Government Must Investigate, Says Lawyer Who Exposed Essar Phone Tapping Scandal

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An interview with Suren Uppal, who has submitted 27 incriminating conversations to the prime minister’s office and asked for a probe.

The ‘Essar Tapes’, recently brought to light by Outlook and the Indian Express, provide a frightening glimpse into how a corporate giant allegedly intercepted and recorded mobile phone conversations of politicians, bureaucrats and rival business groups between 2000 to 2011, purportedly using the information to its own advantage.

Twenty-seven conversations tapped during this period were submitted to lawyer Suren Uppal by Al Basit Khan, Essar’s former head of security and vigilance, who was allegedly fired from the company in 2011. Uppal, who has submitted these to the government and asked for an investigation, says that Khan decided to turn whistleblower after his ‘unceremonious exit’, and claims to be acting on his behalf.

What follows is the transcript of Uppal’s interview with The Wire.

When and how did you get involved with the case?

I came to know some of the details of the case through one of my clients, in December 2015.

I initially did not believe something like this could have happened. The only thing I could agree to at that stage was to meet Al Basit Khan, who claimed to have the details. I did, on January 6, and during our conversation, I understood that the matter probably needed to be investigated thoroughly. Khan wanted me to be his counsel. I wanted to know why. He told me that in 2011 he was thrown out of the company, unceremoniously. At the same time, with details that were highly incriminating, he had tried to contact certain high-profile people. He named a few of them, which I will not mention because I cannot confirm them. But, according to him, they did not pursue the matter, for unclear reasons.

Now, I told him I would take up this matter professionally and pursue it to its conclusion. I wanted to be assured that he wanted to pursue it for good reasons. One thing I remember he said to me was, “I will pursue this matter come what may. Even if I die, please bury me immediately, but never allow this matter to get buried.” He sounded very confident and upright.

I believed that this case might be one that our country should know about if there was truth in whatever conversations I might come across in certain papers. It seemed as if there could not be a bigger or more sensitive case that could ensure a lot of transparency and fairness in the working of our democracy.

I agreed to the case, and went to Mumbai around February 2. I stayed at the Cricket Club of India and was there from dawn to dusk, listening to a lot of conversations, trying to understand their significance and trying to relate them to what might have occurred in those times. I was convinced that the matter needed to be pursued.

From mid-February to March 2, I listened to many conversations and read documents. Then I issued a legal caution notice on March 2 to Essar House and the Ruias [the co-owners, who, according to Uppal, hired Khan in 2000] and expected them to reply within one week. The notice implicitly suggested that the matter had come to my knowledge through the Essar House ex-employee who claims to be the head of security.

What I could figure out is that Essar had indulged in activities that could be violating the Constitution of India, Article 21 and other provisions, by undertaking illegal interception: tapping and recording. There were also the numbers that my client gave me from his documents and the people. There were almost 20 conversations that seemed to be relevant to the investigation. I highlighted these and sent them to Essar. The only idea behind this was that if they denied the issue, they could challenge it. And if at any stage they considered this relevant but didn’t want to own up, they could go to court, challenge it and ask for an investigation, so that I could at least give the articles back to the investigative agencies and things could be done. There was no reply to my notice until March 10.

But there were certain attempts – I have proof – by the Essar group to influence Khan not to carry it further.

What kind of proof do you have?

We have certain conversations: for instance, the one that Khan recorded on his phone and gave me on March 9. That clearly records the Ruias pleading for a one-to-one meeting to try to close the matter and Khan saying, “No, now that I have come to know the gravity of the matter, I will meet only in the presence of my lawyer or not at all.”

On March 10, I received a simple notice from Essar that said: “We would like to take another one week to reply.” I then issued legal caution notices again to the management of Reliance: Reliance Industries Limited as well as Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. I am not a technical expert and not in a position to investigate the matter. But, in order to be cautious, I wanted to not raise it in a court of law or bring it to the public domain, without at least knowing whether they wanted to challenge it; if they did, they had every right to do so, but if they did not, I could proceed.

