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Rajendra Singh Sethia: 34-year-long karma

From boom to bust to jail to acquittal

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Rajendra Singh Sethia

New Delhi, Aug 13 (IANS) From London-based billionaire to the world’s biggest bankrupt to derisively being described as Delhi’s bootlegger, Rajendra Singh Sethia has seen a gamut of emotions, a roller-coaster life with a strong underpinning of karmic payback. This dogged karmic outlook keeps him afloat, sane and engaged with the world. The 72-year-old fought incessantly for 34 years till he was acquitted just last month.

He has served jail time in Tihar where he earned the sobriquet of Sethia Saheb or Boss, having spent time along with the Serpent Charles Sobhraj aka ‘bikini killer’ in Tihar. Framed for his escape, he went back to jail just a week before his release in the Punjab National Bank case.

In the life and times of Raj Sethia, there have been innumerable twists and turns, but he accepts every curve ball thrown at him. A family which externed him, two wives who walked out on him, a third Sonia who died tragically in a car crash in Delhi in February 2012 and two children from the first wife who have been by his side helping him rebuild his life tentpole by tentpole. A victim of the Indian criminal justice system where the wheels move ever so slowly, dealt a bad hand, a trumped up charge which he fought gamely and valiantly for three decades and more to finally emerge triumphant waving a clean chit.

His father and grandfather were London-based businessmen since 1920s dabbling in both jute and tea. His father S.L. Sethia started the jute business in 1944 while the tea business came through an acquisition much later when Raj bought the premium Calcutta headquartered but Assam gardens FERA company Jokai Tea.

His brother Nirmal Sethia owns the posh brand Newby Tea in London, an astute and aggressive businessman who has done very well for himself — Vladimir Putin drinks his tea. But Raj Sethia has separated formally from his brother and only recently has started visiting him in Dubai. He can’t visit him in London because the the British government refuses to give him a visa, despite his recent acquittal.

Man on a mission, Raj Sethia told IANS: “I have had four heart attacks, served jail time in Tihar, lost everything I had, have five stents in place, the Nigerian police, CBI, Crime Branch following him for allegedly aiding and abetting Sobhraj escape, Scotland Yard tailing me pretty much all my early life, and yet, I have survived. My quest for a British visa is paramount for I want to go there and clear my name. My karma is such that I will do this too.”

BUSINESS: “I started my own business in 1974, I was the youngest of four brothers, but I separated from the family business very early. My two elder brothers Ranjit and Nirmal asked me to separate saying that I was too much of a risk taker and they were unwilling to trust me. My credo in life has always been I will always do what I think is right, after all as a Marwari, we are constructive, industrious, risk takers and at one level even speculators.

“I made piles of money in sugar and other commodities. BY 1975, I had made and lost my first fortune fulfilling my brothers’ prophecies that I was reckless. That didn’t deter me and I went to what I thought was the next boom town – Nigeria with 140 quid in my pocket that same year. Luck plays a part. I have always believed that you need 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent good luck. Circumstances were such those days that oil had been struck in Nigeria and the world was gathering there looking for a punt. But I was broke and realised that if I could get a letter of credit, I could have a blast selling beer because of the climate”.

BANKING: “I managed to meet a Nigerian who was impressed with my sheer audacity and he bankrolled me for $150,000. I used the LC for $150,000 to bring a shipment of beer into Nigeria. My first order, the principal gave me the cash and thereafter I kept getting breaks in Nigeria. It was fated and destined, more or less written. Over the next seven years, I made millions in shipping, sugar, tea through my flagship company called Esal Commodities. Till my next big leap of faith, I bought New York-based Jefferson National Bank in 1981-82. This was a big breakthrough for me, I became the first Indian ever approved by the Federal Reserve in the US to be allowed to own a bank in US (52 per cent of it belonged to me). My sphere of operations had become bigger by then. Sitting in London, my trading empire had spread from Nigeria to Sudan”.

TEA: “Around this time, almost in parallel, my elder brother (Ranjit) asked me to look at Jokai Tea, a blue chip FERA company saying that it would be a good fit to my trading operations. I bought 74 per cent (it was an English FERA company) for 10 million pounds. I had never seen their tea gardens before or after the acquisition, professionals managed the show. These were 10 of the best Assam gardens and it was a running company, so I didn’t want to waste my bandwidth on it. I was busy trading in rice, wheat, gasoline, owned my own shipping line with 10 to 12 cargo ships. Things were going hunky dory. Trade cycles tell you that booms are always followed by troughs and even bust”.

