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Life had not dealt Colette Nicole Smith the fairest of hands. More often than not, just when things were looking up, the rug would be pulled from under her feet. Yet she had managed to coast along, buoyed more by her own ebullience than anything else.
Then came the day on which she saw those monkeys. There were many of them. There were dogs, following her. There were cameras in her head, but they were getting a little blurry. In the background she could hear her mother on the phone from Santa Fe, telling her to get to a hospital. She was vomiting. The stench of urine from a urinary tract infection gone berserk wafted off her. There was shouting; a spin of ambulances, hospitals, police stations – jostling with each other in her head.
The creatures had been troubling her for a while. She’d fought to keep them at bay. But now…she couldn’t remember a time when things had ever been this bad.
Until there was silence. Calm.
She was in the clouds.
From up there she could see a “horror film unfolding”. It wasn’t happening to her – but to another 32-year old called Colette Nicole Smith.
There’s a pause in our conversation. A blankness sweeps down over her exaggerated kohl-rimmed eyes and her wide-open face, marred by lupus-induced butterfly rashes. She shakes her head slowly. “I went completely psychotic. It was a nightmare.”
She’d been released on medical bail from Sudhowala Jail in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, the previous Monday. Six months in cold, filth-ridden incarceration had wrecked her. The lupus and endometriosis that she’d suffered since she was 18 had spun out of control. The prison authorities had not provided the medications she needed – they were either not available or too expensive. Nor was she allowed to buy them herself. She’d developed a urinary tract infection so severe that she needed a catheter. She’d put on a lot of weight due to untreated hypothyroidism.
A searing pain, from a police assault during a court appearance in May 2015, tore through her lower back. The police claimed that the injuries were inflicted as she tried to flee down a staircase in the courthouse. She contends they’re due to a thrashing in the police lock-up in court. The medical report of the incident, ordered by the court, details abrasions and contusions on the breasts, back, hands and forearms. ‘All above injuries are caused by hard blunt objects,’ it states.
In the days since her release, her conditi[on had worsened so much that she decided to get herself admitted to hospital. The catch was that the hospital was in an adjoining district. Under conditions of her bail, she needed police permission to go there. It was early afternoon by the time she got to the police station. The permission took two hours. By the time they got to the hospital in Rishikesh, an hour’s drive away, it was too late to get admitted.
So they headed back to the Jollygrant Hospital in Dehradun, where she was refused admission without her medical records. She had asked the jail superintendent for them but he’d blown her off, saying she was unlikely to need them. Next they tried a private hospital, which wouldn’t admit her without her passport, which had been impounded by the court. The story repeated itself one more time. By this time she was delirious, fluctuating between rage at her situation and the universal apathy.
She and the few friends with her decided to head back to the police station. But events were fast getting out of her control. She was slipping.
“The police station is where it happened,” she says, about her breakdown.
Her broad shoulders, a reminder of a physique once athletic, now slouch off her 6-foot frame. She looks bloated. It’s probably the pain and medicines. She sags a little into her chair, re-traumatized by the memory. Suddenly she lets out a deep, almost carefree guffaw. “It was crazy. Just crazy.”
Colette’s childhood had been rough. She was born in Nevada, but the family moved to New Mexico when she was nine, her younger sister Jacqueline six and the youngest Andrea just a few months old. A year later her parents Scott Daniel Smith and Rosemary Nowak divorced.
The children grew up with their mother, a trained counselor and psychotherapist who worked variously as an independent forensic evaluator, a psychotherapist with the state of New Mexico dealing with troubled adolescents and now works with state’s Opioid Treatment Authority. “I’ve spent my life working for other people,” says Nowak, “it was gratifying but there was very little money.” The family lived a frugal life.
While the other children had little contact with their father, Colette moved between parents, spending most weekends with him. She was, according to Nowak, the “apple of her father’s eye”. The closeness would endure over the years.
Smith, who ran a construction business, lavished money on his daughter and treated her as an equal. Nowak thought it was “unhealthy” for him to treat Colette as more “partner than child”. In her telling, things changed once Colette’s step-mother appeared on the scene. “She was very cruel to Colette,” she says. From being the center of attention, Colette was relegated to the sidelines.
