Rajendra Sethia: Acquitted after 34 years in a trumped up case

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Rajendra Singh Sethia

New Delhi  In many ways, Rajendra Singh Sethia, the world’s biggest bankrupt in the 1980s, long before the insolvency and bankruptcy code emerged in India or the US saw its share of Chapter 11 bankruptcies, represents the archetype of a Greek tragic hero.

The Nigeria and Sudan experience meant that the wheel of fortune had taken a dive, a death spiral which plunged him to depths of despair. Overnight, the king had become a pauper. He lost his two-storeyed $225,000 ‘White House’ in Hendon, north London, he lost his three Rolls Royce, two Mercedes and even a Boeing 707. He lost his businesses in Nigeria and Sudan. His Holland hotel in mid-Manhattan, his tea company in India Jokai, and he lost his family (as some members chose to desert him).

Yet karma, God and yoga kept him alive. Sethia is the same man who once paid $ 3.6 million for his Boeing aircraft and spent another $600,000 to install a boardroom, bedrooms, sauna and jacuzzi in the plane.

The high-flier, who belongs to Sujjangarh, near Bikaner, became a Londoner after spending his childhood in Calcutta where his great grandparents moved to in the early 1900s and then onwards to London in the 1920s.

Here is the second part of an incredible tale where imponderables and vicissitudes have strewn an indefatigable Sethia’s path. He tells us about India and his interminable expedition to clear his name. He may have lost his hair, what is left is tied up in a pony tail, but not his mojo, the moustache remains as fierce as ever, the Marwari in him defiant:

INDIA: CBI arrested me on March 1, 1985. The questioning tack was how much bribe did you pay Pranab Mukherjee? My response was that I had never met him or spoken to him. All the money I made was from official banking transactions. I didn’t realise that this agency’s built up and propped up case would haunt me for 34 years.

It was clear that V.P. Singh, icon of virtue and anti-graft crusader of the time, had got me arrested. Two top journos of the time (names withheld) told V.P. Singh here was this criminal and embezzler who was living slap bang in Delhi’s Maurya’s Presidential Suite cocking a snook at the government.

No bank ever filed any complaint against me. In 1991, PNB in a sworn affidavit said it has no complaint against me as everything was fully secured. Mr Clean VP Singh labelled me the world’s biggest bankrupt (September 1984) and at the same time a local London bank filed a case against me which I contested and won in 1986-87.

No Indian bank has ever filed a criminal complaint against me anywhere in the world, I needlessly became a victim of a set of circumstances and paid dearly for it. This was an eerie time in India, after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Pranab Mukherjee had thrown his hat into the ring and that had put paid to his chances, V.P. Singh was the new poster boy till he too fell out. VP tried to make an example out of me at the behest of two journos who are now my friends.

On February 13, 1987, after serving my term in Tihar Jail, Amod Kanth had me re-arrested for financing Charles Sobhraj’s escape. One of the inmates was Madan Bhaiya (who became a politician), he is still my friend. Charles and I became friendly. It took me 3-4 months to understand I was No.1 prisoner amongst the 8,000 odd inmates. After all, I was supposed to be the biggest criminal the world has seen, one who embezzled crores and millions, I now slept on the floor, solitary for first four and last six months and those months are embedded in my memory recesses for they teach you nothing is permanent. Money and power mean nothing, God and understanding him and his ways mean everything.

PRESENT: Since 1987, I am stuck here, I make the best of what I can. My first wife divorced me, the second divorced me, the third Sonia died in a car crash. I have two children (daughter and son, lives with me) I have had four heart attacks, five stents, but I still do two hours of yoga everyday and continue to believe in exercise as the bedrock to keep you going.

I am broke, yet my kids have financially supported me — son, 48, daughter, 45, they are really protective of me. So many unbelievably fantastic people in Delhi who have supported me till day. Nobody from London helped and supported me. I have a moderate liquor business and it keeps us going. I don’t care if people call me Delhi’s bootlegger.

I had to clear my name, all of us are going to die one day and may be God has kept me alive for this purpose, it is a mission for me. Money is useful as a tool, I have no love or attachment for it, good if you have it, good if you don’t, cant allow it to take over your life.

I have spent 10s of crores since 1984-85 to clear my name. Almost 30 to 40 millions of dollars were spent in London itself. Lawyers don’t charge me anymore, they have become my friends, they know of my harrowing tale, how I have been wronged. I didn’t travel for 25 years.

Aryama Sundaram took my case to SC — he is a friend — the court agreed to hear, they finally gave me permission to travel overseas. I remember the court asked for Rs 1 crore cash surety. Sundaram said he had no money, he is a friend, not a client – Rs 1 lakh asked to provide and I got my passport back.