GLOBAL EMPIRE: “I was London-based and expanding rapidly, those days I was a billion pound entity across my different group companies. Karma struck. In 1983, I was going gangbusters, ready to open my Jefferson National Bank branch in London. The missile came from a most unexpected source. The Nigerian military coup d’etat of December 31, 1983 coordinated by key officers of the Nigerian military, led to the ouster of the democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari, and the installation of Major General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State.”

Triggering a dramatic chain of events that altered Raj Sethia’s life forever. Colonel Tunde Ogbeha was tasked by the coup plotters to negotiate the peaceful surrender of President Shagari’s Brigade of Guards army unit. Ogbeha was unable to reach Colonel Bello Kaliel, the Commander of the Brigade of Guards and engaged in a Lagos-to-Abuja-and-back seeking game which made Kaliel suspicious. Brigadier Ibrahim Bako was given the responsibility of arresting President Shagari after Ogbeha’s successful negotiation of a peaceful surrender.

Unknown to Bako was the fact that no such surrender had been negotiated. Additionally details of the plot had not only been leaked to President Shagari, but also Captain Anyogo and Lt Colonel Eboma of the Brigade of Guards mounted a defence of the presidential villa in anticipation of an attack.

As expected Brigadier Bako arrived at the Presidential villa to arrest President Shagari, but President Shagari’s guards were not pacified as expected. A firefight ensued leading to the killing of Brigadier Bako. As it always happens Sethia’s name was associated with Shagari and a witch hunt began. Bankers turned up asking for money. Allied Arab Bank managed to get an injunction against him in London.

The following year, his life was turned upside down again. Trials and tribulations of a new kind began to shadow him. The 1985 Sudanese coup d’etat was a military coup that took place on April 6, 1985. The coup was staged by a group of military officers and led by Defence Minister and Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, against the government of President Gaafar Nimeiry.

The Sudanese Armed Forces took control of the country after more than a week of civil unrest, caused by increasing in food prices and growing dissatisfaction with the government of President Nimeiry, who himself came to power in the 1969 coup. Nimeiry was in the US at the time of the coup. It was a brutal double whammy for Sethia.

The coup was announced over the radio. The radio studios in Omdurman were heavily guarded by soldiers, who withdrew only after the announcement was made. Reportedly, there were two casualties during the coup, killed in a brief shootout as soldiers seized the state security headquarters in the capital Khartoum.

(To be continued)

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Education and its economic outgrowths

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73rd Independence Day PM address
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Nation on the 73rd Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in New Delhi on Aug 15, 2019. (Photo: IANS)

In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the issue of population explosion in the country and the need to address it. He added education as a means of both moderating the trend of rising population and making them productive as well. Development trends throughout history have shown that as literacy levels go up, fertility rate falls and economic growth is easier to achieve. The latter is due to the fact that with education, child progress takes place at a faster rate making the future generation of workforce more productive.

Keeping this in view, the National Education Policy (NEP) is updated regularly to ensure equitable access to high quality education to the children of the country. The most recent, NEP 2019, is still in the public domain for wider consultations. Since the country’s independence in 1947, Indian government has always sponsored a variety of programmes to address the problems of low levels of literacy rates in rural and urban India alike.

The first NEP was formulated in 1968. Based on the reports and recommendations of Kothari Commission (1964-1966), the Indira Gandhi government called for radical restructuring and equalizing educational opportunities to achieve national integration along with greater cultural and economic development. This policy laid the groundwork for all the other education policies that followed it.

Focusing on compulsory education for all children till the age of 14 years and introducing the policy which promoted the three-language formula (promoting learning of regional language), it gave way to the next educational policy, National Education Policy 1986. This policy, under the Rajiv Gandhi government focused on the inclusivity of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) by promoting scholarships, incentives to poor families, and recruiting more teachers from the backward classes.

Due to such initiatives, India has been on track of an improved and inclusive educational condition that our society requires to provide to our next generation. Literacy rate since the time of Independence has increased from 18.33 per cent (Census 1951) to 74.04 per cent (Census 2011). In the decade between the last two Census’ alone, the country’s literacy rate shot up by 14 percentage points.

On the other hand, gender disparity has still been an area that the existing policies have not significantly influenced. As reported by Census 2011, there is a wide gap between the literacy rates of males (80.9 per cent) and females (64.60 per cent). This gap is also a leading cause for the population explosion that the country has experienced through its impact on family planning. Despite the best government efforts through initiatives like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, the trend has persisted.

Along with such issues of basic literacy, India’s education system will also need to address the problem of employability. Each year the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) reveal the learning deficit of Indian students beginning at the level of elementary schools. The last report found that more than half of Class V students can only read texts meant for Class II. Such deficiencies will impede the country from achieving optimum productivity levels in the long run.

