Josy Joseph is an award-winning investigative journalist who has spent a career exposing the wrongdoings of India's political, economic and security elite, and in the process produced one of the most telling books of recent times, The Feast of Vultures, which was published in 2016. Now, in his new book, The Silent Coup, he turns his lens to what he describes as "India's Deep State". Here's an excerpt, published with permission from the publisher Westland Books.
Desperate phone calls and odd requests are part of a reporter’s life. Even by those standards, the call I received in early 2010 was bizarre. A reputed doctor from Kochi told me what his family and several others spread across India had been facing in the recent past—events that, at the peril of using a cliché, I can only call Kafkaesque. My friend Manoj Das, then editor of the Times of India in Kerala, had 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 down to the seaside city. Accompanying them was a PR blitzkrieg, accusing the family of being part of a large criminal conspiracy. The pliant local media in Kerala reported that the well-respected family, including the doctor’s mother-in-law, a retired college professor, were all part of a grand scheme to cheat Jay Polychem, a south Delhi-based firm.
In Mumbai, another Punjab police team took away a migrant from Nepal, who had kept his HIV positive status low-key and was trying to build a normal life. On the outskirts of Delhi, in Faridabad, they arrested a pregnant woman, her husband and brother-in-law.
According to the police, all these people were conspiring to implement 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 trader’s brother-in-law.
The nightmarish experiences of these seemingly unrelated people had their origins in Mumbai several years earlier. Samdeep Mohan Varghese joined Reliance Industries in 1994 as a management trainee and rose through the ranks. In about a decade, he had become the head of a section in the petrochemicals division. Sam regularly met with the buyers of their products. Among these clients were two brothers from Delhi—Sandeep and Satinder Madhok—whom he met for the first time in 1997. ‘They were pleasant, charming actually,’ Sam recalled. He would meet them occasionally at industrial get-togethers in India and abroad. In 2000, the brothers told Sam that they planned to aggressively expand the petrochemical business via Delhi, Singapore and Houston. They offered him a position in their company as head of a division. Sam was not interested. However, his situation in Reliance soon changed. In a reshuffle, he was moved to the office of the executive director, where there was much more power but the work was too bureaucratic for Sam’s liking. Meanwhile, the Madhoks were relentlessly wooing him. In 2002, Sam accepted their offer. The move came with a salary hike of almost 300 per cent, and the option to work out of Houston or Singapore.
Sam moved to Delhi, and began operating out of the Defence Colony headquarters of Jay Polychem. The Madhoks were keen to impress and win him over. They told him about their political connections—the younger scion of a Punjab political family was a regular at their office, they were particularly close to a powerful woman politician of Uttar Pradesh, they were also in the charmed circles of the members of other parties. As Sam settled into his new job, he began to realise how the Madhok business worked: there was not enough trading, and a lot of bags filled with cash moved in and out of the office. There were secure locations in the office for storing, counting and sorting cash. Sam was focused on starting the Houston office, and kept pestering the Madhoks about it. By August 2008, he had landed in Houston on a business visa. The work visa, the Madhoks told him, would come later. It was an immensely frustrating time—he did not have the proper documents nor did money come in on time. However, Sam carried on, and began interviewing potential candidates to join the Houston office. But then the global recession of 2008 struck. The Madhoks told him to stall the expansion plans and shift to the Singapore office. There, Sam felt more confident, because a well-respected industry name from Shell joined too, as did his former boss from Reliance. However, the Singapore facade collapsed before long.
‘Where it actually started going 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 sector in Singapore, so they wanted me to make fake presentations. They wanted me to exaggerate their trade volume by ten times, from a few hundred million dollar turnover to a few billions. I refused,’ Sam said. Things went downhill pretty quickly from there. Without a work visa, no proper salary and increasing friction with the management, Sam had enough. He hired a lawyer, who said he should resign from the company, so that they could sue for damages. Within days of the legal notice, Sam had his first nasty surprise. A police notice from Jalandhar arrived, asking him to appear for questioning in Punjab, because he had allegedly cheated the company.
The battle lines were drawn. Sam could not go back. Neither could the Madhoks. For both parties, the stakes could not have been higher.
Sam wrote a detailed complaint in November 2009 to the ED and the DRI. He also filed a complaint with the Singapore authorities.
Within days of his complaint, the company stepped up its response. On 30 November 2009, it filed a complaint with the Rajpura police station in Punjab against Sam and several others for publishing defamatory information about the company on a website they had created. The website had been registered only nine days earlier. By February 2010, an FIR had been filed.
A team of Punjab police personnel flew down to Kochi on tickets bought by Jay Polychem, as if they were goons on hire. Sam’s mother went to the Kerala High Court against the arrest, and it said the allegations were very vague in nature. A few days later, the policemen picked up the Nepali man from Mumbai. He had worked as a household help with Sam when he was with the Reliance group. The man was taken to Punjab, and tortured at the Rajpura police station for information on where Sam was hiding. Overseeing the interrogation was Sandeep Madhok, one of the Jay Polychem brothers.
In Faridabad, a former neighbour of the Madhoks, who now worked for them, began facing an ordeal of his own. Amardeep had protested when he realised that some papers he had signed without reading were actually complaints against Sam. When Sam was in the Delhi office, he had been a kind boss who had even sponsored Amardeep’s honeymoon to 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 up with a belt, asking him to stand by their complaint against Sam. He refused. A few days later, a posse of Punjab police landed up at Amardeep’s house, and told him that there was a case against not just him, but also his wife, sister and brother-in-law. He was taken to Punjab, and tortured at the Rajpura police station. Overseeing the torture session, once again, was Sandeep Madhok.
Supervising the police operation was the then DIG of Patiala range, S.K. Asthana. As I began to piece together the police excesses for the Times of India, I called Asthana. ‘I don’t care about what you write in your paper,’ he told me nonchalantly. In fact, he had a suggestion for me: ask Sam to come to Punjab and cooperate with the police. Asthana has in the past been accused of custodial death, was pulled up by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and accused by the Election Commission of bias and transferred out.
It was surprising that the Madhoks, who were based in Delhi, should go to Punjab to file cases 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 directors noticed the website while he was in Punjab. So an instant complaint was filed there. You are close to a powerful political family in Punjab, is that why you filed the complaint there, I asked. I got no response.
I was meeting with Madhok in his Defence Colony office, where hung large oil canvases that looked like cheap Chinese fakes. The brothers had reached out to me through a high-profile Delhi lawyer, who met me in a posh hotel and offered a bribe for not pursuing the story. ‘I have a budget, we can share it. No one needs to know,’ the lawyer said straightforwardly. After that effort failed, Madhok finally agreed to meet me.
Thanks to their proximity to the powerful political family, the Madhoks had powerful access to the might of the state police force. The aggressive fight against the Sikh militancy had left a deep impression on the Punjab police. The militancy had been put down, but the unruly side of the police was still very active and was not held to account. Jay Polychem just hired that side of the Punjab police.