Mumbai Police on Sunday launched a manhunt for a metal fabrication artist, identified as Rajbhar, a day after it found the bodies of a well-known artist and her lawyer stuffed inside two cardboard cartons dumped in a drain in Kandivali.
Preliminary investigations indicate that the motive behind the double murder of Hema Upadhyay (43) and her lawyer Harish Bhambhani (65) was personal enmity, police said.
Police sources said that prima facie both appeared to have been strangulated to death. “The way the bodies have been found indicates that it could be a case of contract killing,” a senior police officer told The Indian Express.
Police said they have also detained three others in connection with the case but declined to reveal their identities.
Besides, police have questioned Hema’s ex-husband Chintan Upadhyay, who is also a famous contemporary artist.
Last month, Upadhyay was at the centre of a controversy after he was detained by Rajasthan police and questioned for “hurting religious sentiments” with an installation at the Jaipur Art Summit, depicting a plastic cow suspended by a balloon.
Hema and Chintan were engaged in a legal tussle over various issues, including their divorce, police said.
“Rajbhar had asked Hema to meet him on Friday as he wanted to share some information against Chintan. Hema told Rajbhar that she would meet him only with her lawyer. They decided to meet in the western suburbs,” said the senior officer.
“Once we get Rajbhar, it will be clear at whose behest he called Hema,” he added.
Police said that the murders came to light around 7.30 pm on Saturday, when two sweepers in Kandivali raised an alarm after spotting two large cardboard cartons stuffed in gunny bags in the drain near a local cemetery.
The boxes were pulled out and opened after police arrived to reveal two dead bodies wrapped in plastic sheets inside, officers and residents said.
“The man’s hands and legs were fastened with black duct tape. Tape was also used to blindfold him. He was gagged with cloth and the mouth was also covered with duct tape. The woman was dressed in a black shirt with floral prints and a pair of black pants. She was not gagged or blindfolded but her hands were tied with duct tape. She had red marks on her ankles,” said a senior officer.
Police suspect that the “elaborate packaging” may have been done to make the cartons airtight and ensure that the bodies don’t float.
“There were no identification items on the bodies. Their personal possessions such as cellphones, wallets and jewellery were missing,” added the official.
The bodies were identified on Sunday morning by family members who had lodged missing persons complaints on Saturday.
The bodies underwent a post mortem at Bhagwati hospital where doctors reserved samples for chemical analysis to assess the possibility of poisoning. There were bruises and external injury marks on the bodies, sources said.
Bhambhani was Hema’s counsel, representing her in Bombay High Court.
Chintan had filed for divorce in 2010 and the family court had ruled in his favour. However, while granting divorce, the family court had also asked Chintan to reimburse Rs 16 lakh spent by Hema on the renovation of their Juhu home.
In 2013, the divorce decree was challenged by Hema in the Bombay High Court. Hema had also sought alimony from Chintan.
“I had represented him in the family court and the court had awarded the decree in our favour but she moved Bombay High Court against it. The matter was last listed on November 18 but was not taken up,” said Chintan’s counsel, Mrinalini Deshmukh.
In 2013, Hema had also filed a criminal case against Chintan for sketching obscene paintings on the walls of a bedroom in their up-market Juhu apartment, which they continued to share.
“Hema’s estranged husband Chintan arrived in Mumbai from Delhi on Sunday morning and was questioned by police through the day,” a senior official said.
According to police, Hema and Bhambhani were missing since 8.30 pm on Friday. Police said Bhambhani left his residence in King’s Circle, Matunga, around 6.30 pm on Friday after informing his family that he was going to meet a client in Andheri.
Hema left her home in Juhu on Friday morning and went to her studio in Laxmi Industries off Veer Desai Road in Andheri, police said.
“Around 6.30 pm, Hema’s domestic help Hemant Mandal received a call instructing him to not make dinner for her. CCTV footage recovered from cameras around the studio establish that Hema and her lawyer left the premises around 8.30 pm in Bhambhani’s car, a Honda City, which is missing and has not been recovered,” said an officer.
When Hema did not return, Mandal registered a police complaint around 1 am on Saturday at the Santacruz police station. Police said that Mandal also called her relatives, friends, and even Chintan in Delhi.
Bhambhani’s family had registered a missing person’s complaint with the Matunga police on Saturday afternoon.
Police claim that the duo’s cellphones were active till 8.30 pm on Friday and that their last known tower location was in the Kandivali area.
“I had shut shop that Friday night around 11.30 pm. If someone had to dump bodies here it would have to be after 12.30 am, when the street is deserted and there is hardly any police patrolling,” said Pramod Aggarwal, the owner of Maharashtra Paan and Bedi shop, in front of which the two bodies were found.