It left her scarred, “searching for a father figure,” Nowak says. “I think she wants to be close to her father. I’ve also gotten the sense over the years that she’s never really trusted me entirely.”
Nowak suffered from a medley of inherited medical conditions – lupus, endometriosis and hypothyroidism – which often left her with little energy for anything apart from work. Colette would often have to step in to take charge of the house. She’d do the laundry, cooking, get her younger sisters ready for bed and dressed for school. “I often credit her for enabling us to stay together,” Nowak says. “It was a true blessing. She never complained.”
Colette was also smart, finishing school at 17, then heading to the University of New Mexico from where she graduated in December 2005 with a Bachelors’ in nursing and a minor in political science. Within a few months she was working as a nurse at an intensive care unit at the Duke University Medical Center. Over the next few years she moved to different hospitals, without ever a break in employment.
In February 2008 she moved to the Gastroenterology Lab of the Lovelace Medical Center, a large hospital in Albuquerque. It was the first in a series of coincidences, the minor flutter of butterfly wings that would in time cascade into a storm, tearing apart her life.
Dr Vijay Premchand Agarwal, a gastroenterologist, had been a consultant at the hospital for over a decade and a half. At 56 he was balding, but his sharp features, piercing eyes, and a wry smile that manifested in the downward arching of his lips gave him an insouciant handsome-ness.
He and his wife had come to the US from Bombay, India in 1984. They had two kids but were now divorced. In his LinkedIn profile he describes himself as ‘an independent physician and entrepreneur, a full-time parent and a part-time philanthropist, a nocturnal writer and a pro re nata grandparent, an optimist and a peacemaker…a socialist at heart who likes some perks of royalty!’
In his public persona he was a charmer, a do-gooder, benefactor for those around him. He was self-assured – in his plans and his spirituality. He believed in karma, and in the Tantric scheme of things he put himself “most certainly somewhere between the fourth and six chakras” – on the upper rungs of the ladder of realisation.
His medical practice had done well, and he set up a gamut of other businesses for his family. 2nd Degree Media, a company he set up for his son had had moderate success, getting a license for a video game, and bagging screenplays for a few films. He set up a restaurant for his daughter; built a Ramada business hotel for his ex-wife; and started a company called Tulsi Inc that dealt with rental properties. Finally, for himself he set up Cauvery LLC, with the intention of buying land in the mountains near Albuquerque on which he wanted to build a “Yoga retreat and Shiva temple”.
His business acumen was not the sharpest, though. Most of the businesses had fared poorly, and some, like Cauvery, never took off. He puts part of the blame on his children, who he says were “like all children bound to disappoint their parents”.
But he was an optimist, brushing aside the failures as quirks of destiny. He was also clear that one day soon he’d like to retire and return to India.
“He was smart, funny and encouraging,” says Colette. He was more than twice her age, but “I’ve always liked older men.” In Agarwal, Colette seemed to have found a nurturing father figure; and for him she was, as she puts it herself, “a worshipper”. Soon they were in a relationship.
Colette didn’t particularly enjoy nursing, so Agarwal encouraged her to study further. In September 2009 she joined the American University of Beirut to pursue a Masters in Public Health. There, under the guidance of Professor Huda Zurayk, she became interested in women’s health policy. Zurayk, who Colette calls “her hero”, was the Middle East’s leading expert on the subject. She had been a driving force behind the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994.
It was a wonderful time, and Colette seemed poised on the brink of something new. The insularity and self-indulgence of the American South was behind her. In the Middle East, she had escaped into a larger, cosmopolitan and more meaningful world. Here she found purpose – as part of her course’s practical training she worked in a network of small clinics run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. The work was gratifying, and she felt that she was helping people.
Her relationship with Agarwal gave her strength. She made many close friends, traveled and fell in love with the Middle East.
She also seemed dazzled by the wealth that surrounded her. “Life was very comfortable,” she says; being white and American, she was treated well.
