Hema Upadhyay murder: Four years on, here's how the case unfolded

Updated: 11 December, 2019 15:17 IST | Jonita Colaco
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    On December 11, 2015, the bodies of contemporary artist and painter Hema Upadhyay, 45, and lawyer Harish Bhambhani, 65, were found in separate cardboard boxes from a nullah in Kandivli. Hema was estranged from her husband Chintan Upadhyay, also a painter, and the couple was locked in bitter divorce proceedings since 2010. The bodies were recovered from cardboard boxes.

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    In 2013, Bhambani had represented Hema in a case after she filed harassment complaints against her husband Chintan and alleged that he had painted obscene sketches on the walls of her room. 

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    The boxes in which Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer Harish Bhambhani’s bodies were found. 

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    On December 12, 2015, the two accused Pradeep Rajbhar, Vijay Rajbhar were arrested and a minor was detained. The main accused Vidhyadhar Rajbhar was on the run. Meanwhile, the Crime Branch interrogated Chintan Upadhyay. The duo was engaged in a divorce battle and the ownership of their Juhu flat. However, the Crime Branch did not arrest Chintan due to lack of evidence.

    In photo: Hema Upadhyay

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    On December 22, 2015, the Mumbai Police arrested Chintan Upadhyay, in the double murder case of his wife and her lawyer. Police had said Chintan was the 'prime suspect' in the murder case of Hema and her lawyer Harish. During questioning, Chintan said that he had met the absconding accused Vidyadhar Rajbhar at an undisclosed location and hatched a conspiracy to kill the duo. "Chintan conspired and took the help of other accused in committing the murder," police said. Police also said that the crime was the offshoot of the cases pending between the sparring couple. Based on the statements of Hema's relatives, Chintan was constantly grilled for days by several police officers in connection with the twin murders.

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    In December 2015, Hema had been visited in her office by the prime accused, Vidyadhar Rajbhar, also known as Gotu. He is the owner of an art workshop and warehouse often used by Hema. They had argued over a payment of Rs 5 lakh. The police also learnt that the last call received by Hema was from Gotu, when he called her to his warehouse. Sources said he called her under the pretext of settling their monetary dispute. According to the police, Gotu had been running the warehouse in the Gandhi Nagar-Lalji Pada area for over 20 years, and had employed six or seven workers. All are suspected to be involved. On March 8, 2016, Pradeep Rajbhar confessed that Chintan had asked him and the other accused to murder Hema and Harish.

    In photo: Vidyadhar Rajbhar

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    On March 11, 2016, Mumbai Police filed a chargesheet as lengthy as 1,658 pages in the double murder case against artist Chintan Upadhyay and four others at Metropolitan Magistrate court.The chargesheet, which had a mention of around 60 witnesses against the accused, stated alimony as the murder motive and that Harish was killed for supporting Hema. Police, while filing the charge sheet, told the court that this was a preliminary chargesheet and they would file a supplementary charge sheet once they get few details like emails and phone records. Chintan was called a conspirator in the document due to his meeting with prime accused Vidyadhar Rajbhar before Hema's murder. Also, the cops attached Chintan's Facebook post with lyrics of song 'Alvida'. 

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    According to sources, one of the four arrested accused, Pradeep Rajbhar, had told jail authorities that he wants to become an approver and so his statement was recorded before a magistrate. All the accused were present through video conferencing and their custody was extended till March 21.

    In photo: Chintan Upadhyay

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    However, In June 2016, Pradeep Rajbhar retracted his statement and blamed the police for forcing him to turn an approver and give a confessional statement. Pradeep had told the court that he was pressured into giving a confessional statement. “Police was pressurising me to give a false statement so that they can implicate innocent people in the case,” the application stated. Rajbhar, in his application, had also said that he never wanted to become an approver and the police forced him to give false statements. 

    (Chintan Upadhyay is escorted to Borivli Metropolitan Court by cops on Tuesday, where he was remanded to police custody till January 1. File photo: Nimesh Dave)

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    Between October 2016 and February 2017, various courts rejected Chintan's bail applications.

    In photo: Hema’s cousin Deepak Prasad

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    In June 2017, the case was transferred to the Ghatkopar Crime Branch unit 7 which then filed a supplementary charge sheet. In it, the police said that they suspect the plan to kill Hema and Harish was hatched two months prior to the murder. The statement of witness Rizwan Sayyed, which was attached to the chargesheet, said that in October 2015, he received a call from absconding accused Vidyadhar Rajbhar, asking him to make two wooden boxes for a few statues he wanted to export. Sayyed charged Rs 15,000 for three boxes and told Rajbhar that he would deliver it to his shop, to which Rajbhar said he would get a tempo and take them once they're ready. On October 30, 2015, Rajbhar collected the box. He gave Sayyed two cheques and both bounced.

