Fear and hope were two reasons why Peter Jones stayed silent for so long.
The Jones family once called Kotagiri, Kodanadu in the picturesque hills of Nilgiris district home. But in 1994 the British citizens were forced to part with the 906-acre tea estate that was run by their family-owned company to V.K. Sasikala. It was snatched away by then Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sasikala for Rs 7.6 crore – a sum that was far less than the property’s value.
It was not an amicable purchase; Sasikala had used every means possible to coerce the Jones’ to give away shares in their company, Kodanad Tea Estates Private Limited, and their cherished tract land.
Twenty-three years after the deal was struck, Peter Karl Edward Craig Jones (60) broke his silence in an interview to The Week’s Lakshmi Subramanian.
Jones narrated to Subramanian how 150 goons were sent to harass him and his father, William Jones, the man who originally owned the land in Kotagiri.
Hear why the former owner stayed silent for so long:
In a chat with TNM, Jones revealed that three men were instrumental in forcing his family to give away their land. Negotiations began in 1992 with businessman P. Rajarathinam, present education minister P. Sengottaiyan and liquor baron N.P.V. Ramasamy Udayar playing significant roles in ‘marshalling pressure’ to enable Sasikala to ‘grab’ the land.
Jones wants the court and the government to give him justice and that’s the only reason why he has decided to speak up now after so many years.
“I want a settlement, it is not something I can make, but the court and government need to do. I am expecting that one of the two will auction or take over the properties. At that stage, I want to have a claim to get Kodanadu back, in whatever manner that is preferable. If I can’t get the property back and Sasikala retains it, then I want her to make good on her earlier promises. I don’t have any ways to pressurise her,” he said.
Jones first came to Kotagiri when he was in his 20s. Although parting with the land was painful for the family, he kept quiet for more than two decades, because of two reasons: fear and hope. Fear of consequences of taking on two of the most powerful women in Tamil Nadu and hope that the court would intervene.
“The main reason why I never could raise it before was that one does not go up against Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and get away unscathed. But that was not all. If you look at the events that followed, the Disproportionate Assets complaint by Subramanian Swamy had become a court case. The case was about 32 companies including Kodanadu Tea Estates Ltd. We were assuming that the court case would finish quickly and it would become known that Kodanadu was misappropriated. We thought that once the case was decided, we could take up our case too. But that case dragged on and on. And Jayalalithaa was found innocent (by the Karnataka high court),” Jones said.
The DA case verdict was devastating for the family, he recalled. “Everyone knew that all these companies had been acquired inappropriately, in spite of all the evidence, she was found innocent. So, when the government could not get her, what were our chances? How we proceeded legally was very dependent on how the court case went. The judgment came this year; we had expected that judgment ten years ago.”
Though the negotiations for the tea estate went on for two years, Jones never met Jayalalithaa once. His father, however, did once. Peter recounted, “My father met Jayalalithaa at a fairly early stage into the talks. It was actually a meeting in Chennai with Sasikala. Jayalalithaa came into the meeting and asked politely if everything was okay, everything was fine. She left the meeting and Sasikala concluded the meeting.”
He places the blame of harassment squarely on Sasikala. “My father could speak fluently in Tamil and he directly talked to Sasikala. While everybody was claiming that all was being done for the chief minister (Jayalalithaa), we had no confirmation of that at all, other than Sasikala’s involvement. Sasikala had been going around in Nilgiris looking for tea estates, unofficially, including ours,” said the former owner.
Besides Sengottaiyan, Rajarathinam and Udayar, Sasikala’s nephew Sudhakaran and another relative were also part of the talks, Jones said.
Elaborating on the ruthlessness with which Sasikala’s men carried out the deal, Peter explained, “There was never a sale deed at all. We had a partnership (Kodanadu Tea Estates Limited), we retired and Udayar’s family members became partners. It was just a benami transaction, and the day after we signed the document, Sasikala’s family took over the estate. Udayar never got involved in the estate in any way at all, other than facilitating this documentation.”
Why didn’t anyone help the family, not even the DMK, Jayalalithaa’s nemesis?
Jones pointed out, “Shortly after she purchased the estate from us, she lost the elections and the DMK came into power. After they purchased the estate, we were getting all assurances (from Sasikala) that everything would be settled as promised. When DMK was in power, I got approached a number of times by DMK members who wanted to get some mileage out of this. They wanted to get back at Jayalalithaa and I had no wish at all to get embroiled in any political infighting. So I didn’t ask DMK for any favour at that time. But much later, after five or six years, when the matter was still not settled, I thought of getting in touch with the DMK. But in TN, there is no big difference between DMK and AIADMK, it just depends who is in power.”
In spite of Sasikala’s assurances that the family would be compensated, they lost hope over the years. “We were told very clearly by intermediary people that we could ask only politely, or we had no chances. By then Jayalalithaa was back in power firmly. We also saw that regardless of the DA case, they were still doing what they liked, buying out properties, indulging in all sorts of corruption,” he observed.
Jones knows that his decision to come out in public against Sasikala, at a time when she is no longer the powerful person that she once was, may still not yield any results. He is however, determined to go on.
“For my family it was a horrible situation right from the beginning and those sad memories are resurfacing now. Nobody thinks that any good will come out of this. But I am very passionate about the property. It was my father’s home. He was brought up in Kotagiri and it was important for him to have a property in his place. He never ever wanted to sell it, in fact even when we signed the document with Udayar, my father refused to be a part of it,” he signed off.
This article originally appeared on The News Minute and is republished here with permission.