But Rosemary Nowak was troubled by a few incidents that occurred around this time. Once, she recollects, Colette came back from a trip to Egypt all black and blue, and swollen. “It seemed like she’d been beaten; and had gotten on the first flight back home.” Nowak is not clear on the details, but thinks Colette was abducted from a bar. To her it was a sign of her daughter’s increasing recklessness. “There was a certain arrogance to her behavior. Maybe she thought she was immortal.”
Colette is reluctant to talk about the incident, calling it a “near death experience” for which she had to be hospitalised. “My mom,” she says, “should have never brought it up.”
Agarwal visited Colette once in Beirut, but she was back home quite frequently. On these visits, Agarwal would pick her up from the airport and drive her home. “He’d ply her with alcohol,” says Nowak. Colette seemed in awe of him; and Agarwal was controlling. He’d have lavish parties at his house, at which Colette would be the one serving the drinks. At one of these parties Nowak was shocked to see Agarwal lift his plate haughtily, expecting Colette to take it to the kitchen. “For someone who cherished her freedom and was so strong-willed, it was ironic that Colette was fine with so little freedom in her personal life.”
During her time in Beirut, Agarwal also took Colette to Mumbai, where his family still lived. Then, as her Masters drew to end in mid-2011, he sold Colette a dream.
He wanted to return to India soon, he told her, but wanted to have something to do, a project set up and waiting for him. India needed help – the state of public healthcare was dismal, especially when it came to women and children’s health. Would she consider moving to India to set up a healthcare NGO that he would pay for? “I was tempted,” says Colette. “Having just graduated, I would have ended up working for someone else. Here was the chance to start and run something entirely on my own.”
Agarwal promised to wrap up his practice and businesses in the US, after which he’d retire to live with her in India. The high point of their relationship, Colette says, was in 2011 when she moved to India and they “set up the house together. He was excited. Later that year we bought land near the jungle. He was obsessed with building a house there.”
The first few months after Colette moved to India were a honeymoon of sorts. For Agarwal and her it was an adventure and a new chapter in their lives.
Agarwal’s brother ran a resort just north of Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The town, once regal with vast expanses of green, wide avenues and beautiful colonial buildings, had long been overrun by ramshackle and rampant construction. But its outskirts were still relatively untouched and the weather was pleasant most of the year.
It was also a good place for an NGO – the villages around the town were poor and under-served. The government health centers were inadequate, in number and quality of care.
Initially, Agarwal’s brother had been supportive of their plans, helping them scout for land. But for reasons Colette is not entirely sure of and Agarwal refuses to divulge, there seemed to have been a rift. “Suddenly they were very against the idea of the NGO,” says Colette. “They wanted to have nothing to do with it.” According to her, their prime interest was monetary, in trying to persuade Agarwal to purchase land near the resort.
The couple decided to strike out on their own. They rented a house on the periphery of town; and set about creating their NGO, Bella Health, in earnest. Agarwal hired Lucky Singh Gurcharan, an ex-employee, to drive Colette around, translate, help her with odd jobs and show her the ropes in an unfamiliar country. Agarwal and Colette had no way of knowing, but it was a decision that would have grave repercussions.
Gurcharan was a fixer and drifter. Agarwal had first hired him as a chef for the restaurant he’d set up for his daughter in Albuquerque. A few months into the job Gurcharan picked a fight with one of the waiters. On being reprimanded he’d left in a huff, returning a few days later to resign.
He resurfaced in India, and happened to get in touch with Agarwal. He was living in Jalandhar, Punjab, he said, and was on the lookout for a job.
Agarwal made him Bella Health’s operations manager, its first employee.
Next, Colette hired two women researchers, with whom she started visiting neighboring villages to try to identify Bella Health’s focus groups. They would talk to government-trained community health workers and groups of women in each village to understand their problems and requirements. From these interactions it was clear to Colette that women’s reproductive health was neglected. State healthcare programs focussed on mothers and children, ignoring issues like menstrual hygiene and infection.
This was also an area that interested Colette – it dovetailed with her mentor Huda Zurayk’s efforts to move women’s health beyond an inordinate focus on maternal and child health. Agarwal left the decision largely to Colette. He would have liked to include children, but Colette knew that dealing with “chronic diseases in women and children’s issues was tricky”. They just didn’t have the resources for it.
