Gopal Sejani wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. Everyone in his village can remember him playing ‘cops and robbers’ in the yard.
‘It’s impossible to escape,’ he would yell at his friends, imitating India’s most famous Bollywood detective Bajirao Singham. It’s a poignant memory.
Gopal was just two when his mother abandoned him and his father became too ill to look after him. Neighbours took pity on the ‘orphaned’ toddler and raised him as their own.
Home was a cramped and dilapidated stone outhouse, on a smallholding in rural Gujarat, which accommodated the now nine-strong family; in just a couple of rooms.
Arti Dhir, 55, and her husband Kaval Raijada, 31, are pictured leaving court. We now know a lot more about the couple, who face six charges in India including conspiracy to murder and kidnapping, following our own inquiries both here and in India
But Gopal was happy and very much loved. He liked to draw, especially cartoons, and he won a school prize for a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
After class — when he wasn’t making an ‘arrest’ — he would help harvest the crops or lend a hand with domestic chores.
Until one terrible night back in 2017. Gopal was returning from a trip to the city; he never made it home. At around 9.30pm, the car he was in was ambushed by men on a motorbike.
Gopal was dragged from the vehicle and stabbed and a relative was fatally wounded trying to save him.
The little boy was found, barely alive, on the side of the road by a passing rickshaw and taken to hospital where, hooked up to tubes, his family took one last photograph of him before he died.
His friends, his teachers, his village, they were all bereft. Gopal was ten years old.
‘Not a single day goes by when we can sleep peacefully,’ is how the Kardani family, who treated him as their baby brother, summed up their loss when we met them in Maliya Hatina yesterday, not far from the popular Gir National Park in Gujarat.
Gopal was just two when his mother abandoned him and his father became too ill to look after him. Neighbours took pity on the ‘orphaned’ toddler and raised him as their own. The boy is pictured above in hospital
The culprits who seized and attacked Gopal thought the life of an impoverished little boy didn’t matter; that the police in this part of the world, on India’s western coast, probably weren’t up to the job anyway.
They were wrong. Five suspects have since been arrested and will stand trial for murder and kidnap.
But the tragedy of Gopal Sejani doesn’t end in Gujarat. It leads more than 4,000 miles — back to Britain; to Hanwell in West London.
It is where former Heathrow workers Arti Dhir, 55, and her husband Kaval Raijada, 31, live on the first floor of a modern block at the end of a row of Victorian houses; they have become central figures in these shocking events.
They are familiar faces in the local shops and pay their bills at the Post Office round the corner. No one really has a bad word to say about them.
Yet this unlikely couple — she raises funds for a breast cancer charity — living an ordinary life in an ordinary flat in an ordinary street have been accused of arranging the murder of Gopal.
According to the Gujarati police, they planned to claim £150,000 from a life insurance policy taken out on Gopal after Arti Dhir (pictured above) agreed to adopt him before hiring a gang to kill him — with the help of her husband — and dump his body in the gutter like a piece of rubbish
The motive, it is claimed, was money. According to the Gujarati police, they planned to claim £150,000 from a life insurance policy taken out on Gopal after Arti Dhir agreed to adopt him before hiring a gang to kill him — with the help of her husband — and dump his body in the gutter like a piece of rubbish.
Such a scenario almost defies belief; that a plot to murder a little boy in cold blood on another continent was plotted from a pokey housing association flat in Hanwell.
Lace-effect curtains hang in the windows, along with a lemon and dried chilli peppers in the door frame which, in Indian culture, is said to ward off bad luck.
We now know a lot more about the couple, who face six charges in India including conspiracy to murder and kidnapping, following our own inquiries both here and in India.
Arti Dhir and Kaval Raijada were air freight representatives for Worldwide Flight Services (WFS). They were sacked, the company confirmed, for a ‘breach of contract’ in 2016, the year before Gopal was killed.
The dismissals were at odds with the reputation they enjoyed in the warehouse.
Arti, in particular, was very popular and ‘fun to be with’, recalled a former colleague, and readily participated in office trips to the seaside and the races as well as nights out in the West End.
Most of the time, the colleague said, her husband wasn’t with her which became a bit of a standing joke: ‘Is Kaval joining us tonight?’ her workmates would ask to which she replied: ‘No, he’s staying at home, he’s on his computer.’
The little boy was found, barely alive, on the side of the road by a passing rickshaw and taken to hospital where, hooked up to tubes, his family took one last photograph of him before he died
At 55, of course, Arti Dhir was 25 years older than Kaval Raijada; one shopkeeper near their home thought he was actually her son.
In fact, they were married at a lunchtime register office ceremony at Ealing Town Hall in 2013.
But one of the alleged accomplices in the Gopal case cast doubt on their intentions after he was arrested on his return to India.
In his statement, he claimed Raijada told him he got married to enable him to extend his visa. So was it just a marriage of convenience?
The Indian authorities now want the couple extradited, as this country would if the position were reversed.
However, last week the High Court refused to do so because judges argued that this would breach their human rights on the basis that they face the prospect of a sentence of life without parole if convicted in India.
Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights — which comes under the auspices of the Council of Europe, not the EU — was introduced after World War II in response to the Holocaust.
Surely, it was never intended to prevent the deportation of two people facing charges of double murder (Gopal’s older brother-in-law was also fatally wounded trying to save him) to a friendly Commonwealth country with a British-style judicial system.
Kenyan-born Dhir and Raijada strenuously deny any wrongdoing but, at a hearing in July, Britain’s chief magistrate ruled there was strong evidence to convict them.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the High Court judgment, the couple are, for the moment, free to do as they please without restriction; an outcome, surely, few people could possibly want.
