In the annals of Indian business, there has rarely been a man quite like Rajendra Sethia. Accused of swindling the banks, collaborating with dictators in Sudan and Nigeria, abetting notorious criminal Charles Sobhraj’s escape, possessing multiple passports, and stalked for years by the CBI and Scotland Yard, Sethia’s life has been like an out-of-control rollercoaster. Yet, in 2019 when a Delhi High Court judge read out its final verdict in the only case against him, he was acquitted of all his crimes.
It had taken him 34 years but Sethia was finally a free man.
In these years he had suffered multiple heart attacks, spent time in Tihar jail, seen two of his marriages fall apart while his third wife died in a tragic accident, and lost every penny of what was once a multi-billion pound fortune.
The Sethia family has been based in London for over 100 years where his father and grandfather initially built a business trading in jute and tea. The youngest of four brothers, Raj as he is popularly called, was a self-confessed risk-taker who made his first millions in sugar and other commodities, only to then lose it all by 1975. Undeterred, he landed up in Nigeria where he sold beer to foreigners flocking to the country’s newly-discovered oil deposits. It was the start of a seven-year upcycle during which he made millions in shipping, sugar and tea through his holding company Esal Commodities.
By 1981, he was big enough to bid, and bag a controlling 52 percent stake in the New York-based Jefferson National Bank. By now his vast trading empire extending from Nigeria to Sudan was worth over a billion pounds and he was on a roll. His lifestyle was suitably flashy with a fleet of Rolls Royce and Mercs at his disposal while a Boeing 707 specially fitted with a bedroom, sauna and jacuzzi, was always available to fly him around the world.
But fate had other things in store. In rapid succession, Nigeria and Sudan, two countries where Sethia had strong business interests, went through regime overthrows following violent coups. Unfortunately for him, he was seen as being close to the overthrown leaders and his assets in both countries were frozen. Banks from whom he had borrowed heavily to back his many ventures now demanded repayments, putting enormous pressure on his finances. Ultimately lenders including one London and Overseas Sugar Company (LOS) moved the courts for liquidation of Esal Commodities, while also charging him with attempted fraud. Sethia now moved base to Spain to resuscitate his crumbling business.
Around this time he had also bought the premier Calcutta-based Jokai Tea and when troubles mounted, he was forced to renege on repayments to three Indian banks—Punjab National Bank, Central Bank of India and the Union Bank of India—from whom he had borrowed in London.
Curiously, it wasn’t the banks, but the CBI which initiated action against him on charges of forgery and criminal conspiracy with employees of the London branch of PNB. The case would drag on for over three decades. Sethia had to spend some time in Tihar jail where he met and presumably befriended Sobhraj, though charges that he helped the so-called bikini killer to escape were clearly trumped up. It was also rumored that Scotland Yard had made a request to Indian authorities for his extradition to the UK but CBI wasn’t willing to let go of him. Scotland Yard after its preliminary investigations concluded there was no case against him.
In India too, he was finally vindicated when in August 2019, 34 years after the case against him was filed, a Delhi magistrate’s court cleared him of all charges saying that the CBI had not produced a single witness or any incriminating evidence against him.
—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)