Over the next few months, Bella Health hired a doctor, a few nurses, a family planning counselor and some support staff, all paid for by Agarwal. They hired a space in Nehru Colony, Dehradun, that would become an office and clinic.
By early 2012, they’d bought an ambulance to be used as a mobile clinic in the villages they would visit, and equipment for Krishna Clinic – the charitable clinic that ran out of their office.
Happy photographs from that time hang forlornly on the walls of their current clinic (they’ve moved location a few times). The vicissitudes of the last few years reveal themselves in the peeling blue paint, curtains that look like they haven’t been dusted in a while, the creaky fake wooden floor, and the buzz of mosquitoes that emanates from the corners of the room.
In one photograph, an avuncular looking Agarwal, dressed in white, wearing a shirt with the Bella Health logo, stands between two smiling women. To his right is Colette, and to his left is his daughter Laressa. Laressa, who’s almost the same age as Colette, carries her toddler daughter in her arms. Agarwal holds the other infant grandchild. Behind them, dominating the gilded frame of the photograph, is a spanking new ambulance festooned with colorful balloons.
In other photographs, Colette, Gurcharan and other staff of the clinic pose in front of the ambulance with the grim-looking mayor of the Dehradun Municipal Corporation. Later photographs show an expanded team with over fifteen staff members.
The team started travelling to villages – the mobile clinic would travel to one or two villages a day, staying at each for a couple of hours during which village women could consult with the doctors.
For women in these villages, the mobile ambulance was the only reliable source of healthcare. Government health facilities were too far away, and lacking in medicines and doctors. The Bella team would visit particular villages on fixed days of the week. In some villages they saw 10-15 patients, in other larger villages the numbers would go up to forty. They’d continue going to a village till they’d dealt with the bulk of the patients there, after which the patients could, if they needed, come to the clinic in Dehradun.
It was challenging work, but a fantastic learning experience. Colette was creating a program that fulfilled a very real need. To compensate for the shortage of laboratory facilities near the villages, the mobile clinic started offering on-the-spot diagnostic tests for hemoglobin levels, hepatitis, malaria etc. In the space of a few months they had managed to lay the groundwork for a very ambitious project.
In a recommendation, Agarwal, CEO of the Bella Healthcare Charitable Trust, wrote for Colette a year later, he said that he’d known Colette for eight years since she was a nurse at Lovelace. ‘Then’, he continues, ‘she left to pursue her education at AUB. Upon her return, she inspired me to start Bella Healthcare in India. Her passion for public health and for the women and children of the world was surprising, though refreshing and heart-warming. She has single-handedly designed and executed the healthcare, both clinical and education, programs of Bella. I have always believed that Colette will be running a large educational program for the WHO or the UNICEF or the UNO.’
It was this ambition to get bigger fast – fuelled by the brashness that Nowak had seen in her daughter, and Agarwal’s money – which would trip them up.
In February 2012, Lucky Singh Gurcharan, operations manager and Colette’s right-hand man, came to her with an intriguing proposition. He knew a businessman, he told her, who was selling a pharmaceutical company in Dehradun. The company was fully functional and had a good reputation but circumstances had led the businessman into debt, so he was willing to sell the company at a throwaway price. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for Agarwal to purchase it?
At this point, Agarwal and Colette’s versions of what happened start differing. According to Agarwal, Gurcharan managed to sell the idea to Colette. “He and Colette told me that the businessman was trustworthy, they’d seen the factory and checked out the company’s paperwork – all of it was in order. Colette seemed very keen on the idea,” says Agarwal.
Colette says she found the businessman, Inderpal Singh Chawla, “charming and persuasive”.
Agarwal was visiting India in March 2012, but it had been a packed trip and he hadn’t had the time to think the proposition over. On March 15, Gurcharan was driving him to the airport in Delhi, 250km away, when Agarwal says “he told me that there was someone he wanted me to meet.” Before Agarwal knew it Chawla, the turbaned, pot-bellied owner of Daffohils Pharmaceuticals, was sitting next to him in the car. On the long drive to Delhi, Chawla marketed his company, showing Agarwal attractive brochures, prospective orders etc. That very evening, Chawla sent Agarwal a proposed Memorandum of Understanding for the sale of the company.
