New Delhi: A wealthy businessman shot in his own hotel complex; a father and son competing for love and money; an opportunistic lawyer with political ambitions; a power-hungry Swami on the run from the law...

If the increasingly sensational details released by the Delhi police, in their investigation into the murder of Deepak Bhardwaj, are to be believed, it’s a saga straight out of a Bollywood B-movie.

Since 26 March, the day that Bhardwaj, a 62-year old property dealer who’d amassed a fortune through canny real estate deals, was shot, police have provided regular updates based on statements they have extracted from the accused, who include hired gunmen, a getaway driver, a weapons supplier, as well as Bhardwaj’s younger son, Nitesh, and a high court lawyer Baljeet Singh Sehrawat.

The police version, for those who have not followed the case, is that Nitesh Bhardwaj paid Sehrawat an initial sum of 50 lakh, with the promise of an extra 4.5 crore, to arrange his father’s murder. The junior Bhardwaj, the police say, was angry that his father had shouldered him out of the family business and worried that Bhardwaj would next cut him and his mother out of his will in favour of an employee his father was in a relationship with—a woman that the son had also earlier dated.

Sehrawat, the police claim, in turn offered 3 crore to a self-styled holy man by the name of Swami Pratibhanand to arrange gunmen and drivers to get the deed done. Police say they are close to cracking the case, referring to evidence from CCTV footage, and access to phone records and WhatsApp messages and a letter as evidence.

Lawyers for the two prime accused are sceptical while their clients remain in police custody until Friday. They say there is no evidence to link Nitesh Bhardwaj, Sehrawat or Pratibhanand, who remains at large somewhere in India, with a 1 lakh reward on his head.

What is clear already, however, is that in life, as well as in the details of his premature death, Deepak Bhardwaj represented nearly every cliche that exists around the rags-to-riches narrative of the new Indian metropolis. It’s a story rooted in land, and the power, both financial and political, that can be gained through its acquisition, sale or development.

The circumstances of Bhardwaj’s death—the shooting, the family feud, the crores of rupees involved—make it tempting to align him with another member of the South Delhi farmhouse community who was killed in a shoot-out in November of last year: liquor baron Ponty Chadha.

But, beyond the details of their deaths, the two men had little in common. Bhardwaj had neither the business empire nor the political connections that Chadha could claim. Yet he aspired to both, breaking ground for his company Delhi Apartments Pvt. Ltd’s first township in Haridwar, running (unsuccessfully) as the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate for a West Delhi seat in 2009 before abandoning Mayawati’s party to cultivate political connections within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

At 62, Bhardwaj was still on his way to the top. He occupied the growing middle ground between the prosperous small businessman and the full fledged politico-tycoon, said a long-term acquaintance, who knew Bhardwaj well in the early 1980s but did not want to be named.

“He was somewhere between the rustic village crowd, who sold him their lands, and the suave gentry who bought farmhouses off him; he moved with ease among both," the acquaintance said.

This ability to move between the various levels of the aspirational classes was key to Bhardwaj’s success as a realtor. By the time of his death, his declared wealth amounted to at least 600 crore (the real figure was probably five or six times that, his acquaintance said).

He had been a prominent member of the Delhi Arya Samaj, serving as the vice-president of the Kendriya Arya Sabha for three years, and was increasingly persuaded by Hindutva ideology, said a friend from the organization who also requested anonymity.

At the time of his death, Bhardwaj was looking for entry into the next level of power, and he was picking his side with care, said the friend from the Arya Samaj. “Just 15 days before his death, I saw a newspaper advertisement about him hosting a yagna for (Gujarat chief minister) Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister," said the friend.

Bhardwaj’s early years in a village near Sonepat in Haryana were relatively humble, as has been chronicled by The Indian Express. The man known as Deepak Bhardwaj was born Devi Singh into the Haryanvi Khati caste. “He began life as a carpenter and had a shop in the Nangal Raya area in Delhi," said a man who once worked as his estate manager, and who did not want to be named. Two other people independently confirmed his caste of origin.

Farmland

It was through his job as a government stenographer that Bhardwaj learned the intricacies of buying land, how legal pressure could be exerted, how court cases could stretch on for years and how to choose the most valuable plots.

