents and artifacts for the memorial and reached out to their families.
A bugle of Congress Seva Dal has been placed high up on a shelf in the museum carefully avoiding any mention of Congress. The air-conditioned museum, covering three floors of the tower, also put on “display” the homage by Mahatma Gandhi to the two men, besides a three-dimensional reconstruction of incident. The Pathani sandals worn by Hegisthe when he was killed, were donated by the family to the museum, apart from his glasses.