Hours after he was arrested Monday, Shivkumar Rajbhar, one of the accused in the murder of artist Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer Harish Bhambhani, told police that he and four others eliminated the duo in Mumbai after Hema defaulted on a payment for an idol made by his employer, Vidyadhar alias Vidya, a metal fabrication artist who is missing and is prime suspect.
But sources in Mumbai Police are not ready to buy Shivkumar’s claim that Hema was murdered for defaulting on an idol payment and said they are still probing the contract killing angle.Hema’s estranged husband, contemporary artist Chintan Upadhyay, has been questioned regarding phone calls he made to Vidyadhar recently.
“Vidyadhar’s father used to work for Chintan. After his father’s death, Vidyadhar worked with Chintan and he was the one who groomed him. The call detail record (CDR) of Chintan’s phone shows numerous calls were shared between the two around a fortnight ago. Chintan is not able to explain the calls. Only when we get Vidya will the murder motive be clear,” a senior officer said.
Shivkumar was arrested near his village under Baragaon police station area of Varanasi district in a joint operation by Mumbai Police and the Special Task Force of UP Police.
“Shivkumar has claimed that five people were part of the murder conspiracy. Hema had defaulted in making payments and that was the possible reason for killing her. We have recovered 11 bank cards — six belonging to Hema and five belonging to Bhambhani — from Shivkumar’s Varanasi residence. There are some club house cards which have also been recovered. Chintan’s visiting card was also seized from his residence during the searches,” UP Additional DGP Daljit Chowdhary told The Indian Express.
According to another senior police officer, Shivkumar has claimed it was he who gagged Hema and Bhambhani and killed them on the orders given by his ‘boss’. “Seth ke kehane par kiya (I did this on the orders of the boss),” Shivkumar told reporters. “I was not paid by him for this,” he said.
He claimed they visited Hema’s Juhu residence a couple of times seeking payment, but Hema turned them away. Meanwhile, Chintan was summoned again to the Kandivali unit of the Mumbai crime branch and questioned through the day. While police are yet to give him a clean chit, sources claim Chintan told investigators that Hema and he were trying to make a renewed attempt to get back together.
Chintan had filed for divorce in 2010 and the family court had ruled in his favour. In 2013, the divorce decree was challenged by Hema in the Bombay High Court who had also sought alimony from Chintan.
“Chintan claims that his friends were trying to mediate and help the couple reconcile. The couple was also keen on giving their marriage a second chance and was working towards it,” a senior officer said. “On Friday evening, when Hema’s servant informed him about her disappearance, Chintan tried to book a flight to Mumbai but since there was no late night flight available, he booked himself on an early morning flight,” the officer said.
Three others, who allegedly helped Shivkumar, and a tempo driver who helped dispose the bodies have also been held.
Sources claimed the suspects told police that the murder was planned and Hema was “persuaded” by Vidyadhar to meet him near Kandivali on the promise of sharing information on a case she was pursuing.
Police sources claimed that the duo reached Vidyadhar’s warehouse in Laljipada area in Kandivali around 8 pm on December 11. Vidyadhar told them to sit in one of the rooms in his studio. The others present there used duct tape to bind them. They also used it to tie Bhambhani’s feet, blindfolded and gagged him. Bhambhani tried to break free but was overpowered, police sources claimed.
Police claimed that the boxes in which the bodies were kept were made of the same material which Vidyadhar used for his works. The boxes were then turned over to a tempo driver who was told it had old items that had to be thrown away. They directed the driver to dump the boxes in a sewer.
Police said the detention of the tempo driver Sunday afternoon led them to the studio in Kandivali from where he had collected the boxes.
“Bhambhani’s family members told us that while leaving on Friday, he told them they (Hema and he) were meeting somebody who would give them an important lead in a case. This has also been claimed by the accomplice. Once we nab Vidyadhar, it will be clear if he planned the murder or did this at the behest of someone,” police sources said.
Meanwhile, primary forensic findings indicated Hema and Bhambhani had severe contusions, possibly leading to death.
The autopsy findings go contrary to the earlier assumption of strangulation as the main cause of death, although the “final opinion has been reserved” until results of chemical analysis arrive.
“There were unnatural injuries on their bodies. A blunt object has been used to hit them,” said a source close to the investigation. A contusion, in this case, was a visible bruise on the body, that could have led to rupture of blood capillaries.
According to sources, Hema’s face was found in a more “bloated condition” than Bhambhani.
Viscera samples collected from abdomen, intestine, liver, and stomach and blood of both victims have been sent for further forensic examination along with hair samples from Bhambhani’s body.
— (With Tabassum Barnagarwala)