LEGAL PROCESS: I have been waiting for trial since 1987. Last 10 years brought witnesses to CBI, they said there is no case, it is a political vendetta. In the PNB case — 313 statements — Judge Vandana Jain said there is no evidence, no case, so be acquitted. Travesty of justice — no case, no passport only a briefcase. I have now been acquitted.

But there is no pain, I have seen one bad day in my life when I lost my wife Sonia in a car accident. All this happens to teach you something, the karmic way has different dimensions and is a different world – you get beaten, then you get up and the race starts again. No grudges, no problems. My karmic journey is my own.

My inspiration is Steve McQueen in Papillon (a 1973 period drama prison classic), eat, do yoga and exercise to stay the course. My first heart attack was in 1992, despite that by 1997 I used to run 10 km a day. Destiny has it written. Heart attack was coming. Survived due to fate and fitness. Money, position, power and pelf has never mattered. I had money and I lost it. My attachment is to people and life.

I won cases in Nigeria in 1986-87, I cleared my name there. They even came to question me in Tihar Jail. I know I am an honest guy. The recent clean chit was the biggest vindication that I didn’t do any wrong. I have never been ashamed of anything that I did and perhaps that is why I have so many friends.

I have always been a cricket junkie, still am. Sunny Gavaskar came to see me in Tihar, he reminisced about the time that I provided sweaters and cardigans to the Indian team touring England. The British High Commission in Delhi refuses to give me a visa to clear my name in Britain too, but I will surmount this too.

THE CASE: After fighting the legal battle for almost 34 years in a Delhi court, businessman Rajender Singh Sethia, who succeeded in proving himself innocent in two bank fraud cases, said, “justice delayed is better than never.” Sethia, once described as the “world’s biggest bankrupt”, could not control his emotions when Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Pawan Singh Rajawat acquitted him in the 1982-83 bank fraud case.

“In view of the evidence on record, I am satisfied that prosecution has miserably failed to prove the allegations against the accused persons as no admissible evidence has come on record and benefit of doubt must go to the accused,” magistrate Rajawat said in its March 19 order, and acquitted Sethia and co-accused Babu Lal Bengani of charges dealing with cheating, forgery, criminal conspiracy and others.

Sethia got the first relief from the court on December 15, 2016 when the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of Central Delhi acquitted him in another bank fraud case. “Justice has been done. My name got cleared as an accused in the case. Now I can walk with clean hand,” he told IANS.

Describing the 34-year trial as period full of a wide array of emotion, Sethia said he felt insulted when people described him as a crook, fraud or cheater. “Now, I can tell them that I am innocent,” he said, but expressed his sorrow at losing almost 34 years in fighting the case.

“My 34 years have been wasted in trial. But I am happy to get justice from the court. Justice delayed is better than never,” Sethia told IANS.

He thanked his son and daughter for supporting him financially and motivating him to fight the legal battle. However, he urged for expediting the court proceedings so that people didn’t suffer for years awaiting justice.

Sethia was Chairman of London-based ESAL Commodities Ltd since March 1977 and other co-accused Bengani the Director of the company. Sethia was in control of all the financial matters of the group companies.

CBI CHARGES: The CBI registered a case against them alleging that they defrauded the Indian banks in the UK in 1985. Sethia returned to India in December 1984. He was arrested on March 1, 1985 and released on bail on February 13, 1987.

Sethia welcomed the two court orders and said the investigating agency had implicated him in false cases. The CBI had alleged that Sethia with help of his employees cheated the London branch of the Central Bank of India and obtained loans on the basis of forged shipping documents.

The agency also alleged that Sethia induced Punjab National Bank (PNB) to extend loans in respect of alleged contracts with Nigerian National Supply Corporation and other African organisations that didn’t have sufficient foreign exchange reserves and the loans were obtained by making false representations regarding the value of the assets held by him.

ESAL Commodities Ltd was in a bad financial condition and required huge amounts to lower the dues outstanding against it. Sethia in his defence said all credit facilities to ESAL Commodities Ltd were duly sanctioned and approved by the head offices of PNB and the Central Bank of India at New Delhi. All the transactions were fully secured by credible solvent securities, he added.

Sethia said the value of securities offered were many times the credit facilities granted by the two banks to ESAL Group of Companies. In December 1983, he argued that on account of coup in Nigeria and Sudan the company suffered financial difficulties and due to revolt in Nigeria, it ceased operations there in January 1984.

Even at that time, banks were fully secured as many assets of Sethia were held as security by these banks, he added. The CBI had alleged the accused persons caused huge losses to the banks. Relying on the testimonies of witnesses, the court said no financial loss was caused to the banks and they had received all the amounts.

The court also noted that the banks had not filed any complaint against him.

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