In the 1970s to 1990s, land on the periphery of Delhi became a sought-after commodity. “Developers like Ansal and DLF began growing in Delhi around 1979-80. That is when business picked up," said a Delhi politician who didn’t want to be named. “Prices began going up around the time the National Highway 8 came up in 1985. Within a year, land rates went up a hundred times."

The time was ripe for people with a sharp eye on government policy to make advantageous investments, according to Rajeev Bairathi, director-investment advisory, at property services firm DTZ India. “Delhi in the ’80s did not see anything beyond Qutub Minar, it was all jungle." he said. “Some small business owners, traders, jewellers, etc. saw that Delhi real estate was an ideal place to put their extra money in, holding it like gold, waiting in the hope that policies will change."

Beginning with a few small forays (the website of Delhi Apartments Pvt. Ltd claims he began his property deals in 1976-77 though the company was incorporated only in July 1983), Bhardwaj built up his real estate portfolio slowly, working as a middleman between small-time farmers, local panchayat (village council) leaders, and rich property hunters.

The process was simple but effective. “He would buy up unused, barren land at throwaway prices," said the former estate manager. “He would essentially get the village panchayat members on his side and buy them up cheap. He would cater to their base instincts as the occasion demanded, gobbling up privately held land around a government notified panchayat and then coercing or cajoling them into selling their lands too."

Bhardwaj had a penchant for land that was under legal dispute, according to the Arya Samaj friend. “Builders often get to know master plans well in advance and buy up land accordingly," he said. The advantage of legally disputed land was one that was seen by many developers, Bairathi said, but not all of them were equipped to tap it.

“I know many people who specialize in litigated property," he said, “They have to have solid connections in government departments and an army of lawyers but the advantage is that it comes very cheap. There have been many rags-to-riches owners."

In this manner, the former estate manager said, Bhardwaj began to buy and sell land for farmhouse colonies and industrial houses all around the South-West Delhi area where he was living.

Delhi Apartments’ website claims Bhardwaj “has established contacts in over 100 villages of Delhi. In most of these he owns farmland and assets". Though the number sounds like an exaggeration, by the late 80s, Bhardwaj had property ranging from a school in the south of Dwarka, pushing down all the way into the South Delhi colony of Vasant Kunj, along the highway to Gurgaon; open spaces that would soon be prime building land for the expansion of the Indira Gandhi International Airport and for a growing number of Delhi residents looking to move out of the centre of town.

Carving this niche for himself was a matter of hard work and extremely parsimonious habits, according to those who knew Bhardwaj.

On the lower rungs of the property ladder, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bhardwaj did not cut a particularly impressive figure, driving around on a two-wheeler in a white kurta pyjama with a pistol strung around his neck, according to a fellow businessman who was acquainted with Bhardwaj in the 1980s. But “he was not rustic, knew some English and was very sweet to talk to, never abusive", the acquaintance said.

Bhardwaj’s old connections spoke at length on the man’s peculiar attitude to money. “He was very small-hearted and miserly," said the estate manager, “All that mattered to him was money. He would keep people’s money and cut petty damages from their pay."

Stories of Bhardwaj handing out lakhs of rupees to his sons either for safe keeping or to see how well they would spend it have appeared in several news outlets over the past couple of weeks, with police claiming that Bhardwaj’s own money was used by Nitesh Bhardwaj as the surety for the alleged contract killing. People Mint spoke with confirmed this detail.

Much of the speculation regarding a motive for the crime has relied on the claim that Bhardwaj controlled the business with an iron fist, refusing to let his sons in on the action. Senior advocate Ramesh Gupta, lawyer for Nitesh Bhardwaj, refutes that idea, claiming that his client, his elder brother Hitesh and his mother Ramesh Kumari were all directors and shareholders in Bhardwaj’s businesses.

However, a look at Delhi Apartments’ records filed with the Registrar of Companies shows that Nitesh Bhardwaj was removed as a director in the company in 2010 to be replaced by a person named Gopal Anand. The records further state that, while Bhardwaj owned a hefty 76.2% of the company’s shares, his wife held just 10%, and his sons a paltry 0.5% each. A further 2.8% was held by an associate company called Summit Apartments Pvt. Ltd, registered to the same address as Delhi Apartments, and the remaining 10% by the family as a group. Ramesh Kumari refused to comment when contacted by Mint.