    (In photo: The accused)

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    Another statement was that of Rajbhar's brother-in-law, Ramyash Rajbhar. On February 1, 2016, he received a call from Rajbhar and identified his voice. Rajbhar asked about his mother, wife and kids. When Ramyash asked Rajbhar to surrender before cops, he disconnected the call. He tried calling on the same number thrice but it was switched off. An alleged sketch by Chintan with 'I will destroy you' written on it had been previously presented as circumstantial evidence to prove his involvement, but the crime branch has said in the chargesheet the image was not found.

    (Photo: Harish Bhambhani with one of his daughters, Sonia, who came from Pune for the last rites)

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    In August 2017, Chintan, who was lodged in Thane Central Jail, had impressed the authorities with his painting, which captured what it meant to pine for freedom behind bars. The 6x5 ft painting, made by joining two canvas frames together, depicted an incarcerated zebra, bleeding from its hoof. Jail officials did not miss the irony behind the artwork or its title, 'Freedom', but were stirred by its intensity and surreal imagery. 

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    Chintan during a performance art piece. 

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    Between July 28 and November 23, 2017, Chintan filed a discharge application which was rejected by the court. Between December 5, 2017 to August 6, 2018, his bail was rejected at all times.

    (Photo: From Chintan's diary)

     

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    In November 2018, high-profile advocate Ujjwal Nikam, who was appointed special public prosecutor in the double murder case quit the case citing difficulties in commuting to Dindoshi sessions court for the trial.

    Photo: The police said the owner of the warehouse, Vidyadhar Rajbhar, is the mastermind and holds the clues to the murder conspiracy. 

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    File photo of Chintan Upadhyay.

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    According to Hema’s family members, she and Chintan would often clash because of her anxiety over conceiving. File pic

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    More than three years after the murders, the trial finally began at a Didoshi court. The families of artist Hema Upadhyay and lawyer Harish Bhambani said the lawyers of main accused Chintan Upadhyay and three other accomplices in the case have been stalling the trial. The deceased's families claim that the case, plagued by multiple bail hearings and twists, has been dragging.

    (Photo: Poonam Bhambani, wife of advocate Harish Bhambani, and her daughter say they are still grieving. Pic. Pradeep Dhivar)

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    "Hearings started only two months ago. There are four advocates for the four accused, each one stalls by applying for bail. We go to court hoping for justice, but return home dejected and demotivated, only to pin our hopes on the next hearing," said Gope Bhambhani, 76, Harish's elder brother. 

    (Photo: Gope Bhambhani, Bhambhani’s brother at his Sion office. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar and Sanchu Menon, a family friend of Hema Upadhyay. Pic/ Datta Kumbhar)

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    Hema's family friend, Sanchu Menon, 42, a social worker from Navi Mumbai, raised questions over the transfer of investigation to Crime Branch. "We didn't even ask for it. Kandivli police were doing their job well but suddenly, because of Chintan's friends and their connections, the case was transferred to Crime Branch in May 2016. Another big blow was when Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam backed out. What will it take for the authorities to take this case seriously?" 

    File photo of Sanchu Menon.

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    Meanwhile, Thane Central jail superintendent Harshad Ahirrao said Chintan Upadhyay has been painting and training prisoners for a long time. "His work has impressed prison authorities. Nearly two months ago, we started a workshop for inmates where Chintan trains 20 prisoners. Prison authority provides canvas and other materials. Most of the prisoners started dabbling in art under his supervision. Half a dozen have become experts," said Ahirrao. Chintan's artistic journey in jail began in 2017 when prison authorities, worried about his continually low spirits, picked up his file and realised he is an artist.

    Photo: Anita Bhambhani, daughter of Harish Bhambhani at Bhagvati Hospital, Borivli. File photo/Nimesh Dave

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    Police outside the Bhambhani House.

    File photo: Datta Kumbhar

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    On December 12, 2019, Pradeep told court that the cops detained his parents and forced confession, while the main accused Vidyadhar Rajbhar continues to be on the run. While co-accused in the artist-advocate murder, Vijay Rajbhar, has been in jail since December 2015, his family says they have been reeling under an acute financial crisis. Vijay's wife, Saroj, claims that the main killers, Pradeep Rajbhar, Shivkumar Rajbhar and Vidyadhar Rajbhar alias Gotu — who owns the metal fabrication workshop in Kandivli and is absconding till date — kept him in the dark about the cardboard boxes containing bodies. 

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About The Gallery

On December 11, 2015, the bodies of contemporary artist and painter Hema Upadhyay, 45, and lawyer Harish Bhambhani, 65, were found in separate cardboard boxes from a nullah in Kandivli. Hema was estranged from her husband Chintan Upadhyay, also a painter, and the couple was locked in bitter divorce proceedings since 2010. The bodies were recovered from cardboard boxes. Here's what has happened so far.

First Published: 11 December, 2019 14:39 IST