Agarwal wasn’t against the idea but wanted to think it over. “We were spending 30% of our budget on purchasing medicines. So being able to manufacture our own medicines seemed like a good idea,” says Agarwal. However, Colette was pressuring him to finalize the deal quickly since Chawla was in urgent need of money to avoid defaulting on some loans.
Colette denies this and blames Agarwal, claiming that she had no involvement in the process. Agarwal, she says, was “arrogant and ambitious”. “He thought he knew how to do business despite the fact that every business he’s been involved in has failed.” In her telling, Daffohils Pharmaceuticals was not audited, there was no verification of documents, absolutely no due diligence. “He (Agarwal) was naïve”, she says.
On March 19, four days after Agarwal and Chawla’s shotgun meeting, Colette signed an agreement on his behalf with Chawla. The agreement stated that a more formal sale deed would follow. In the interim, Colette handed over a cheque of Rs 24,00,000 to Chawla. It was the first of a series of cheques totaling Rs 1,36,00,000 that would be given to Chawla over the next few months. Of this money, Rs 4,00,000 would go to Lucky Singh Gurcharan as his commission for brokering the deal – a fact not known at the time to Agarwal or Colette.
All this while Agarwal and Colette’s relationship had been progressing smoothly. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, before Agarwal would shift back to India. He had even gotten acquainted with Scott Daniel Smith, Colette’s dad, who ran a construction business in Santa Fe. He’d rented out one of his houses to him, and engaged him to do some work on one of his rental properties.
In June 2012, Agarwal was back in India. This time he visited the Daffohils factory in Selaqui, a grim industrial area half an hour from Dehradun. In the distance, lush mountains rose out of flatness, a contrast that made Selaqui look even more dismal. But inside the factory, a small brick building, things seemed in order.
A staff of about 25 was busy in the three sections manufacturing liquid medication, capsules and tablets. Neither Colette nor Agarwal knew anything about pharmaceuticals, so they relied largely on appearances. The machinery seemed relatively new, and the order book healthy. It was what Colette had seen when she first visited the factory.
On the fifteenth of the month, Agarwal signed the Memorandum of Understanding that would make him the owner and Managing Director of Daffohils Pharmaceuticals. Chawla and his brother Preetpal Singh Chawla would be directors in the company.
Colette, already a cheque signatory for the company, would, in October, also be made a director. Apart from what he had already paid Chawla, Agarwal would pay some more of the company’s dues to suppliers, but as per the agreement all other liabilities would rest with the original owners. It seemed like a good deal. Colette was given a room at the factory and started visiting it a couple of times a week.
“It wasn’t long though before things, everything, started going wrong,” says Colette. Less than a week after the Memorandum of Understanding was signed, Aditya Narayan Singh, head of a pharmaceutical company called Celestial Biolabs, wrote to Agarwal demanding Rs 1,00,00,000 that he had given Chawla as an advance towards purchasing Daffohils.
Other creditors started crawling out of the woodwork. “I was inundated with threatening calls,” says Colette. There were calls from suppliers of raw materials, capsule bottles and other pharmaceutical companies demanding outstanding payments and compensation for defective products.
Colette now regretted ignoring the calls she’d received before the agreement was signed, warning her not to do business with Chawla. “How could we have been so stupid,” she sighs.
On July 4, Chawla sent Agarwal and Colette a list of 16 cases pending against Daffohils in courts across India. They were dumbfounded. This was completely out of the blue.
The factory, which had looked so functional suddenly started verging on collapse. Machines were developing snags with alarming regularity. Money had to be shelled out for every repair. Chemicals required for manufacture were in short supply. The company’s reputation was so bad that vendors refused to even given them the glass bottles to package the medicines.
Agarwal was stunned and then furious. “This is not what I expected middle-class Indians to do,” he says.
The money Chawla had taken for contract manufacturing of medicines would also need to be repaid. One such order was from Octans Nutra, a company based in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It’s owner, Venkat Reddy, had placed a large order with Daffohils for the manufacture of a multivitamin called Zincovit. He claims Chawla owed him Rs 28,00,000 for this.
