Even as the Special Investigation Team (SIT) is yet to establish the motive behind the murder of Kutch-based Dalit lawyer and activist Devji Maheshwari, 50, on September 25, it has emerged that nine accused named in the FIR were neighbours in the Geliwadi locality of Rapar nearly a decade ago, of which the prime accused Bharat Raval, who allegedly fatally stabbed him, lives in Mumbai while the rest are in Rapar town.
The SIT is led by Inspector General of Police (Border Range) JR Mothaliya. The Mumbai crime branch that arrested Raval on September 26 has claimed that the accused killed him after repeated clash over a month over Maheshwari’s social media posts that were “critical of Brahminism”.
All the accused and those detained, including Raval’s employer Mahesh Bhoja Hanat, who runs a printer repairing shop in Malad, Mumbai, have been connected in someway, with the victim, Maheshwari, who came to live in Rapar town 20 years ago and belongs to Lakhpat taluka.
Maheshwari’s wife Minaxiben said in the FIR that her husband was killed because he agreed to take up the case of a disputed community hall of the Luhar and Suthar communities.
Maheshwari, who was also an active member of All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and Indian Legal Professionals Association, was allegedly stabbed to death outside his office in Maheta Complex in Rapar town of Kutch district on September 25. Footage captured by a CCTV camera show a man in red T-shirt following Maheshwari as soon as the lawyer takes the stairs to his office and fleeing the spot after a while.
The man, identified as Raval, had left his mobile phone at a fast-food joint on the ground floor of Maheta Complex for charging and did not stop to collect it after allegedly murdering the lawyer. The police recovered the knife used for murder and also the phone.
In her complaint, Maheshwari’s wife Minaxiben, who is a teacher at a government primary school in Rapar, named Raval, Jaysukh Luhar, Khimji Luhar and his grandson Dhaval, Devubha Sodha, Vijaysinh Sodha, Mayursinh Sodha, Pravinsinh Sodha and Arjunsinh Sodha — all residents of Rapar — as accused.
Jaysukh is a leader of Luhar (ironsmith) community, while Khimji is a blacksmith and runs a shop of forging agricultural equipment with his sons. Pravinsinh is an elder of Sodhas community in Rapar and runs a transport business. Minaxiben stated in her complaint that when no advocate was willing to argue a civil suit filed by Bhanji Suthar over title of the Luhar-Suthar community hall, her husband took it up.
The Indian Express has learnt that the Luhars and a few Suthars have been trying to sell the community hall to Pravinsinh and his partners since November 2019 on the ground that it is too small and is located in congested area and that the community should build a new and bigger hall elsewhere. But late Khimji Suthat’s sons Thakarshi, Bhanji, Kantilal, etc., were against the proposed sale. The Suthars say that their father Khimji had made important contributions to construction of the community and as his legal heirs, they don’t want to sell the community hall.
Minaxiben says in the FIR that the accused had issued death threats to Maheshwari and finally killed him.
Based on her complaint, the nine accused were booked for murder, criminal conspiracy and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Raval is a Brahmin while the Luhars are OBC. Sodhas are upper caste. The Mumbai Crime Branch nabbed Raval as soon as he reached the printer repairing shop run by Hanat in Malad.
Of the accused, the police have arrested Raval, and detained 10 others, including the eight named in the FIR. After all the nine accused named in the FIR were in police net, Maheshwari’s family claimed the body and performed the last rites on September 30 in his village Nara in Lakhpat taluka.
Mothaliya told The Indian Express on Wednesday, “Mumbai Crime Branch said that the accused killed him due to social media posts… Our Investigation is ongoing.”
Hanat reportedly told the Mumbai Crime Branch that Raval’s father Jayantilal called him after the former stabbed Maheshwari, to tell him what had happened. Hanat then contacted his friend Viral Patel in Rapar asking him to drop Raval to Samakhiyali on National Highway 27, from where the assailant is believed to have hitched rides on trucks to reach Mumbai. Hanat claims that he also alerted the Mumbai police.
Patel and Hanat are among those detained. Hanat had told this paper earlier that he had also hired Maheshwari to argue his case pertaining to dispute over a plot of land on Adesar Road in Rapar.
