The Nagarwala Scandal: The Heist That Shook a Nation

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These theories gained tailwind after Nagarwala died in Delhi’s Tihar Jail — later established to be a case of myocardial infarction and not any foul play — following an unusually quick dispatch of the case and allegations that the probe had deliberately been botched up…writes Sourish Bhattacharya

All those who have been following the exploits of conman Sukesh Chandrasekhar may not have ever heard about the retired Indian Army Captain, Rustam Sohrab Nagarwala. Or may just have a faint recollection of him.

It was Nagawala who pulled off the mother of all cons in a scam with a dramatis personae that included Indira Gandhi, her trusted aide, P.N. Haksar, the State Bank of India and the Mukti Bahini, which was fighting for the liberation of the then East Pakistan.

The sordid saga began with a phone call on May 24, 1971, to the head cashier of the State Bank of India’s Parliament Street branch in New Delhi by a person doing a very good job of impersonating Indira Gandhi.

The voice instructed Ved Prakash Malhotra, who, incidentally, happened to be related to R.K. Dhawan, the late prime minister’s factotum, to hand over Rs 60 lakh to a courier who’d meet him soon for a top-secret operation in East Pakistan. Malhotra was also instructed to go to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) later to collect the receipt.

The gullible cashier — was he gullible, or was he used to receiving verbal instructions from Mrs. G? — did as he was told, but when he showed up at the PMO to ask for the receipt, he was shocked to learn that no such instruction has been issued by the prime minister.

Malhotra panicked and filed a complaint with the Chanakyapuri police station, where SHO Hari Dev, an enterprising police officer, swung into action and the perpetrator of the con, Nagarwala, was caught at the Delhi Airport with much of the money that the cashier had handed over to him unsuspectingly. Nagarwala ended up getting a four-year prison term.

This barebones case summary doesn’t do justice to the zillions of questions that arose in the immediate aftermath of the scam erupting into the public domain — questions that soon gave birth to conspiracy theories.

These theories gained tailwind after Nagarwala died in Delhi’s Tihar Jail — later established to be a case of myocardial infarction and not any foul play — following an unusually quick dispatch of the case and allegations that the probe had deliberately been botched up.

The death of the investigating officer, D.K. Kashyap, in mysterious circumstances (a tonga had crashed into his car) did not help matters, nor did the suspicious transfers of all those who either probed the case or were engaged in Nagarwala’s trial.

Indira Gandhi’s silence on the episode, even as newspapers and the Opposition were dining out on it, only ensured that the suspicions about her role gained a long afterlife.

Senior journalists Prakash Patra and Rasheed Kidwai have trawled a number of sources — from police records to contemporary newspaper reports, to files at the National Archives of India, to the 820-page report of the Justice Jaganmohan Reddy Commission set up by the Morarji Desai government in 1978 to investigate the matter — to piece together a riveting story that deserves to be re-told for a generation that has grown up in a political culture muddied by a succession of scams — real, or invented to fix political rivals.

When the Nagarwala case blew up, against the backdrop of the build-up to the Bangladesh War, scandals of this magnitude were hardly ever heard about. And, rightly, as the title of the book puts it, ‘The Nagarwala Scandal’ was indeed ‘The Scam That Shook the Nation’.

Nagarwala’s con, which inspired the character and story of Major Bilimoria in Indo-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry’s award-winning debut novel, ‘Such A Long Journey’ (1991), returned to the headlines briefly in 2017.

Retired IPS officer Padam Rosha, who shows up in Patra and Kidwai’s book, approached the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) in 2017 for transcripts of the evidence he had shared with the Reddy Commission, but the Union Home Ministry turned down his request, an order that the then CIC, Wajahat Habibullah, overruled.

Yet, like the case itself, which lies buried with questions that remain unanswered, nothing came out of the CIC episode.

This book revisits the “rash of questions”, to quote the authors, that the case raises: Did the bank keep Indira Gandhi’s unaccounted-for money? Or, was the money that Nagarwala laid his hands on meant for Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti project? Or, was it an operation to fund the Mukti Bahini that went awry? Was Nagawala packed off to Italy, with the story of his death being just a red herring, because he knew too much?

Even Justice Reddy, although he could not find anything to implicate Indira Gandhi, noted he found it hard to believe that Nagarwala came up with the idea all by himself and pulled off the scam just for a lark.

By the time any action could be taken, Indira Gandhi returned to power with a thumping 353-seat majority and her government officially buried the case on January 15, 1981.

Patra and Kidwai’s slim but loaded book navigates the flow of events between May 24, 1971, and January 15, 1981, and leaves us with uncomfortable unanswered questions. That is how the ‘The Scandal That Shook The Nation’ dissipated — in a trail of doubts and theories.

Perhaps the book will inspire an OTT series, for the case has all the spice one needs to make a suspense thriller’s script sizzle. We’ll wait for it.

Prakash Patra and Rasheed Kidwai, ‘The Nagarwala Scandal: The Scam That Shook The Nation’ (HarperCollins Publishers India; Rs 399)

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