Lost and found, and lost again: A colonial-era treasure lights a spark | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Lost and found, and lost again: A colonial-era treasure lights a spark

Jan 06, 2024 04:22 PM IST

British-era coins were recovered during a routine demolition in Bilimora, Gujarat. What followed was a surreal chain of events, including a tribal-led protest

In the serene town of Bilimora in the Navsari district of Gujarat, an ordinary demolition in July took an unforeseen turn. During the gradual dismantling of an old house, a surprising discovery unfolded – a treasure trove of at least 240 colonial-era gold coins seemingly emerged from the timeworn walls. However, the coins soon went missing.

A treasure trove of at least 240 colonial-era gold coins seemingly emerged from the timeworn walls(Maulik Pathak) PREMIUM
A treasure trove of at least 240 colonial-era gold coins seemingly emerged from the timeworn walls(Maulik Pathak)

The Navsari police have so far arrested six individuals, including the contractor overseeing the demolition, for allegedly stealing the British-era coins, which bear an engraving of King George V and weigh 7.98 grams each. They are believed to have been minted in 1922.

The arrested accused labourers from Madhya Pradesh's Alirajpur district, central figures in this unfolding drama, stumbled upon the missing 240 sovereigns on January 18, estimated to be worth an astonishing 1.11 crore during the demolition process. On December 31, the police recovered 199 gold sovereigns from the houses of two accused.

These gold coins have set in motion a series of events in the past year, leading to arrests, the suspension of cops and even igniting a significant tribal-led protest amid Madhya Pradesh's state elections. The accused in one state were the victims in another.

From discovering a treasure to victims of a theft

In December 2022, Ramku Bhaydiya (47) and Bajri Bhaydiya (24) stumbled upon the coins while working in a house in Navsari district. They allegedly pocketed 240 coins and returned home to their village in Sondwa, Madhya Pradesh and buried these in their house. But word about the coins somehow spread.

A complaint was filed by Ramku on July 21, alleging that four plainclothes police officers from Madhya Pradesh had barged into her house on July 19, dug out the gold and took it away. Ramku presented one coin that she was left with to the cops as proof. The Madhya Pradesh police investigated the matter however they could not recover the sovereigns and the case seemed stuck.

Hawaben Balia, the house owner, currently resides in the UK and got wind of the theft when one of the accused approached one of her relatives. They approached the relative after news broke about how police officers robbed four labourers who found coins in a house in Gujarat. The individual tried to resolve the matter by offering money, urging the relative not to report the finding to the authorities, according to the FIR.

The British-era coins, which bear an engraving of King George V and weigh 7.98 grams each. They are believed to have been minted in 1922.(Maulik Pathak)
The British-era coins, which bear an engraving of King George V and weigh 7.98 grams each. They are believed to have been minted in 1922.(Maulik Pathak)

Tribal protests and state elections thicken the plot

Acting on a tip-off, the Madhya Pradesh police arrested the accused police officers in the Alirajpur town area. The theft case was reported to the Sondwa police station on July 21, leading to the suspension of Inspector Vijay Devda and three constables—Suresh Chauhan, Rakesh Dawer, and Vijendra Singh. They were on duty at the Sondwa police station when the theft happened. Sambhu Singh, the brother of Ramku Bhaydiya, filed the complaint, accusing the four of stealing 240 gold pieces hidden underground at his sister's house on July 19.

Meanwhile, tensions started brewing as the arrested labourers, belonging to a tribal community, accused the police of mistreatment and failure to register their complaints. "Pressure mounted on the police as tribals demanded action against the accused cops, charged under Sections 392 (robbery) and 380 (theft). A group of tribals surrounded the police station in Sondwa and demanded action. The protests came in the middle of state elections in Madhya Pradesh. An investigation was carried out and the four policemen were suspended and put behind bars where they remain,” said an official aware of the matter.

In the complaint filed on October 21, 2023, Hawaben Balia alleged the labourers and the contractor were involved in the theft of gold sovereigns found in the cavity of the wall of their ancestral house while demolishing it. Acting upon the complaint, the Navsari police began investigating the matter. It was soon revealed that the individuals accused of stealing the coins in Gujarat were the same complainants in Madhya Pradesh who had reported the theft of these coins. Due to the political turmoil and the tribal protests in Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat police decided to take a slower approach to the matter.

“The elections were going on and we had to be careful that any step the Gujarat police took would not create a political stir. After all, the tribals represent about 20% of the state’s population,” said an official from Gujarat police.

Also, the terrain was geographically tough, with two of the accused Ramku and her juvenile son residing in a house at the bottom of a hill and Raju and his wife Banjari living atop it. They would escape every time the Gujarat police tried to contact them.

After election results were declared on December 3, the Gujarat police sent multiple teams to the area. They found that Ramku had renovated her house, got a new borewell and bought a new bike. One of Raju's relatives had claimed that he would soon buy a new car, all indications that the two had run into sudden wealth.

Among those apprehended on December 26 include Valsad-based Sarfaraz Karadiya (44), along with Ramku Bhaydiya (47), her juvenile son, Raju Bhaydiya (28) and his wife Banjari Bhyadiaya (24). Karadiya held the position of the contracted demolisher responsible for the house, while the others were engaged as labourers. All labourers are residents of Baida in Madhya Pradesh.

The Gujarat police apprehended the accused from Madhya Pradesh and secured their remand, along with the arrested contractor until January 3. The law enforcement faced resistance from a mob in the village when attempting to make the arrests.

An unclear solution to a moving puzzle

“The case has been like a moving puzzle. Raju was the first to confess that he had 174 coins. He kept going back and forth in his statement initially. Ramku told the police that she was in possession of 25 coins from the loot. The juvenile accused has been sent to the juvenile justice board,” said Sushil Agrawal, superintendent of police, Navsari.

On December 31, the Gujarat police recovered 24 gold sovereigns and 175 gold sovereigns from the houses of Ramku and Raju respectively.

On January 3, the police made another arrest, this time of an individual named Mukesh Bhaydiya, Raju's brother, who had assisted the accused in selling the coins to a jeweller in Madhya Pradesh. "We have recovered the remaining 41 coins out of the 240, for which the jeweller had given an advance of 6 lakh to them. They had struck a deal of approximately 20 lakh with the jeweller," according to Agrawal.

The accused have been charged under Indian Penal Code Sections 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 114 (abettor present at the spot when the offence is committed). Agrawal said that they have sought the help of experts to assist them on this issue about the ownership of the gold.

The Gujarat police are investigating the involvement of the accused cops from Madhya Pradesh and plan to question them in the near future. Agrawal said that the possibility of additional recovered coins from the house in Bilimora is not being ruled out.

A group of police officials from Madhya Pradesh recently visited Bilimora to question the arrested individuals. According to sources familiar with the matter, the Madhya Pradesh police strongly believe that the golden coins, suspected to be stolen by the suspended cops, are different from the 240 coins recovered by the Gujarat police.

Furthermore, one of the suspects, Ramkuben, handed over one coin to the Madhya Pradesh police, increasing the total number of coins in police possession to 241.

During the questioning by the Gujarat police, it was revealed that Ramkuben faces difficulty in counting beyond 50. An official involved in the investigation stated, "When Gujarat police gave her regular coins to count, we observed that she would create piles of 10 and couldn't count beyond five such piles. This raised suspicions that she might not be sure about the total number of coins that fell from the ceiling during the demolition."

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