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Anna Priyadarshini

Jayalalithaa’s ‘nephew’ to king of Tihar jail: The many lives of Sukesh Chandrashekhar

On December 5, 2021, actor Jaqueline Fernandez was all set to fly out to Dubai when immigration authorities at Mumbai international airport informed her that the Enforcement Directorate had issued a look-out circular with her name.

ED officials would first question Fernandez at Mumbai airport and later, Fernandez would appear at the ED office in Delhi. She would be questioned by the ED about her relationship with Shekhar Ratna Vela, who introduced himself to Fernandez as the owner of the Tamil entertainment channel Sun TV and nephew of former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa.

Vela had gifted Fernandez a Persian cat valued at Rs 9 lakh, a horse worth Rs 52 lakh, diamond jewellery and designerwear (among other things). He’d arranged trips for her on private jets. He’d allegedly also told Fernandez that he was friends with Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio and was working towards getting Fernandez a role opposite DiCaprio in a Hollywood production.

The only problem was that the man making these promises to Fernandez was not Jayalalithaa’s nephew. He didn’t own Sun TV; he didn’t know DiCaprio; and his name was not Vela, but Sukesh Chandrashekhar.

In end-December 2021, Chandrashekhar – who is 32 years old and has 32 criminal cases against him – released a letter to the media through his lawyer.

“I don’t owe an explanation to anyone, but at the same time, it is very necessary that my version also is out in the public,” Chandrashekhar wrote in the letter dated December 20, 2021. He clarified that Fernandez and he had shared a romantic relationship (Fernandez has told ED she was duped by him), and that the gifts he gave her were “normal things one would do for his loved one in a relationship”.

Incidentally, Chandrashekhar’s wife, dentist-turned-actor-turned-entrepreneur Leena Maria Paul, was arrested in September 2021 for her alleged involvement in her husband’s cons.

Chandrashekhar also denied the allegations of fraud and money laundering that had been levelled against him. “I have made hundred crores from corporate lobbying and there is no need for me to con or cheat anyone,” he wrote.

Yet, according to the chargesheet filed by the ED in December 2021, Chandrashekhar had posed as top government officials and extorted more than Rs 200 crore between June 2020 and August 2021, from Aditi Singh, wife of former Ranbaxy promoter Shivinder Singh – all while Chandrashekhar was in Tihar Jail.

‘Behave politely’

On the morning of June 15, 2020, Aditi Singh received a phone call. A woman asked to speak to Singh and when Singh confirmed she was the one speaking, a man came on the line. He identified himself as Anoop Kumar and told Singh he was the law secretary. He said he had orders from the highest authorities to help Singh’s husband, former Ranbaxy promoter Shivinder Singh, who (along with his brother Malvinder Singh) has been in prison since October 2019.

He said the government was interested in helping Singh’s husband get out of jail because he worked in healthcare and the government would be interested in working with him during the pandemic. Kumar also told Singh that union home minister Amit Shah was hearing their conversation so she should “behave politely”.

Kumar called her a second time on the same day, this time to introduce her to a man named Abhinav, who Kumar said was his joint secretary. On the caller-identification app True Caller, Kumar’s number belonged to advisor PK Mishra, in the prime minister’s office.

Singh had reached out to various government offices on behalf of her husband, asking if there was any assistance they could offer during the pandemic, so the call from the law secretary didn’t feel suspect.

Then came the demands for money.

First, Abhinav told Singh to contribute Rs 20 crore to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fund. Then the amounts grew larger. Between June 2020 and August 2021, Singh would give over Rs 200 crore to Abhinav, liquidating her family’s savings. On occasion, the money had to be transferred through Dubai or Hong Kong.

As the months progressed, Singh started to feel cornered and harassed by Abhinav. “If I would ignore the calls, he would begin to call my family and keep calling till I responded. I felt harassed beyond words and it made me emotionally unstable and fragile enough that on two occasions I seriously contemplated taking my life rather than have to deal with them. If I cried on the phone and begged for this trauma to end, he would heartlessly say that they would neither let me live nor die and that they were God and that I should be grateful for their support, otherwise there would be many more cases against my husband and family including me,” Singh said.

Meanwhile, the case against Singh’s husband saw no positive developments. It became clear to Singh that she’d got tangled in an extortion racket.

On August 6, 2021, Singh lodged a complaint with the Delhi police.