A month and a half after signing the MoU with Agarwal Chawla told Reddy that he wouldn’t be able to pay him back, but proposed a scheme to recoup the money. Reddy agreed. He was a pragmatist, and a man not averse to a little skullduggery.
Chawla said he’d sold his company to a gullible non-resident Indian whose clueless girlfriend was managing the factory. Reddy could place a fresh order for medicines with the company, and Chawla would use his position as director to help him siphon off money from this order. Reddy was game.
“Colette wasn’t particularly smart, and she had lots of money at her disposal,” he says. “So we thought we’d take her for a ride.”
Reddy’s Facebook page lists him as director of nine different companies, of which seven are pharmaceutical companies. Most of these, he admits, are just tax saving entities. To avoid raising Agarwal’s suspicions, Reddy created a company called Omega Pharmaceuticals, “with the sole intention of recovering the Octans Nutra money.” He made a semi-literate maternal uncle of his front as the head of the company. Swine flu season was coming up, so he placed an order for a pseudoephedrine-based decongestant tablet, which he would sell under the brand name Robocoff.
Not surprisingly, most of the prospective orders that Chawla had shown Agarwal and Colette had turned out to be fake. “The only real order we had at the time was for Robocoff,” says Colette. The factory had been sliding precipitously into loss, and it was imperative that manufacturing continue.
The only hitch was that dealing with pseudoephedrine-based products was a regulatory bother. Pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical for the manufacture of the stimulant methamphetamine, was being smuggled in large quantities across India’s eastern border into Myanmar where most ‘meth’ manufacturing was based.
Apart from pure pseudoephedrine, pseudoephedrine-based tablets were also being smuggled – they were easier to obtain, and it was possible to extract pseudoephedrine from them through a straightforward process.
To prevent the smuggling, the government had placed pseudoephedrine in a list of ‘controlled substances’. Manufacturing was tightly regulated, and companies using the chemical had to obtain special licenses and were expected to submit detailed manufacturing records.
Due to the regulations, pseudoephedrine was in short supply. Companies that had assured supplies stood to make decent profits. Daffohils, which had been manufacturing its own pseudoephedrine-based decongestant called Hilcold, accepted Reddy’s order.
Meanwhile, the nightmare at the factory continued. It had become clear to Agarwal that Chawla was a complete con-man. On August 24, he fired him as director of sales, after which Chawla stopped coming to the factory.
Colette had lost her grasp of what was going on. While she continued to visit the factory occasionally, her interest had shifted back to her NGO, which had now opened another small clinic not too far from the factory. There was a lot happening in her personal life too. Her best friend was getting married in the Middle East. “In the latter half of 2012, I must have traveled out of the country at least eight times,” she says.
In an effort to get the factory back on track and keep Chawla at bay, Agarwal hired Rajesh Mohan Salunke, a “tough guy” in Colette’s estimation, as factory manager. He cautioned Colette to stay away from dealing with pseudoephedrine, leaving that entirely to Salunke to manage.
Colette says she got the sense that Reddy and Salunke were making money on the side. Reddy owned the trademark for Robocoff, and Daffohils was manufacturing it on contract for him. Colette suspected they were working in cahoots to report lower manufacturing quantities in the company’s books and divert the extra tablets to the black market, where they fetched a higher price. But she “wasn’t sure”.
By December, the fight between Agarwal and Chawla had gotten acrimonious. Agarwal discovered that the company’s premises had been searched by the government’s sales tax department in March 2012. A fine of Rs 15,00,000 had been imposed on it for not filing taxes for the last five years. In total, including unpaid taxes, the company owed the department Rs 1,00,00,000 .
Agarwal cancelled all the post-dated cheques he’d issued the Chawla brothers, with the intention of filing a case against them for fraud. He also filed a case against them for issuing cheques that had bounced.
In January, the drug license of the company came up for renewal. It was renewed in Colette and Salunke’s names. “That,” says Colette emphatically, “was the biggest mistake of my life.”
