Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Did Ponty’s murder take place in a paroxysm of passion or was it premeditated?

Akash Bisht Delhi

On November 17, 2012, leading Bollywood producer Bharat Shah was to fly to Delhi to show his yet to be released film ‘Zila Ghaziabad’ to Ponty Chadha, who had shown great interest in acquiring the worldwide distribution rights of the film. Based on the true story of the mafia wars in Uttar Pradesh, the movie tells the life and death of a slain cop, Thakur Pritam Singh, and two outlaws, Satbir Gujjar and Mahender Fauji. Fashioned around the persona of Robinhood, policeman Singh was gunned down in 1998, while Gujjar and Fauji were also killed in fierce gunfights.

 The storyline struck a chord with Chadha, who, too, ran a liquor syndicate in UP and had built an empire using his considerable political and muscle power. Quite like the protagonist of the film, Chadha conducted himself like the mafia don, who loved guns and had an entourage of armed bodyguards accompanying him at all times. Despite his disability—one of his hands was deformed—he had a gun especially designed for him.

Barely an hour before the screening, Ponty found himself in the middle of a mafia-style shooting and was gunned down by his brother, Hardeep, over property disputes. Chadha was reportedly hit by 15 bullets while Hardeep had eight such injuries. The two brothers died at the spot in a barrage of bullets that flew across their farmhouse in Chhatarpur. Interestingly, more than 45 bullets were fired in the shootout that lasted 5-7 minutes, but only two people were killed, giving room for conspiracy theories. There were many people present when the violent face-off took place between the feuding brothers. Did the murder take place in a paroxysm of passion or was it premeditated? The police has been working on a criminal conspiracy and has detained a dubious character called Sukhdev Namdhari a sidekick of Chadha’s, for allegedly shooting Hardeep. Initial police investigations suggest the involvement of many more people.

The rumour mills have been abuzz with the possibility of involvement of others who may have wanted Chadha dead to prevent him from bagging the lucrative liquor trade of Uttar Pradesh, tenders for which were to be put out  soon by the state government. Local UP newspapers have been hinting broadly about a mafia boss-politician with stakes in the state’s liquor business. It seems like a carefully conceived mafia operation in which some key people around Chadha had been compromised. “The whole shootout reminds me of a scene in the film The Godfather, where Sonny is provoked to come out of the comfort of his secure house and then shot in broad daylight. The possibility of the brothers being provoked to confront each other by other interests is also not being ruled out. We are looking at all possibilities,” says a Delhi police official.

Much to the joy of his rivals, and there seem to be many, Chadha’s death opened many closed avenues. The fate of his varied business interests running into thousands of crores of rupees also looks uncertain. There would be many big fish who would be eager to take control of his businesses. He may have had friends cutting across party lines, but that is unlikely to help his successors.

His meteoric rise from a petty trader to millionaire is often attributed to his sharp acumen for business. “He was a master businessman who knew where to invest and how to make powerful friends. He was very persuasive and would stun people with his street smart intelligence. Since his childhood days in Moradabad, everyone knew that he would make it big,” says a family member.

The eldest of Kulvant Singh Chadha’s three sons, Chadha was born in Moradabad in 1957 where he spent most of his youth. Kulvant then tried his luck with small businesses and Chadha joined him in his endeavours. There are conflicting reports about their earlier forays, some claiming that Kulvant started to sell milk and came in contact with an excise inspector who handed him a licence for running a country liquor store. Others claim that the father-son duo first operated a small snack stall outside a liquor store and then managed to get a licence for one. However, the most interesting account of their early days in business comes from a relative who mentions that the Chadhas made it big after they entered the bhang and opium business. “This business did wonders for the Chadhas who were then persuaded by Punjab’s liquor syndicate to try their luck in the liquor trade and since then there has been no looking back for the family,” says another relative.

Everything was going well for the Chadhas but one man stood in their way of gaining monopoly over the liquor trade in Moradabad. Totala was a rival businessman who had much larger stakes in the liquor business and had the support of the UP liquor lobby while the Chadhas had the backing of the Punjab’s liquor syndicate. The battle for supremacy was getting uglier and one day Totala mysteriously went missing. His disappearance is attributed to the Chadhas. Once Totala was out of their way, the Chadhas began to enlarge their influence. “Chadha would shower influential people with expensive gifts. He also helped them to park their money in his firms that helped him gain their confidence,” says a senior politician. 

 ‘The whole shootout reminds me of a scene in the film The Godfather, where Sonny is provoked to come out of the comfort of his secure house and then shot in broad daylight. The possibility of both the brothers being provoked to confront each other by other interests is also not being ruled out’ 

In 1993, The Chadhas left Moradabad and settled in Delhi. By now, Chadha had established good relations with politicians across the spectrum. In 2003, he used influence to change the liquor policy of Uttarakhand with the help of the then chief minister and grabbed the entire liquor trade in the state. His biggest break came in 2005 in UP under the patronage of Mulayam Singh Yadav. He constructed Lucknow’s first multiplex, Wave, that was inaugurated by Yadav himself. He also bagged the contracts for supplying nutritional supplements to children under Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS)  and a 4,800-acre hi-tech city in Ghaziabad.

Moreover, in 2004, the SP government also gave a contract worth Rs 2000 crore to Chadha’s firm, Great Value Food, to supply supplements through the Anganwadi network under the ICDS, sponsored by the Union government. It is well known that Amar Singh helped Chadha bag
the contract.

Chadha had an ear to the ground through his liquor vends. Based on his feedback, he predicted the defeat of the SP government and Mayawati’s comeback in 2007. Sensing the mood, he got closer to Mayawati, who gave him total control over the wholesale liquor trade and retail outlets in 16 districts of the state.

Chadha was now the undisputed liquor baron of the state and dictated terms over liquor companies and he decided which brand of IMFL would be sold in the special zone. Vijay Mallya, who allegedly ignored him at some stage, found that his brand was not sold in UP and other areas under Chadha’s sway. Till this date, spirit companies have to go through Chadha’s channel to sell their brands in the state. He even charged Rs 20 on every bottle, also known as the Mayawati tax.

When Mayawati decided to go for disinvestment of state public sector companies, it was Chadha who benefited the most. He bought several sugar mills for a song and even the CAG pegged the loss to the state government from this sale at Rs 1,179.84 crore. The SP government, during its election campaign in 2012, promised to initiate an inquiry into the irregularities, but the issue died out as soon as Akhilesh Yadav took over as the chief minister. It is learnt that, on the first day in office, he had a meeting with Chadha and a few other businessmen to establish the rules
of engagement.

Chadha’s influence wasn’t limited to UP and Uttarakhand, he even had close friends on both sides of the political divide in Punjab. He entered the state in 1999 and established ties with leaders of the Akali Dal and invested in the liquor trade, mining, real estate, sugar and paper mills, and distilleries. Here, too, he monopolised the liquor business and soon after the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government came to power in 2002, he grew in strength.  

It is also believed that several politicians and bureaucrats parked their money with Chadha who invested it in several of his companies. Sources told Hardnews that most of the Rs 5000 crore siphoned off from the National Rural Health Mission were invested in Chadha’s businesses.

With his death, the Chadha business empire has taken a major hit and it remains to be seen whether it will come out of this loss. Relatives say that though his son and brother may have taken over the reins of the empire, they lack the charisma of Chadha who was an enigma both in life
and death. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012