There was no reply from them, until March 17, when I received one from Essar’s lawyer. The first thing they admitted was that Khan was an employee. The second thing they said was ‘we haven’t indulged in anything of this kind.’

But two critical points made me raise my eyebrows and think that this was a case of extortion. Immediately, I could make out why they were not disputing it. Extortion was not a possibility unless they had something to fear. Only then would they be intimidated by any facts being revealed in the public domain. The second aspect was that their notice mentioned that if I as a lawyer tried to pursue it, then they would strongly defend it. Interestingly, the cautionary reaction of a strong defense isn’t triggered unless there is some truth in the accusation. So I immediately replied saying that I had received Essar’s reply and that it appeared to be more of a tacit admission. They never replied to that.

I then started working more diligently on the matter. Around April 20 or 21, I felt there was a change in the conduct of Khan. On the morning of April 21, I tried to get in touch, but he did not respond. I then sent him a message that said: “Are you trying to hide something from me? It seems that you are.” He did not reply.

In the morning, I heard that the companies had successfully arranged for Khan to be soon flown out of the country and that he had assured them that all the data was with him and had never been handed over to me. If he left, I would be left alone to face the legal consequences; these companies would file defamation against me.

I tried to resort to legalities. I replied and called, but did not receive a response. I then sent an email to all the concerned corporates saying I knew they were trying to manipulate Khan, but that even his fleeing would not get them out of whatever illegalities they had committed, that I had proof and would pursue it. Very interestingly, my message was not challenged by any of them. The simplest reply could have been, “We have nothing to do with what has been happening to Khan. Whatever has been said is also wrong and there is no question of us trying to manipulate him. In our knowledge he has nothing against us. All that is only an attempt to harass us.”

I then lost contact with Khan. But I faced the dilemma that I had certain documents and conversations that had no place in my office.

How many conversations did he give you?

He gave me conversations from the period 2001 till 2006. I asked him to leave me a few copies of the recordings he had and I listened to, so that there could be no future allegation that I didn’t have them.

How many conversations did you listen to?

I heard around 70 or 80 of them.

What were they about?

I could recognise a few of the people talking. For the others, he had to give me the records – the phone numbers and the day and time and the people who were talking.

Could you recognise some of these people?

The voices I recognised were of Amar Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani and a few others.

How do these conversations incriminate the accused?

It would be premature to confirm the voices and the conclusions of the conversations. But if I look at it from a layman’s point of view, from what I could hear, what Khan was alleging and the circumstances, which I knew from the newspapers, government reports and decisions of the time, it certainly seemed that these corporates had many inroads into the government and every walk of life, in terms of the decisions of political parties and certain judicial pronouncements.

I am no one to ascertain the authenticity of what the conversations suggested. Nor am I in a position to prove that they really resulted in a decision by the government. I never brought them into the public domain. It is for the honourable prime minister to judge their gravity. Or for Essar House, the Ruias and Reliance top management to either accept or challenge it. I know the details of the conversations are crucial; if proven right, the country would know a lot about what is going on now and what was at that time.

Why did you decide to go on with the case?

I received something illegal that was illegally possessed by Khan; I declared that it was in my possession and that anyone could challenge it. But the thing itself remained illegal in nature. The fact was that I was not fighting Khan’s individual case; it was not a case of his personal property or his family. It was a different kind of a case in which he came to me as an informer. Now, after my having received those materials and his having left, there was nothing for me to do but bring it to the notice of the government as a lawyer and also an individual.

The nature of these conversations is criminal… I have done my job both as a lawyer and a citizen – rather, more as a citizen than a lawyer. I only expect everybody to do their job; the government has to do its job, take everything into consideration, take the data from me and investigate.

How would you respond to the allegations of your being motivated against a political party?

I have two answers to this. Firstly, people should start considering ‘the country’ bigger than the parties. If I say our nation has been wronged, we should not reduce the matter to being about this or that party, because that would be holding our country secondary to political compulsions.