In Rapar town, the Sodhas, Khimji Luhar and the Ravals were neighbours till around a decade ago.
Pravinsinh lives in Swargiya Aljibapu Vas at the entrance of Gelivadi locality, Khimji and Jayantilal were neighbours in Gelivadi until Jayantilal moved to Tirupati Society on the eastern periphery of the town. Pravinsinh’s office also overlooks the disputed community hall called Luhar Suthar Samaj Vadi in the same area.
Relatives of the accused say that they know Raval and his father well. “We don’t deal with Bharat in any manner. However, we do know him as a boy of Rapar,” says Bhikhubha Sodha, Pravinsinh’s cousin.
Accused Dhaval’s father, Rajnikant Luhar, said that they were neighbours to the Ravals till around 10 years ago and that he knows Bharat. “However, we don’t have any relation with them since,” said Rajnikant, a blacksmith.
“They are dragging my innocent son and father Khimji in the case at the behest of Thakarshi Suthar and his brother Kantilal who are opposing the sale of the community hall,” Rajnikant said.
Hanat is also a native of Rapar and told The Indian Express that he had given Bharat work on request from Jayantilal, who is a guard at Rapar APMC.
Jayantilal’s home in Tirupati Society is locked. Neighbours said that he, with his wife Ramila and younger son left hours after the stabbing incident. Kutch (east) SP Mayur Patil said they were not among those detained or arrested and could be “camping elsewhere”.
“Bharat is a completely disobedient son. He never listened to his parents and would often come home in a drunken state. However, he never created any ruckus in the society,” a neighbour said, requesting anonymity.
Another neighbour said the family was struggling to make the ends meet. “Jayantilal used to earn around Rs 5,000 per month by working as a security guard at the APMC. Bharat was married to a girl from Anjar around four years ago. But she reportedly committed suicide at her parents’ home around two years ago,” the neighbour said.
Raval’s friends are shocked. “I can’t believe what he has done. He’s such a frail boy. But now that there is footage, there is no denying it that he did it,” said Harshad Sadhu (22), who was once Bharat’s neighbour in Gelivadi and now sells tea at his father’s stall near Maheta Complex, the scene of the crime. Harshad works in a garment manufacturing unit in Santacruz and hasn’t gone back since the lockdown.
But both the Sodhas and the Luhars claim they were on good terms with Maheshwari also. “Maheshwari had settled in Rapar around 20 years ago and we had our offices close by in Ayodhyapuri till a few years ago. So, we knew him well. However, the suggestion that he was murdered because he took up the property dispute case in which Pravinsinh had interest, is baseless… It is not such a big property… In any case, we don’t do business which would need to murder someone,” Bhikhubha said, adding no one from his family had ever threatened the advocate.
“My family members are being dragged in the case as part of a conspiracy,” alleged Bhikhubha, whose wife Maheshwariba is Rapar municipality president. Bhikhubha was general secretary of BJP’s Rapar town unit till he was suspended from the party around a month ago.
Bhikhubha claims that Pravinsinh and the Suthars were on very good terms before the community hall dispute strained their relations a few months ago.
Raju Chande, president of Bar Association of Rapar, said, “I don’t have information of any lawyer having refused to fight that case. It could that they may not have approached other lawyers. However, people on the other side are perceived to be strongmen and there was some risk.”
Advocates’ body condemns murder
Nearly a week since a practising Dalit rights activist and lawyer Devji Maheshwari was killed in broad daylight in Kutch, the Gujarat High Court Advocates’ Association (GHAA) passed a resolution strongly condemning the murder.
In a unanimous resolution passed by the managing committee of GHAA, condemning the murder of the senior member of the Rapar Bar Association, GHAA also requested the state government to “deal with the crime with iron hand” and see that the culprits are brought to book as early as possible and assign the case to a special court which may be appointed in consultation with the High Court Chief Justice.
The resolution also requested the state government to ensure that the investigation was carried out in an efficient and expeditious manner.
The GHAA also requested the people of Gujarat and citizens of the country at large to “stop hatred and vengeance in the name of caste, community and religion and work for the better development of the country”.
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