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Sheela Kini: A forgotten voice of Mumbai

February 06, 2014 17:50 IST

Sheela KiniNeeta Kolhatkar remembers the housewife who took on mighty Maharashtra politicians over her husband's murder.

A few weeks ago, it was reported that the Laxmi Vilas building in Matunga, north-central Mumbai, had been pulled down for a redevelopment project.

In the 1990s, this building made headlines. The drama around the building had a middle-class family, kidnapping, gangsters, political bigwigs, a lone voice fighting for justice, an encounter and finally a quiet death after which the story of the controversial building was forgotten.

Ramesh and Sheela Kini were tenants of Laxmi Vilas, an old building, under the pagdi rent system. The landlord Suman Shah was a friend of Raj Thackeray, then with the Shiv Sena, which was part of the Maharashtra government.

Shah tried persuading the Kinis to give up their flat so that he could redevelop the building.

The Kinis refused his offer and stayed put. Shah allegedly used his clout to get the family evicted and thus began a lonely battle for Sheela Kini.

I have covered this case since 1996. I remember receiving a call from Chhagan Bhujbal, then the Leader of the Opposition. His office was located in a bungalow opposite Mantralaya, the state government secretariat. I worked for a television company at that time.

I was not prepared for what to expect when I left with the camera team. Bhujbal had told me it was an urgent and serious matter. I was taken to a room behind the bungalow. There, I met Bhujbal, Madhukar Pichad and other Opposition leaders.

Bhujbal told me they had rescued a lady. Her husband had been kidnapped and she would tell us about it.

By then news had trickled out that Ramesh Kini had disappeared a few days after he resisted being bought out.

I met a frail, traumatised, woman, who looked scared, but still wanted to face the world.

First, we spoke off-camera and then on-camera; she narrated how she had asked Bhujbal to help her find her husband. When I heard her, she seemed genuine.

Bhujbal and the others had rescued her that morning from the Laxmi Nivas building. Sheela Kini escaped by covering herself in a burqa.

Sheela Kini alleged that her husband had been kidnapped. Investigations revealed that gangster Amar Naik had kidnapped Ramesh Kini, made him -- a teetotaller -- drink alcohol and murdered him.

Kini's body was found later, in a movie theatre in Pune. This case shook the then ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Sheela Kini got fiery lawyer Pushpa Bhave to help her and both women put up a good fight. Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena founder, would mock these two women for putting his favourite nephew through distress.

Eventually, Raj Thackeray and Suman Shah were cleared by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Amar Naik was killed in a police encounter; his father alleged that he had been silenced.

Sheela Kini died a lonely death in 2011.

Neeta Kolhatkar