Desperate phone calls and strange requests are a part of a journalist’s life. Even by those standards, the call I got in early 2010 was weird. A reputable doctor from Kochi told me what his family and several others scattered across India had faced in the recent past – events that, at the risk of using a cliché, I can only call Kafkaesque. My friend Manoj Das, then editor of the Times of India in Kerala, asked him to speak to me.
In Kochi, this doctor, his wife, also a doctor, and his mother-in-law were facing imminent arrest by the Punjab police, a contingent of which had flown to the seaside town. A public relations blitzkrieg accompanied them, accusing the family of being part of a major criminal conspiracy. Flexible local Kerala media reported that the well-respected family, including the doctor’s mother-in-law, a retired university professor, were all part of a grand plan to cheat South-based Jay Polychem from Delhi.
In Mumbai, another Punjab police team took away a Nepalese migrant, who had kept his HIV status under wraps and was trying to build a normal life. On the outskirts of Delhi, in Faridabad, they arrested a pregnant woman, her husband and her brother-in-law.
According to police, all of these people were conspiring to carry out a plot devised by an engineer, who was now a petrochemical trader, from the Kochi family, who once worked for Jay Polychem. The doctor who called me was the shopkeeper’s brother-in-law.
The nightmarish experiences of these seemingly unrelated people had their origins in Mumbai many years earlier. Samdeep Mohan Varghese joined Reliance Industries in 1994 as a management intern and rose through the ranks. Within ten years, he had become section head of the petrochemicals division. Sam met regularly with buyers of their products. Among those clients were two brothers from Delhi, Sandeep and Satinder Madhok, whom he first met in 1997. “They were nice, lovely indeed,” Sam recalls. He would meet them occasionally on dates. industries in India and abroad. In 2000, the brothers told Sam they planned to aggressively expand the petrochemical business through Delhi, Singapore and Houston. They offered him a position in their company as a division manager. Sam wasn’t interested. However, her situation at Reliance quickly changed. In a reshuffle, he was transferred to the Executive Director’s office, where there was a lot more power but the work was too bureaucratic for Sam’s liking. Meanwhile, the Madhoks were tirelessly courting him. In 2002, Sam accepted their offer. Along with the move came an almost 300% pay rise and the option of working in Houston or Singapore.
Sam moved to Delhi and began operating from the headquarters of the Jay Polychem Defense Colony. The Madhoks wanted to impress and convince him. They told him about their political connections – the youngest descendant of a Punjabi political family was a regular in their office, they were particularly close to a powerful politician from Uttar Pradesh, they were also in charmed circles. members of other parties. As Sam settled into his new job, he began to understand how Madhok’s business worked: there was not enough commerce and many bags full of money came in and out of the office. There were secure locations in the office for storing, counting and sorting cash. Sam was focusing on starting the Houston office and continuing to harass the Madhoks about it. In August 2008, he landed in Houston on a business visa. The work visa, the Madhoks told him, would come later. It was an extremely frustrating time – he didn’t have the proper paperwork and the money didn’t arrive on time. However, Sam continued and began interviewing potential candidates to join the Houston office. But then the 2008 global recession hit. The Madhoks told him to block expansion plans and move to the Singapore office. There, Sam felt more confident, as a well-respected industry name from Shell also joined him, as did his former boss at Reliance. However, Singapore’s facade collapsed before long.
“Where it started to go wrong was when they were looking for trade finance lines [to facilitate international trade] from different banks. I had a lot of friends in the banking industry in Singapore, so they wanted me to do false introductions. They wanted me to exaggerate their trading volume by ten, from a few hundred million dollars in sales to a few billion. I refused, Sam said. Things went downhill pretty quickly from there. Without a work visa, no decent salary, and growing friction with management, Sam had had enough. He hired a lawyer, who said he should resign from the company, so they could sue for damages. A few days after the legal announcement, Sam had his first bad surprise. A police notice from Jalandhar arrived, asking him to appear for questioning in the Punjab, as he allegedly cheated on the company.
The lines of battle were drawn. Sam couldn’t go back. The Madhoks neither. For both sides, the stakes could not have been higher.
Sam wrote a detailed complaint in November 2009 to ED and DRI. He also filed a complaint with the Singaporean authorities.
A few days after his complaint, the company stepped up its response. On November 30, 2009, she filed a complaint with the Rajpura Police Station in Punjab against Sam and several others for posting defamatory information about the company on a website they had set up. The website had only been registered nine days earlier. In February 2010, an FIR had been filed.
A team of Punjabi policemen traveled to Kochi with tickets purchased by Jay Polychem, as if they were hired henchmen. Sam’s mother appealed to the Kerala High Court against the arrest, which said the allegations were very vague in nature. A few days later, the police picked up the Nepalese in Mumbai. He had worked as a housekeeper with Sam when he was part of the Reliance group. The man was taken to Punjab and tortured at Rajpura police station to obtain information about where Sam was hiding. Supervising the interrogation was Sandeep Madhok, one of the Jay Polychem brothers.
In Faridabad, a former neighbor of the Madhoks, who now worked for them, began to face his own ordeal. Amardeep had protested when he realized that some papers he had signed without reading them were in fact complaints against Sam. When Sam was in the Delhi office he had been a nice boss who had even sponsored the moon. honey from Amardeep in Kerala. The man resigned from the company in protest, but the ordeal was just beginning. One day he was summoned to the company and Sandeep Madhok and his brother beat him with a belt, asking him to uphold their complaint against Sam. He refused. A few days later, a group of Punjabic policemen landed at Amardeep’s home and told him that there was a case not only against him, but also against his wife, sister and brother-in-law. He was taken to the Punjab and tortured at the Rajpura police station. Once again, Sandeep Madhok supervised the torture session.
Overseeing the police operation was then DIG of the Patiala range, SK Asthana. As I began to piece together police excesses for The Times of India, I called Asthana. “I don’t care what you write in your journal,” he said casually. In fact, he had a suggestion for me: ask Sam to come to the Punjab and cooperate with the police. Asthana has in the past been charged with death in custody, was arrested by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, and charged by the Election Commission with bias and transferred.
It was surprising that the Madhoks, who were based in Delhi, came to the Punjab to press charges against Sam and the others. When I asked him about it, Sandeep Madhok, accompanied by a very aggressive and unruly lawyer, told me that one of the managers noticed the website while in the Punjab. An immediate complaint was therefore filed there. You are close to a powerful political family in Punjab, that’s why you filed a complaint there, I asked. I got no response.
I met Madhok in his office at the Defense Colony, where large oil paintings hung that looked like cheap Chinese counterfeits. The brothers contacted me through a lawyer from Delhi, who met me at a fancy hotel and offered me a bribe for not continuing the story. “I have a budget, we can share it. Nobody needs to know, the lawyer said frankly. After this effort failed, Madhok finally agreed to meet with me.
Thanks to their proximity to the powerful political family, the Madhoks had powerful access to the power of the state police. The aggressive struggle against Sikh militancy had left a deep mark on the Punjabi police. Activism had been suppressed, but the unruly side of the police was still very active and was not held responsible. Jay Polychem just hired this side of the Punjab Police.