As of 12 April, Hitesh Bhardwaj has taken over his murdered father’s role within the company. Mint could not contact Hitesh Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj was as tough on himself as he was on his sons, the acquaintance said. “He would set daily earning targets and penalize himself if he did not meet them. He would often not eat and go to sleep hungry if his earning target for the

day was not met. He’d move to make good the deficit the next day."

The former estate manager agreed: “He would often supply liquor or prostitutes to his business associates, but his own existence was very frugal, he wasn’t into flashy cars. For business, he often dealt with people only once or twice, never the third time. Often he would ask you for extra money to settle government issues; you knew you were being fooled, but since you had invested money already you gave in to his demand so as not to lose it completely."

Both men agreed on two things: Bhardwaj had no close friends and he trusted no one.

The farmhouse community

At around 9am in the morning on 26 March, the day before Holi, a security guard called the police to Bhardwaj’s property in an area of South Delhi known as Rangpuri, an area of developed farmland bordered by the Delhi-Gurgaon highway to the west and Chattarpur to the east. It was here that Bhardwaj had built his “hotel complex" Nitesh Kunj, named after his younger son.

According to the first information report (FIR), Bhardwaj had been shot once in the back of his head and once in the chest. The guard told police that he’d seen two men in their late twenties carrying guns and running from the scene towards the main gate of the property.

The men escaped in a Skoda car, the numberplates of which had not been changed and could clearly be seen in the complex’s CCTV footage. It didn’t take the police long to recover the vehicle, or the country-made pistols that were used by the gunmen. Within five days four arrests had been made. Nitesh and Sehrawat were arrested thereafter.

Nitesh Kunj was the site of a secondary income stream for Bhardwaj. The huge complex of hospitality halls and open lawns, equipped with golf carts, could be rented out for weddings and other events. “He made a killing that way," said the acquaintance quoted earlier.

Real estate developers and event planners Mint spoke with estimated the average fee for such an event as anywhere between 5-9 lakh per night for the venue alone. One of Bhardwaj’s business associates estimated that he could make as much as 2.5 crore a month out of Nitesh Kunj alone.

The South Delhi farmhouse community is small but tight, and comprises top corporate executives and politicians. Bhardwaj’s neighbours in Chattarpur include politician Kanwar Singh Tanwar, whose son’s wedding in 2011 was heralded by the media as one of the most expensive ever.

Cultivating connections among the super rich became ever more important as Bhardwaj’s stature grew. In 1998, Bhardwaj’s elder son Hitesh, in a seemingly advantageous match, married the maternal granddaughter of the late H.K.L. Bhagat, a once influential Delhi politician from the Congress party. Nitesh Bhardwaj was in turn married into the family of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s wife, Gauri. Both marriages were short-lived.

Throughout his rise, Bhardwaj had managed to keep a remarkably low profile. The only time his name appeared in the news was during his run for a Lok Sabha seat in 2009, when his personal wealth caught the attention of reporters. In his affidavit before the Election Commission of India, Bhardwaj declared moveable and immovable assets of over 600 crore, making him the richest candidate running that year.

The run was not a success. Bhardwaj finished behind both the Congress candidate Mahabal Mishra and the BJP’s Jagdish Mukhi. But he continued to covet political connections. A potential business associate, who did not want to be named, claimed that “his only ambition that remained was to enter into politics". Bhardwaj was in the process of hiring a public relations manager shortly before he died, he said.

The friend from the Arya Samaj said that on New Year’s Eve 2012, Bhardwaj “hosted a function, in which several big people including (Janata Party president) Subramanian Swamy, (former army chief) General V.K. Singh and (former Vishwa Hindu Parishad president) Ashok Singhal were present. He was getting very close to Ashok Singhal and Hindu organizations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and VHP in recent times". Swamy did not respond to phone calls or SMSes from Mint, and Singhal could not be reached. A VHP official said he was travelling outside Delhi.

Politicians were not the only company Bhardwaj sought, however. His proximity to yoga guru Ramdev and Swami Agnivesh, a social activist and politician, was also remarked upon by the potential business associate. It was no coincidence that Delhi Apartments’ first township was built outside Haridwar, according to the associate, who claimed that Ramdev was instrumental, not only in helping him acquire the necessary land, but also in boosting his chances of obtaining an election ticket from the BJP. Ramdev has his base in Haridwar.

