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King of weary times

To fight his extradition, Mallya has sought the example of Rajan Pillai who died in jail due to lack of care, elaborates Adam bin Mohammad

King of weary times

The 'King of Good Times' Vijay Mallya – business tycoon and flamboyant fugitive from the Indian justice system – has told a British court that Indian prisons are worse than the notorious Russian jails and that he will surely die behind the bars if he is extradited to India. Western countries take such pleas and prisoner's rights very seriously. Abu Salem's extradition from Portugal was accepted under specific conditions. Salem was a criminal. Mallya is a wily conman. With the kind of jails in India, cramped with overcrowding and corruption, he might even beat extradition, despite all the loot he ran off with. He could very well take some tips from how the prison system treated another rakish and colourful tycoon, twenty-one years ago. In 1995, flamboyant Indian business tycoon with the sobriquet 'Biscuit King' had similarly battled extradition, from India to Singapore.

The buccaneering corporate raider Rajan Pillai died in custody. "At the time of his death, Mr. Pillai was a prisoner in India, awaiting an extradition hearing," the New York Times reported on July 9, 1995. Rajan Pillai's wife Nina Pillai went to court blaming Tihar Jail for her husband's death. She hired lawyer Kapil Sibal to get justice for her dead husband. It is the same Sibal – a former Law minister – who was warned the other day by the Supreme Court, "not to shout in court." It is not known whether Sibal shouted in the court in 1995, but this much is for sure that Mallya will certainly benefit if he hires Sibal to assist his British counsel Clare Montgomery to fight his extradition. Kapil Sibal can tell Clare some law-points on how to beat extradition to India, based on his knowledge of the Pillai case. Pillai's prisoner's rights and his human rights were violated at every step of the way. He died because of that.
Right now, for some of the Rs 9,000 crore that Mallya looted from Indian banks, Clare is picking holes in the case against her wealthy client who used to fly the grounded Kingfisher Airline and sell Kingfisher beer. The well-heeled fugitive also owns a Formula 1 team and is always seen with a bevy of beauties hanging on to his every word, and both arms. Appearing at the Westminister Magistrate's Court in London, earlier this week, Clare termed India's prison system worse than that of Russia. The unsafe prison conditions of any country is a safe bet to beat extradition to that country. So Clare asserted that the situation in Russia was a "lot better than India". Russia at least allows international experts to review breaches of court orders. India's assurances on safety in India's prisons cannot be believed because there was "simply no mechanism to secure compliance" with the assurances.
In other words, Clare Montgomery was telling the world that India was a banana republic and its prisons were hellholes. Mallya, who owns a sprawling estate near London, wholeheartedly agreed. Kapil Sibal and Nina Pillai will make excellent witnesses for Clare Montgomery to drive home the obvious—Indian jails are dens of corruption with a litany of negligence.
Rajan Pillai was in many ways the precursor to Vijay Mallya. Both have been called "flamboyant". Both charmed people with money to part with their money. Both saw opportunity where none existed. Both revelled in the blaze of publicity. Both flirted dangerously with the law. Both had friends in high places. One ran out of luck but the other can get lucky if he takes tips from the former's case. Rajan Pillai was the son of a small-time trader in cashew nuts. An ambitious engineer, he bought a hotel in Goa and then moved to Singapore to sell potato chips and peanuts. There he met F Ross Johnson, who became the head of RJR Nabisco Inc., and charmed the American executive with his "business daredevilry". Ross, impressed by Rajan's flair to see an opportunity where none existed, handed over all his businesses in Asia to the Malayali buccaneer. Ross also gave a $30 million loan to Pillai, who used that money to set himself up as Biscuit King, with companies in half a dozen countries.
But, the Biscuit King was buying companies "with debt" and it was only a matter of time before the cookie crumbled. The New York Times described Rajan Pillai as "one of Asia's most flamboyant businessmen" and that "at the peak of his powers, Mr Pillai ran Britannia Biscuits, a large maker of cookies, but lately he had been a fugitive from Singapore. He had been indicted there, accused of fraud amounting to millions of dollars."
So, it happened in 1993! Some nervous Shylock, afraid that he might lose his pound of flesh, snitched to the authorities and Singapore, thereafter, ordered an enquiry. The Biscuit King was caught in the mesh of his own creation and was all set to be sentenced up to 14 years in jail. But the 'Son of the Cashew Trader' gave Singapore the slip and arrived in Kerala – where he was born in 1947, the year India gained Independence – in a blaze of publicity. There was an Interpol alert but he rode that little trouble with a stay from the court. And then he made a mistake. He went to Delhi and his luck ran out. He was arrested from the Hotel Le Meridian. The Delhi Police took him to Tihar Jail after a magistrate rejected his plea for medical treatment. The magistrate said Pillai was faking illness to seek "asylum" at the hospital. The prison was bad for the Biscuit King. The cookie crumbled and his flamboyance went to desperation.
One day he just collapsed. And "one of Asia's most flamboyant businessmen" died in the corridor of a Delhi hospital, unattended and alone. He was 47. He was "suffering from bleeding cirrhosis of the liver" for which no treatment was available in Tihar. The circumstances of Pillai's death and the ruckus created by his wife forced the authorities to institute the Justice Leila Seth Inquiry Commission. The result was a scrutiny of the Indian prison system. Justice Seth looked into the "circumstances and sequence of events" that led to Rajan's death. Mallya will be thrilled to know that Justice Seth found evidence that suggested Pillai "met his end in the face of apathy and negligence." There were gross and inhuman prisoner's violations. The enquiry established that even after being instructed that in case of a medical emergency, Pillai should be rushed to GB Pant Hospital or AIIMS, he was packed off to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Hospital. Another incriminating lapse was the failure to carry out the mandatory medical check-up of Pillai at the time of his admission into the prison population. It was also found that Nina Pillai's allegation that Rajan Pillai was tortured, was not far from the mark. One of the inmates, Rajendra Kumar, witnessed then Tihar Jail Superintendent AK Singla beat Pillai in his office on July 4, 1995.
"Deputy Superintendents Mahabir Singh and Bacha Majhi held the visibly ill tycoon who was the bleeding from the mouth," Avirook Sen quoted Kumar in the Litany of Negligence in India Today. "When he (Singla) saw I had entered the room, he slapped me and threatened to have me killed if I said a word about what I had seen." The next day (July 5, 1995) Rajan told Kumar that the Jail Superintendent AK Singla had demanded a Maruti 1000 car and Rs 5 lakh in cash to be delivered to him within 24 hours.
Following the enquiry, a few jail reforms were ordered. Most important of these, the number of doctors at Tihar was increased by several folds. That 'torture' was prevalent in the jail was proved. Some prisoners spoke out. Others refused for fear of reprisal. Some heads rolled. Now, decades later – as India fights to bring to justice one of the most brazen and wilful defaulters of Modern India, the 'King of Good Times' – the focus is once again on the Indian prison system. The Government of India has told the British court that Vijay Mallya will be lodged in the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai and that his safety and welfare are ensured. Clare Montgomery has taken the assurance with a sack of salt.
Jail reforms are imperative if crooks like Vijay Mallya, who loot the country and flee to foreign shores, have to be brought to book. No country worth its prisons will extradite fugitives to India's lousy jails. Rajan Pillai's death in custody will then have been in vain. IPA
(The views are strictly personal.)

Adam bin Mohammad

Adam bin Mohammad

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