The NEP 2019 emphasises on these as well as many other obstacles in achieving a better education system and looks to achieve a plethora of goals in the next decade. Starting from early childhood care and education, NEP 2019 aims to achieve quality education for children between 3-6 years and ensures that every student in Grade 5 and beyond would achieve literacy and numeracy by 2025. The policy also aligns itself with the Goal 5 of SDGs by aiming to achieve universal Gross Enrolment Ratio in schools as well as universal youth and adult literacy by 2030 after extending the Right to Education Act from pre-school till Grade 12.

Along with these, NEP 2019 also considers that the government bodies and policy makers do have a huge role to play. First, it emphasizes on increasing school governance by organizing schools into school complexes ensuring availability of infrastructure, resources and people. Second, it plans to establish an apex body, the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog, which would act as the custodian of the vision of education in India headed by Prime Minister. Third, the higher studies institutions would have autonomy on academic, administrative and financial aspects of their institutes. Finally, the policy would also catalyse research and innovation across the country through the formation of a National Research Foundation.

The implementation is still key in deriving the desired outcomes through the NEP, but it sets the required agenda on achieving child progress and, through it, a moderation in population growth and robust economic growth in the future. By increasing the importance of co-curriculars as well as vocational training, for instance, it would provide a child with a multi-disciplinary background, which might be the need of the hour in an increasingly mechanised world. The effect of these initiatives will only be realised over the long run but a timely shift in narrative towards better education outcomes was necessary and a commensurate policy shift is welcome at this time. The India of the future demands it.

(Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness. He can be contacted at [email protected] and tweets @kautiliya. Abhinandan Menon, researcher, Institute for Competitiveness, has contributed to the article)

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

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Rajendra Singh Sethia

New Delhi, Aug 16 : 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, 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 his family (as some members chose to desert him). Yet karma, God and yoga have 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 just before Partition in 1944.

Here is the second part of an incredible tale where imponderables and vicissitudes have strewn 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: The 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 realize that this agency’s built up and propped up case would haunt me for 34 years. It was clear that V.P. Singh, an 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, the PNB in a sworn affidavit said it has no complaint against me as everything was fully secured.

Mr Clean V.P. Singh labelled me the world’s biggest bankrupt (September 1984) and at the same time, London banks filed a case against me. I want to go back to England to clear my name. This was an eerie time in India, after Mrs 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. V.P. 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 three to four months to understand I was the No.1 prisoner among 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 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 means 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 live 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 maybe 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, good if you don’t, cant allow it to take over your life.

I have spent 10s of crore 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 my harrowing tale, how I have been wronged. I didn’t travel for 25 years. Aryama Sundaram took my case to Supreme Court. 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 has no money, he is a friend, not a client — Rs 1 lakh — asked to provide and I got my passport back.

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Iranian tanker Grace 1 freed by Gibraltar

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London, Aug 15 : Gibraltar on Thursday allowed a detained Iranian supertanker Grace 1 to leave the British overseas territory despite eleventh-hour efforts by the United States to halt the move, thus potentially defusing the  tensions between London and Tehran.
The Supreme Court in the British territory of Gibraltar approved the release of the Grace 1, which was impounded off the country’s coast by authorities on July 4.

Tanker was detained by authorities in Gibraltar with the help of Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was ferrying over 2 million barrels of crude oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions.

Gibraltar said Iran has assured that its cargo would not be taken to Syria.Gibraltar is a British overseas territory on the edge of southern Spain.

Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement issued to the press, “investigations conducted around the Grace 1 are a matter for the government of Gibraltar and that it couldn’t comment further.Gibraltar’s legal proceedings and the steps Gibraltar’s authorities have taken to prevent the ship’s cargo from reaching Syria in contravention of EU Syria Sanctions.UK Government noted that  Gibraltar has received assurances from Iran that the Grace 1 will not proceed to Syria.”

Two weeks later, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz and accused it of “violating international regulations.” There have been six attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region and  the U.S. has blamed on Iran.

UK issued a statement, “There is no comparison or linkage between Iran’s unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar. Freedom of navigation for commercial shipping must be respected and international law upheld.”

All 24 Indian crew members who were aboard the Grace 1 have been freed, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan tweeted today.

“Spoke to our High Commission @HCI_London on VLCC Grace 1. They confirmed that all 24 Indian crew aboard VLCC Grace 1 have been released by Gibraltar authorities and are free to return to India,”  Muraleedharan tweeted.

Arti Bali

Sr Journalist 

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