Swami Agnivesh confirmed that there had been a meeting between him and Bhardwaj around the 2009 elections at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and the question of handing over the presidency of the world body of Arya Samaj to Bhardwaj was discussed but nothing came of it. Agnivesh denied that he had any close links to Bhardwaj.

A spokesperson for Ramdev, S.K. Tijarawala, denied that Bhardwaj and Ramdev were ever close. “More than 4 crore Indians" are associated with Ramdev’s organization, Tijarawala said, so they cannot be sure who he has met and when.

The resettlement colony

Today, the colony of Nangal Dewat stands in a quiet area of Vasant Kunj, on the eastern side of the Delhi-Gurgaon highway. But in 1972 it was situated on the west side, in the middle of the area that would become part of the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport. Nangal Dewat was one of the more prominent sites of land disputes, with some villagers fighting for 35 years before they were finally resettled in 2007.

The 63 acres of land in Rangpuri for the resettlement was purchased by Airports Authority of India for 3.31 crore in 1972, according to a report in The Times of India story from 1999. However, the report said, the original village “has refused to budge from its central location between the IGI and domestic airports".

One of the locals was Baljeet Singh Sehrawat. His family had lived in the predominantly Jat-Sehrawat gotra village for hundreds of years, said his lawyer Ranbir Singh Kundu, and were among the later families to move to the new model town built by the airport, a plot of land in Bhardwaj territory: Rangpuri, less than 4km from Nitesh Kunj.

“They were big landowners and got a good price for their land," Kundu said. The plot Sehrawat uses as his office and home address now is some 350 square feet, according to the Delhi Development Authority website, and contains a large, three storey house. Both neighbouring plots are empty.

The resettlement of Nangal Dewat ended as well for Bhardwaj as it did for Sehrawat, according to a person familiar with the matter. He said that many of the villagers who were allotted new land did not wish to take it, and looked for buyers instead. One man was keen: Bhardwaj bought plots at cheap prices, said this person. “These land parcels went on to become his first big ticket real estate asset which would make him rich overnight in the years to come." Mint could not independently verify this information.

“Many people were selling their land so they may have come into contact then," said Kundu about Sehrawat and Bhardwaj.

Kundu has known his client Sehrawat for years; they both worked at the Patiala House court complex in Delhi, where Sehrawat now makes his appearances as an accused. Kundu rejects the police’s claim that his client was interested in using the money from Nitesh Bhardwaj to enter politics.

“I don’t see it in his (Sehrawat’s) profile," Kundu said. “He was never very social with the rest of us, he’d come and have a cup of tea but he never mentioned politics to anyone. Also he doesn’t need the money. He is a well-off man."

Kundu insists that the police have no real evidence of any collaboration between his client and Nitesh Bhardwaj. Also, he claims, Sehrawat is “too intelligent" to have been caught on CCTV, “not to change the plates of the car", or openly met Nitesh Bhardwaj and the Swami if he had been involved.

“He’s a lawyer. He must know that people are going to be caught if they are planning the murder of such a high profile person, and yet he is doing it in such a naive way."

Family

For a man with “no real friends", Bhardwaj drew an impressive crowd at his funeral, according to the family priest Chandrashekhar Shastri, who performed the man’s last rites. Shashtri said that at least 500 people were present, including prominent politicians, and that condolence messages from the 100-150 social and religious organizations that Bhardwaj supported were read out.

With Nitesh Bhardwaj in police custody, the family lawyer Ramesh Gupta says he has advised Hitesh Bhardwaj and their mother Kumari to cooperate with police investigations and there has been no call for the arrest of either one so far. On 12 April, Delhi Apartments officially listed Hitesh as the signatory for the company in his father’s place.

Meanwhile, Swami Pratibhanand, who police claim had travelled to Haridwar to look for land on which to build his ashram last month, remains elusive. A Facebook profile, apparently of Pratibhanaband, though bearing the name Vichitra Yogi, has been one lead for the police, who have reportedly contacted the Swami’s Facebook friends for possible clues to his whereabouts. The profile reveals little. It contains a few photographs and a solitary comment: “Live & let live".

Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.

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