BY SANDEEP BAMZAI
From boom to bust to jail to acquittal
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 tent-pole by tent-pole. 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 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 realized 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)