Two days later, the special cell of Delhi police arrested Sukesh Chandrashekhar, alias Balaji. Chandrashekhar had impersonated the law secretary and posed as Anoop Kumar.

What was more shocking was that Chandrashekhar had carried out the con by creating phone numbers on a second-number app known as Hushed, and using messaging platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp. He did all this while in the same place as Singh’s husband: Tihar jail.

According to Delhi police’s economic offences wing, Chandrashekhar was given an entire barrack in the jail. Close circuit television camera footage showed he used the jail superintendent’s chamber for longer than is permitted in rules. Certain jail officials would later be identified as Chandrashekhar’s collaborators.

In the course of the investigation into Chandrashekhar, the authorities uncovered that the self-proclaimed lobbyist was one of the richest conmen in India.

‘It’s tough to resist his personality’

When people who know Chandrashekhar speak of him, it seems like they’re talking about a character from stories. There are stories of him racing bikes and cars as a teenaged school dropout (he is rumoured to have lost a finger in an accident while racing). He’s shifted from city to city – Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Mumbai – living lavishly and earning criminal charges in most of these places.

Chandrashekhar’s acquaintances remember his intelligence, sense of ambition and fascination for markers of elite prosperity, like high-end brands and jewellery. During the ED investigation, it was revealed that Chandrashekhar’s home in Chennai was a palatial beach bungalow with opulent fittings and 16 luxury cars, including a Rolls Royce Ghost, a Lamborghini Urus and a Bentley Bentayga.

“He has a captivating and vivacious personality. He is fluent in eight different languages, is mature, clever, and well-informed. It's tough to resist his personality,” one person told Newslaundry, requesting anonymity.

Born to a lower middle-class family that was originally from Pazhanganatham hamlet in Madurai, Chandrashekhar dreamt of breaking out of poverty from a young age. His family ran a small business in Bengaluru and acquaintances remember how as a boy, Chandrashekhar envied older schoolmates who had their own bikes while his father dropped him off on an old scooter.

By the age of 17, Chandrashekhar was arrested for the first time and had already dropped out of school. A complainant alleged Chandrashekhar had cheated him of Rs 1.15 crore after promising to help get land acquired by the Bangalore Development Authority and secure foreign investment for construction.

By the time he was in his early 20s, Chandrashekhar would set up what the ED would later describe in its chargesheet as a “crime syndicate”. Despite his limited formal education, with his quick thinking and the help of associates, Chandrashekhar would repeatedly be able to pass himself off as someone with access to elite circles.

In 2009, Chandrashekhar posed as the son of Karunakar Reddy, then the revenue minister of Karnataka, and scammed a complainant of Rs 3,72,500. Over the years, Chandrashekhar would adopt various persona and characters, including presenting himself as the grandson of former chief minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi and secretary to BS Yediyurappa. When he was trying to establish a contact with Fernandez, Chandrashekhar had called the actor’s makeup artist Shaan Muthathil and said he was calling from Amit Shah’s office.

Fernandez is not the only actor to have been the object of Chandrashekhar’s attention. In 2009, Chandrashekhar approached dentist-turned-actor Leena Maria Paul – her best-known acting credit is the role of a Tamil rebel in the 2013 film, Madras Cafe – and the two became partners, both romantically and professionally. They got married in 2015. Paul is now 36.

Authorities say Paul introduced Chandrashekhar to some of his targets, like one Joseph Alexander who was duped of Rs 6 lakh; and actor and dancer Nora Fatehi.

In 2010, Chandrashekhar carried out one scam of Rs 3,50,000 and in another case, he allegedly strangled the manager of a cinema where Chandrashekhar had been hired to install a new sound system. Chandrashekhar took the advance and absconded, only to be spotted some time later by the manager. A scuffle ensued, in which Chandrashekhar attacked the manager. When he was apprehended, the police recovered 21 watches, two automobiles, a laptop, and a large sum of money.

Both Chandrashekhar’s ambitions and the scope of his criminal activities grew steadily. In 2013, he defrauded Canara Bank of Rs 19 crore by impersonating an Indian Administrative Service officer of the Karnataka government, under the pretext of getting a tender from the government for vending machines. Chandrashekhar and Paul were both charged and arrested in this case, but they secured bail and relocated to Mumbai afterwards.