It is heartbreaking to learn that in the weeks before his death, Gopal was so excited about coming to Britain he had acquired an English-Gujarati pocket dictionary, while at the same time, proudly informing his teachers he wouldn’t need a new school uniform because ‘he was leaving soon,’ promising to return one day with ‘lots of things’ for his family.
He would have been 13 now.
So how did this young boy cross paths with the couple who now stand accused of planning his murder?
Kaval Raijada comes from Maliya Hatina where Gopal was born. Raijada’s father was manager of the Maliya Hatina branch of the Co-operative Bank.
It was a neighbour of the Raijadas in Maliya Hatina, in fact, who learnt about Arti Dhir’s hopes of adopting a child. Gopal, the boy who had lost his own parents all those years ago, immediately sprang to mind.
Gujarat has undergone rapid economic growth, driven by massive industrialisation, down the years but there is also extreme poverty, with high rates of infant mortality; nearly four in ten children under the age of five are under weight.
This is the world Gopal inhabited, which is why his family agreed to the adoption when Dhir and Raijada met them in Maliya Hatina in 2014 shortly after they were officially married.
‘She [Dhir] assured me that she would treat Gopal like a younger brother,’ said Alpa Kardani, 35, the boy’s eldest sister and the person who was primarily responsible for Gopal.
‘She would get him educated, help him find a job and do well in life. These kinds of opportunities are something we could never dream of. The entire family was thrilled. I believed her assurances. We thought very highly of the Raijadas who are a local family.’
A little over two years later, Gopal would be dead, along with Alpa’s husband.
They had gone to the city of Rajkot, about 100 miles away, to prepare visa papers for Gopal’s imminent move to the UK, but, as we now know, they were set upon and killed on the way back.
What is the prima facie case against Arti Dhir and Kaval Raijada? It is set out, in meticulous detail, in the judgments of the chief magistrate and the High Court which considered evidence submitted by the Indian authorities.
First, the insurance policy.
It was taken out on August 26, 2015, just one month after the adoption deed was registered. It was with the ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Company, one of India’s leading financial institutions with headquarters in Mumbai.
The policy was called a ‘wealth builder’ which would pay ten times the value of the annual premium to the ‘proposer’ or ‘nominee.’ The proposer was Arti Dhir. The ‘life assured’ was Gopal. In other words, Dhir was the person who would benefit if Gopal died.
The annual premium in this case was 1,300,000 rupees (£14,000), which meant Arti Dhir stood to collect just under £150,000 after Gopal’s death — the insurance was never paid out because the boy was murdered.
Second, police claim there was a middle-man called Nitish Mund, who previously lived at Dhir and Raijada’s flat in Hanwell. Mund has made a confession to the police in Gujarat, implicating the couple in the murder plot.
Judges ruled Arti Dhir — who was named by Interpol as one of their ‘most wanted’ shortly after the killings — and her husband Kaval Raijada could not be extradited. Dhir is pictured leaving a west London gym with her face covered
He says he was recruited by them to kill Gopal, and in turn, recruited others, including the two men on the motorbike and the driver of the car that was ambushed.
He was also a passenger in the vehicle on the fateful night in question on February 8, 2017.
By then, he said, there had already been two failed attempts to murder Gopal.
On one occasion, the motorbike could not keep up with a car taking Gopal and his brother-in-law (Alpa’s husband) to the station, leaving Raijada, who remained in Britain, furious, Mund told detectives.
Raijada swore at him, he said, then pressurised him to get on with the killing or ‘work’.
Mund was sent £25,000 rupees (about £270) by Raijada four weeks before the murders to buy an unregistered Sim card, according to court papers, so that ‘phone calls could not be linked between the various co-conspirators’.
Nitish Mund is currently being held in prison in Gujarat along with the three other alleged accomplices.
Which brings us to the third piece of evidence the police are relying on. In her statement to the authorities, Gopal’s sister, Alpa, said after Mund was arrested, Raijada’s own father (the local bank manager) came to see her and offered her money to tell police Mund was innocent.
Raijada Snr was arrested and is on bail in connection with the murder conspiracy. No other motive, other than collecting a potential insurance windfall, could be found for the murder of Gopal.
‘A penniless farm boy, unaccountably he [Gopal] was targeted by the murderers’, the court papers concluded.
‘They were not interested in conducting a robbery of a car that had stopped at the side of the road or of its passengers.
‘Instead they chose to take the boy away with them. It was not suggested Gopal was robbed before he was killed. There was no suggestion he had anything of value about his person.’
Still, judges ruled Arti Dhir — who was named by Interpol as one of their ‘most wanted’ shortly after the killings — and her husband Kaval Raijada could not be extradited.
The authorities in India are understood to be lodging an appeal against the decision.
‘We have not given up hope,’ said Alpa, Gopal’s sister. ‘We still have faith in the British judiciary.’
In all this, it is worth noting that those who know the couple cannot believe they are capable of plotting to murder a little boy.
Among them is David Coombs, one of Dhir’s oldest friends. He and his wife were witnesses at her marriage ceremony at Ealing Town hall.
‘I have spoken to Arti since the little boy died,’ he said.
‘She told me she had nothing to do with it. Arti looked after her mum and dad when they were ill. She’s got a young nephew who she loves to bits. As far as I am concerned, Arti is innocent until proven guilty.’
Maybe so. But this is also the same woman who, the High Court heard, made no attempt to contact Gopal’s family after her ‘adopted’ son had been murdered.
Additional reporting Stephanie Condron