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‘Don’t mix me up with Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi’

The one-time billionaire lost his entire fortune after he was arrested for allegedly defrauding Indian banks in 1985. Over 34 years later, the Delhi High Court acquitted him of all charges

Is Rajendra Sethia, the once-international commodities billionaire trader who was infamously bankrupted and charged with defrauding Indian banks of crores of rupees in the early 1980s, a smooth operator or a tragic victim of circumstance? Could it be a lesson of fortitude, or terror, for the string of billionaire businessmen, from liquor baron Vijay Mally to disgraced jeweler Nirav Modi, who have fled the country in recent years, escaping the law for defrauding banks of thousands of crores?

After an excruciating 34 years, Sethia, who was first arrested on March 1, 1985, when he was 37 years old, and spent two years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, was finally acquitted by the Delhi High Court in August of all charges of forgery, and criminal conspiracy with bank employees of the London branches of Punjab National Bank, Central Bank and Union Bank of India. The court said the CBI had not produced a single witness or any incriminating evidence against Sethia or the expelled bank officials in the last 34 years, and finally dismissed.

Sethia is at once self-possessed and detached about his turn of fate: from being the swashbuckling young billionaire in the glam eighties who owned it all — homes in London to a hotel in Manhattan, a Boeing jet to a private bank, a tea company to commodity offices in Africa — to losing his fortune, two wives and all his possessions after coups in Nigeria and Sudan, which led up to a pile up of millions of dollars of debt. However, he is relieved that his name has been finally cleared which was his singular mission. He is a free man today, much older but fighting fit at 71 years. Sethia looks back at the turn of events that led to his incarceration and has lessons for people who are at the mercy of political vengeance and fatalistic blows.

Excerpts from an interview:

On defrauding banks like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and other businessmen on the run.

Please do not mix me up with the likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi. The banks from which they have borrowed thousands of crores have filed cases against them. In my case, none of the three banks I am supposed to have duped of millions of dollars had made any complaints against me; it was the CBI which filed cases against me based on complaints from witnesses and hearsay that they have not been able to produce in the court in the last 34 years.  And unlike the absconding businessmen, I came to India from London, to clear my dues with banks, but I had an Indian passport which I had refused to give up for British citizenship. It gave the Indian investigating agencies the authority to arrest me.

What were the cases against you?

When my London-based company ESAL Commodities Ltd went belly-up in 1984 and towards liquidation, it was Scotland Yard which investigated the cases. They looked into my company books, checked all my dealings with Indian banks, and concluded that it did not see it fit to file any cases against me as there was no wrongdoing. I was trading with Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, even the US, so I came to India to work with the banks here to liquidate my assets as a lot of money was stuck because of coups in the African countries. Remember, I didn’t walk into the banks with a machine gun and say give me your money; these were genuine transactions and I had pledged collaterals against the letters of credit. Instead, a year later, the CBI felt a case had to be made against me, though neither Scotland Yard nor the banks I had allegedly defrauded had filed a case against me here or in London.

In fact, in 1990, there’s an affidavit submitted to the court, signed by the new PNB London manager and the investigating officer, GD Gulani, who concluded all my transactions were in order and that the bank was fully secured against any losses. Gulani also stated that PNB had never filed a criminal complaint against me anywhere in the world, and that he believed I was arrested for political reasons.

Mallya too has said he is a victim of political vendetta.

I don’t know much about Mallya’s case but he has said he is willing to pay back the banks and it’s odd that they are not doing anything about it, though now they want interest on the loans. Yes, I think Mallya’s case became political, too high-profile.

In my case, it’s my word against everybody’s, but my acquittal proves me right. Two days before my arrest on March 1, 1985, I was in the finance ministry working with officials on how to retrieve the money against collaterals from the Nigerian government, and cooperating with the banks on how to liquidate the money. Everyone was very nice and they were obviously unaware of my imminent arrest.

The CBI appeared at my door in my hotel suite and said the arrest orders had come from the very top. The official said there’s no case against me, he even apologised, but said you cannot get million-dollar loans from banks without paying people off at the top. The CBI argued I must be held in police custody so as to name the beneficiaries both in India and abroad. He was alluding to Pranab Mukherjee, who was then finance minister, and did not hesitate to say that I must name him.

Remember, a year before Indira Gandhi had been assassinated and rumour had it that Mukherjee had thrown his hat in the ring before Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and he was not liked after that (Mukherjee paid for his “brazenness” in 1986, when he was forced to leave the Congress to create his own party. He was in the political wilderness for around five years until he was rehabilitated by Narasimha Rao, who took over after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.)

