'I Fear Being Eliminated', Says Lawyer Who Exposed Essar Phone Tapping Scandal

Suren Uppal spoke to The Wire about the timeline of events in the 'Essar tapes' case, how the company intercepted the calls of many government officials and businessmen, the nature of these calls and the implications of the recordings.

Six years after the Niira Radia tapes exposed the corporate-government nexus and its influence on the policymaking process, the ‘Essar Tapes’, recently brought to light by Outlook and the Indian Express, provide us 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 have been submitted to the prime minister’s office (PMO) by Delhi-based lawyer Suren Uppal, who has asked for a probe in the matter. Uppal claims to be acting on behalf of Albasit Khan, Essar’s former head of security and vigilance, who was allegedly fired from the company in 2011. Uppal says Khan decided to turn whistleblower after his ‘unceremonious exit’.

The controversy

Based on conversations he had with Khan over a three-month period, Uppal told The Wire that Khan had been hired in 2000 by Prashant Ruia, one of Essar’s owners, to audit and screen human resources in the company by “conducting surveillance by using the telecom and IT infrastructure of the company by interception, tapping and recording” and “passing the information regarding key officials to father and son Ruia”.

According to Uppal, Khan was told “that since their company was already a telecom licensee for cellular operations under M/s Hutchinson Essar, the company is required under its statutory obligations to support the government investigations by intercepting and tapping such phones which are under Government surveillance and thus assigned the responsibility of recording and providing the recording conversations to the management of the company…”

Following Khan’s appointment, Essar tapped the phones of important officials and ministers in the government, rival companies like Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and significant bankers. This, Uppal says, was done by linking the targeted phone number to a number of pre-paid SIM cards used by Essar; any phone call made or received by the person targeted would automatically be routed to the pre-paid SIM card.

Uppal said that he came to know about the tapes through a client, following which he met Khan in Delhi and subsequently in Mumbai. Most of the the tapes were on Khan’s computer, some of which are also in Uppal’s possession.

However, Khan has now backtracked from his previous position and has said that he has never consulted Uppal, whom he accused of concocting the tapping story to “extract money from corporate bigwigs”. Responding to the allegation, Uppal told the Indian Express, “I have said in my complaint to the Prime Minister that Essar has won over Albasit Khan. I have enough evidence with me that Albasit Khan was in touch with me on the subject of the interception operations. I have logbooks of the entire operation handwritten by Albasit himself. I will prepare a PIL and hand over all this material along with the tapes, running into over 25 hours, to the Supreme Court”.

In another report, Khan denied having any involvement in Essar’s alleged surveillance activities and said that the tapes he has were given to him by slain Mumbai police officer Vijay Salaskar.

Most political parties, except the ruling BJP, have called for the tapes to be made public. Meanwhile, Essar has said that the charges are “malafide” and “extortionist in nature”. However, Uppal told The Wire he has asked for a thorough probe into the matter and that he has come forward in the interest of the public. Before writing his 29-page complaint letter to the PMO on June 1, Uppal had also sent a ‘caution notice’ to Essar but did not receive a reply.

Although the PMO has not moved forward after the complaint other than to forward Uppal’s letter to the home ministry, the Essar tapes, if found to be true, will show how crony capitalistic practices were firmly entrenched in the Indian political system during the previous NDA government in the early years of the millennium, a few years before the Radia tapes captured the nexus as it existed in the UPA’s days.

Excerpts from the interview:


Whose calls did Essar intercept?

Although Uppal claims Khan has recordings of phone calls from 2000 to 2011, he has submitted details of the conversations between 2000 to 2006, spanning four years of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and two years of first UPA regime. The tapes, Uppal says, show how big companies like RIL liaison with top government officials and ministers to broker deals and seek undue political favours. The corporates, in return, help the political parties with funds and other benefits.

Among those who were allegedly tapped are present railway minister Suresh Prabhu, former ministers Praful Patel and Ram Naik, industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani (both part of the undivided Reliance Industries), Tina Ambani (Anil’s wife) and several high-ranking officials in Reliance. The list also includes late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, Kirti Somaiya, Jaswant Singh, Piyush Goel, Sudhanshu Mittal, former Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh, current home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, and bankers like former chairman of IDBI Bank P.P. Vora, former CEO and managing director of ICICI Bank K.V. Kamath and former joint managing director of ICICI Bank Lalita Gupte. The complaint to the PMO also mentions Sahara chief Subroto Roy and filmstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Several top bureaucrats also figure in the list, including then PMO officials Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh.

Uppal told The Wire, “I had heard around 70-80 (conversations). Some of the voices I could recognise were of Pramod Mahajan, Amar Singh, Mukesh Ambani. Rest Khan identified from his logbooks…I could understand that Essar was not interested in tapping the phones of PMO or ministries. Instead it was interested in intercepting the numbers of a few individuals which mattered to them.”

How did Essar intercept calls?