Secondly, all I did was to bring the issue to the notice of our government. Initially, I informally went to two or three ministers and gave them notices.

Which ministers?

I would not like to name them because what I did was informal. But they know I met them and if necessary I’ll certainly say that I personally went to their offices and handed over the evidence. I only request them with folded hands to take the matter seriously, in the interest of the country.

Now, if there was any political agenda… I honestly haven’t heard this allegation from anyone. I’m not a manufacturer of these conversations. There are documents to prove it and not a single page or conversation has been manipulated.

Furthermore, I have personally been a supporter of the ruling government. Not in public; I will not carry a flagship. But I have voted in the election, and my family has been an ardent supporter of the honourable prime minister. I did not talk to the corporate rivals of these companies, despite their having reached out to me. I did not go to any political party with this information for them to exploit. What I did was to take it honestly, with folded hands, to the honourable prime minister’s office. Where is the politics involved?

What did you hand over along with the complaint letter?

I sent the complaint letter with earlier caution notices and requested that the honourable prime minister’s office kindly appoint very credible investigating officers who could immediately take the evidence from me and start the investigation.

What is the case against Essar?

If you see the documents, certain ones of them bear the Essar logos. There are diaries of Essar from 2002. They mention the conversations. They are hand-written so an investigation can be done into the author or on whose instructions the typing or the recording was done. Now, interestingly, I have at no stage declared or personally alleged that it is an act on the part of Essar or any of its officials. What I have said is that this guy who is your ex-employee has come to me and alleged this and I have sent you the notice. Later as well, this is what I wrote to the prime minister. Now, if today Khan says that Vijay Salaskar, Mumbai’s imminent police officer, gave it to him, I am no one to say that what he said earlier was right or what he is saying today is right. That is for the investigation to unearth.

Did Khan ever tell you that Salaskar gave the Mumbai police the phone records?

He never told me, of course.

What was the mode of interception?

According to him, it was tri-party interception. There was a SIM configured with the target numbers, so whenever there a call was made or received, it could be intercepted by a prepaid number anywhere in India, and recorded.

If the allegations are true, what sections could the accused be charged with?

Telegraph Violation Acts and Right to Privacy Acts are different. If they are doctored, there will be another allegation and another investigation, and if it is further confirmed that they are doctored, then there will be another allegation of manipulation and doctoring.

Another very important aspect is that of the motive or objective, if there is an iota of truth in both allegations. Essar is the third biggest debtor in the Indian economy. It has more than one lakh crore rupees of loans unpaid. It has undergone restructuring and refinancing on multiple occasions. Having said that, what were these conversations used for? Were these conversations used to get favours from the government or from nationalised banks whose chairmans’ calls were also being tapped, or from private banks? Recently, the Supreme Court asked the government for a list of defaulters of public loans, so this is crucial to know. There is clearly a lot to investigate, as to what the conversations were ultimately used for, if a company that has defaulted to the tune of one lakh crore rupees has been found indulging in intercepting, tapping and recording.

In detail, what are these conversations about?

Without going into any details, one topic was the bankers involved in the restructuring and re-financing Essar was undergoing at that time – that is, about their mindset, in terms of sitting in the board meetings and taking important decisions with respect to the re-financing. Another was the movement of their competitors in terms of their strategies, decisions and nexus with the policy or decision-makers.

The media has been covering this as if it were about the tapping of the prime minister’s office or ministers – incorrectly in my understanding, for it was done of individuals, corporates and bank officials. Now, interestingly, when these tapped phones connected to others, two things happened: interception and recording. So one could say that the interceptions and recordings had been done with the then telecom ministers and then politicians and top leaders of the country. But it is not the other way round: we could not say that their numbers were tapped.

Uppal said that if the prime minister’s office is not willing to institute a probe, he may at best move the courts but would not go the extra mile to pursue the case. “I am under a lot of stress and pressure. I fear being eliminated”.

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