Prior to the Rs 200 crore extortion attempt, Chandrashekhar gained notoriety when he was arrested in 2017, for bribing officials of the Election Commission of India, allegedly at the behest of TTV Dhinakaran who wanted to secure All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s electoral symbol of two leaves for the faction led by Dhinakaran’s aunt and Jayalalithaa’s aide, VK Sasikala.

King of Tihar jail

In a column for Gulf News, journalist Swati Chaturvedi wrote that Chandrashekhar was being approached by a streaming platform for the rights to his story. “Chandrashekhar was insistent that Ranveer Singh, his favourite actor, play his role,” said Chaturvedi.

His life in jail, as described by sources, certainly matches the tropes of the glamorous anti-hero. As per ED’s chargesheet, Chandrashekhar was in the same jail complex as high-profile accused like Unitech promoters Sanjay and Ajay Chandra, and Shivender Singh. (This is how Chandrashekhar learned Shivendra was desperate to get bail.)

Jail officer Dharam Singh Meena, who has been arrested in the extortion case, detailed the payments Chandrashekhar made to jail staff. He said Chandrashekhar would pay Rs 50 lakh every fortnight to officers above the rank of assistant superintendent and Rs 10 lakh was given to those below the rank of AS.

Meena said he collected money from Singh on Chandrashekhar’s behalf 35 times and was paid Rs 65-75 lakh to do this.

Far from the deprivations most inmates endure, Chandrashekhar reportedly drove a small car around and had amenities like a television, air conditioning, and opaque drapes in his jail room to conceal his movements from CCTV cameras. According to the EOW, Chandrashekhar even had the occasional guest in his cell and when he was out on parole in November 2020, to perform his father’s last rites, the parole was extended for six months “under mysterious circumstances”.

Other detainees washed Chandrashekhar’s clothes and utensils, and helped him with his chores. “For his inmates, he was like a messiah,” said a source. “All jail officers used to benefit from him because he used to pay them very well. He once threw a biryani party for his jail mates too.”

However, those who know him are quick to point out that the allegations against Chandrashekhar cast him in a very different light. A source said that there were rumours that at some point in the past, Chandrashekhar had robbed his house help of Rs 7-8 lakh rupees in a ponzi scheme. "He is not a Robin Hood. He can rob anyone, whether it's his own maid or an affluent individual like Aditi [Singh],” they said.

Partners in crime

ED’s chargesheet says Chandrashekhar has been running his crime syndicate for the last 10 years. “He ran an organised crime syndicate and committed crimes for illegal pecuniary gains and other advantages and was arrested in seven criminal cases. According to ACP Virender Singh's investigation, there have been more than two criminal cases against the syndicate in the last 10 years in which the chargesheet has already been filed and cognisance has been taken by the court in which the stipulated sentence is more than three years,” reads the chargesheet, which identifies Chandrashekhar and Paul as the syndicate’s masterminds.

Paul has been arrested thrice and according to the Central Bureau of Investigation, she was actively involved in diverting and routing her husband’s illegal earnings through her firm Nail Artistry, which has offices in Kochi, Chennai and Bengaluru.

According to the ED, Nail Artistry’s business figures – it earned Rs 4.79 crore in Chennai and Rs 1.21 crore in Kochi in the fiscal year 2020-21 – are believed to be proceeds of crime.

In the Rs 200-crore extortion case, the chargesheet identifies a few more key players. Pradeep Ramnani and Deepak Ramnani collected money from Singh on behalf of Chandrashekhar. Deepak was paid in the range of Rs 2.5 crore for each instalment that was collected from Singh by either Deepak or Pradeep. It is estimated the Ramnanis received between Rs 120 crore and Rs 130 crore.

Other players in Chandrashekhar’s racket include Kamlesh Kothari, Joel Jose Matthews, Arun Muthu, and B Mohan Raj. Kothari is a real estate agent who helped Chandrashekhar and Paul buy the bungalow in Chennai. Matthews is described as Paul’s manager and Muthu helped the couple buy luxury cars.

Mohanraj, a lawyer by profession, has known Chandrashekhar since 2014 and has represented him in a number of cases. He also got commissions for helping Chandrashekhar and Paul purchase luxury cars and property.

All members of Chandrashekhar’s syndicate have been arrested.

While the extent of Chandrashekhar’s criminal dealings are being investigated and he presents himself as “a corporate lobbyist”, those who know him emphasise his greed. “The only thing that matters to him is money,” a source told Newslaundry.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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