According to Uppal, Khan had two offices from where he managed the operation – one in Delhi and the other in Mumbai – the addresses of which are mentioned in his letter to the PMO. Uppal says that Khan was given cellphones, dictaphones, voice recorders, voice cassettes, cassette recorders, connecting cords, tape recording equipment, computers, CD-writing equipment and funds. “Once the infrastructure was set up, he started receiving SIM cards, each carrying three-four activated numbers, which were to be intercepted, tapped and rec­orded. The tapping was allegedly done through the BPL (now Loop) Mobile and Hutch servers by cell-to-cell interception. Essar’s own network and the group’s conversations were being rec­orded on land and cell lines. The intercepting SIMs were pre-paid cards bearing the numbers and were rec­harged regularly by Shishir Agarwal,” according to Outlook.

The conversations

Some of the conversations mentioned by Uppal give a vivid picture about the wheeling and dealing that happens at Raisina Hill. “As far as I could figure out, there were two main aspects of the conversations. One, Essar wanted to know what the bankers who were in the lending committee to approve loans for Essar were thinking. The company was undergoing restructuring and re-financing at that point of time. It wanted to know the mind-set of the bankers even before they took a decision to finance (or not finance) the company. Two, it possibly wanted to know the moves of its competitors like Reliance and their nexus with the government,” Uppal said. Seven of the most important conversations among the 27 conversations mentioned in his complaint are:

  • “Conversations between Anil Ambani and Satish Seth 29.01.2003, wherein there is a clear disclosure regarding how Reliance was trying to manage the Shivani Bhatnagar Murder case to favour Pramod Mahajan and how the same was diluted as against the minister and the company was able to control the uproar in the Parliament by using Amar Singh”.
  • “Detailed conversations between Mr. Parimal Nathwani and Mr. Sathish Seth, proving how Reliance had succeeded in dictating the tariff plans of BSNL, thereby making huge profits for Reliance”.
  • “…Conversation between Anil Ambani and Satish Seth & Harish Shah, relating to KG Basin case, wherein it got mentioned that if there would be an Enquiry then “SABKA BAND BAJJ JAYEGA.” Harish also told that RIL is guilty of escalating the costs to Rs 1500 crores when actually the cost borne was Rs 500 crore”.
  • “Conversation between Mr. Pramod Mahajan & Mr. Satish Seth, wherein Mr. Mahajan told that his going out of the I&B Ministry may prove to be very detrimental to the interests of Reliance and further that Mr. Mukesh Ambani should try through his contacts in the PMO to ensure that Mr. Mahajan continues as the I&B Minister”.
  • “Conversation between Amar Singh and Kunwar Akhilesh Singh, MP from Samata Party, dated 28 November 2002, whereby it has been revealed that the whole JPC [joint parliamentary committee] was managed by Amar Singh on beh­alf of Reliance so that Company’s inv­olvement in the Ketan Parikh Scam and Global Trust Bank fiasco is managed favorably to protect Reliance Petroleum. It is further categorically mentioned in the conversation that money on behalf of Reliance has been paid to Prakash Mani Tripathi, Chairman of the JPC, whose son was already working for Reliance, along-with others including, S.S. Ahluwalia, Praful Patel, Prem Chand Gupta, Kirit Somaiya to get favourable outcomes in fav­our of Reliance India Limited”.
  • “Numerous conversations between N.K. Singh [then OSD in the PMO] and Mukesh Ambani, wherein they discussed the pre-budget policies of the governments and Ambani is heard influencing the making of the annual budget”.
  • “Conversations between V.K. Dhall, secretary DCA, Anil Ambani, Satish Seth and Rajeev Maharishi (sic), IAS, wherein the irregularities in 65-odd number of companies has been highlighted specifically from the point of view of the violations committed therein and the undue benefits been conferred on RIL thereby”.

Most of these conversations were pointed out by Khan himself at Uppal’s office. He also said that Khan has left behind handwritten logbooks and diaries that contain telephone numbers, call timings and pointers to the conversations.

Read Uppal’s letter to the PMO below.

  Essar tapes: Uppal’s complaint to PMO by The Wire

What are the implications of the Essar tapes?

A private limited company illegally breaching people’s right to privacy is criminal. The larger implication of the episode, however, is how the different union governments promoted private interests in policymaking. Crony capitalism has raised its ugly head with these revelations. “Although it will be premature for me to say but if I look at it from a point of view of a layman, you see so much inroads these corporates had in the decision making of the government, judicial pronouncements, decisions of political parties,” Uppal said.

“I have requested the PMO to have a detailed probe. These conversations were meant for the honourable prime minister to understand the gravity of the matter. I will share it all with the investigative agencies. I have no vested interests. All I am saying is something which was illegal and in the illegal possession of someone contains highly sensitive information. So I decided to bring it to the notice of the government. Someone has done something criminal and brought it to my house,” he added.

Uppal said that one must understand that Essar is the third biggest debtor in the Indian economy. “It has more than 1 lakh crore unpaid loans and around the time the tapping incidents happened it was undergoing restructuring and refinancing. One must ask what was the conversations used for? Were these possibly used to get favours from the government. Or government banks?”

Uppal said that if the PMO 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”.