It was also the time when Rajiv’s new finance minister, VP Singh, was on a crusade to deliver a corruption-free government. I told the CBI that banks were actually chasing me as I was doing genuine business in London. The CBI insisted I had paid Mukherjee, even though I said I had met neither Mukherjee nor VP Singh. They said then name Mukherjee and we’ll get you off the hook, and make you a witness in the case. I said I cannot do that, my conscience is clear and you cannot make a case against me anyway. They said we will have to arrest you then. I was taken into CBI custody in their office in Khan Market.  Everyone said I was going in for 10 years and more. Since Rajiv had come to power with 400 and more MPs, I was over.

The CBI case against you?

When I was first arrested, the CBI said I had embezzled thousands of crores from Indian banks which had branches in London, but when the original chargesheet was filed by the CBI after the stipulated 90 days — I stress again, the banks themselves never filed a complaint against me, including in England, where the alleged transactions were supposed to have taken place — it was down to Rs 5 crore.  So much so the late Ram Jethmalani, who was my lawyer then, told the court at the time of the CBI filing the chargesheet that we accept all the evidence the CBI has presented is true, now please pass the judgement. We were confident as no witnesses had taken my name, no money was siphoned off, but the judge said no, we cannot pass a judgement. Because there was no case, and the trial took 34 years for my acquittal. In those three and more decades, the CBI kept asking for adjournments, delaying the trial saying witnesses were not available, nor could they produce any official papers to prove forgery and cheating on my part.

Had I been free, I could have worked towards working out repayments as they had full collaterals, including my stocks and assets in London, but the CBI made my businesses to collapse. But later my companies were sold to repay my loans as I had mortgaged everything to the banks as securities.

I was used to the British justice system where a matter like this would have been sorted out in a few months, but I’m sitting in a prison in India.

The CBI also arrested Amarinder Singh, who was general manager at the PNB in London at that time, apart from officials from the other banks.

Since there was no case, they had to make up a case that there were politicians and bank officials who were beneficiaries. After all, we were doing transactions of a billion dollars a year, this was the 80s, shipments were coming and going…so if you have got a fictional story then you need side players and other high players to buttress your case. PNB chairman SL Baluja, Amarjit Singh, Babulal Bengani of Union Bank were all named as co-accused, as VP Singh wanted to blaze a trail with his anti-corruption crusade. Sadly, Singh with his foolish tirade closed down the Indian branches of the banks in London because of my case just when they were taking off in the international markets. Also, would the British government have allowed my companies to go without scrutiny if they were involved in fraud? Scotland Yard had cleared me a year before my arrest here.

Also, I did not have a defense lawyer after Ram as the CBI case itself was the defence for me.

Are you saying you are a victim of political publicity campaigns?

To prove my point, a week before I was to get bail, after spending a year in prison, as the magistrate had thrown out all charges of forgery and fraud and I was prima facie only charged with cheating for which I could get bail, the notorious “bikini killer” Charles Sobhraj escaped from Tihar Jail. My bail was turned down as the publicity-seeking police officer Amod Kanth accused me of financing Charlie’s jailbreak. Kanth told the court that I wanted Sobhraj to kill two competitors, the Tulsi Brothers, which was ridiculous as it was the name of a company, not people. I spent another year in prison and the judge later decreed that there was no direct or circumstantial evidence to implicate me.

How did you face this ordeal?

There’s nothing to think about. Like every day, the sun is shining outside the window of the prison, or my office today. That’s the only truth. I have lost nothing, we are all on a karmic journey and this is mine. There are no regrets and no animosity towards VP Singh or Rajiv Gandhi. I still haven’t met Pranab Mukherjee. I only had to keep fighting for my innocence and acquittal. A couple of times people approached me to pay this judge or that but hey, I was busted, I had no money. I was made the biggest bankruptcy in the world for no reason. If the SBI is asked to pay all their depositors within a week they’d be bankrupted too, no one has that kind of liquidity.

Has the court returned your passport?

Yes, I now travel to Dubai and Europe to meet my children and grandchildren, but I have been denied a visa to England on grounds that my financials cannot support me there. I want to go back to London, where I started from and meet the liquidators and receivers to find out why they shut my companies down. The Department of Trade in the UK had said it was against public interest to let me continue, so my companies were liquidated. I want to find out what the “public interest” was.

What’s your biggest regret?

That I insisted on keeping my Indian passport.

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