February 19, 2013 was just another day at the factory until Inderpal Singh Chawla’s brother landed up at the factory gates. He was an older, slightly more benign-looking version of his brother. He said he wanted to tend to the small Sikh shrine at the back of the factory.
Colette allowed him to enter. The moment she did so, ten hired goons barged in behind him. They forced everyone at the factory to leave, threatening them with dire consequences.
Frantic calls from Colette, and Agarwal, who was then in the US, to the local police station went unanswered. “The cops were clearly in cahoots with the Chawlas,” he says.
That was the last Colette and Agarwal saw of their factory.
The memorandum of understanding signed with Chawla, they discovered, was a fake. Chawla had never submitted his digital signature. Neither he or his brother had transferred the companies’ shares to Agarwal.
Agarwal filed a complaint of fraud with the police. Chawla had already filed a complaint against them for what he claimed were violations of the sale agreement.
“I was almost glad that it had ended,” Colette says sardonically. “It was such a nightmare right from the beginning. I hated everything to do with the factory, including the people – they were the worst kind of people you can find in this country. I was happy to be free of it to focus on Bella.”
Or so she thought.
What was to follow was a Kafkaesque legal and bureaucratic frame-up – one so bizarre that if it weren’t true it would be easily dismissed as fiction. It involved multiple government agencies, working variously in cahoots and at cross-purposes – often unaware of not only what other agencies were doing in an overlapping investigation, but also of what another wing of the same agency might be investigating. Unfortunately for Colette, she would emerge as the hapless protagonist.
It started with a seemingly unrelated incident 2,600 km east of Dehradun.
In a scandal that hit the headlines, on 24 February 2013, Lt. Col. Ajay Chaudhary of the Indian Army was stopped at a police checkpoint in the state of Manipur as his convoy of three cars headed towards the town of Moreh, on the India-Myanmar border. The vehicles were found stacked with boxes and duffel bags full of pseudoephedrine-based tablets. In the consignment were 19,860 strips of Hilcold, Daffohils’ decongestant.
The case was investigated first by the Manipur police and then handed to the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s apex investigation agency.
The Manipur police had, as per standard procedure, informed the Narcotics Control Bureau – the agency tasked with enforcing drug laws, and monitoring the manufacture and use of controlled and psychotropic substances. The Bureau’s headquarters in Delhi had in turn informed the office in Dehradun, which had started investigating.
All they had found were a few minor discrepancies in Daffohil’s manufacturing records. The Hilcold tablets had been sold legally by Daffohils to a large distributor, who had then sold them to two chemists, one of which was a company called Mehak Pharmaceuticals in Delhi.
Daffohils was not accused of any wrongdoing, and as far as it was concerned, that is where matters rested. Investigations against the others involved proceeded, and continue to date in court.
Only a month before this incident, a similar consignment of drugs had been seized from the airport in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. This time they’d caught Robocoff, the tablet Daffohils manufactured for Reddy. This case too had been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Once again Mehak Pharmaceutical’s name cropped up. The company’s proprietor, Rajneesh Kumar, was accused of purchasing a large number of Robocoff and Respified tablets from different pharmaceutical companies and selling them using fake invoices. After initial interrogation he was released on bail and was represented in the Imphal court by his lawyer.
By all indications, Mehak Pharmaceuticals was responsible for diverting medicines it had bought from Daffohils.
In the meantime, free of the pharmaceutical business, Colette had turned her energies back to Bella. They had started pilot adolescent sexual and reproductive health classes for girls in a government school in Dehradun. The classes were much needed – the level of awareness among the girls was so low that they were petrified of the changes that were happening in their bodies. “They thought they’d get pregnant if they so much as held a boy’s hand,” says Colette laughing, “and they had no clue what menstruation was.”
“It was great,” she says, “to see the smiles on their faces when they got answers to questions they’d been speculating about for the longest time.”
The classes proved so popular that they soon expanded to fifty schools and then very quickly after that to 94. Since the existing team at Bella was busy with the clinical outreach program, a team of health educators was hired to handle these classes.
The battle over Daffohils was now being fought in the police station. In September 2013, Agarwal filed a formal police complaint against Chawla and his brother for fraud, and forcibly taking over the factory. Chawla countered this complaint with one of his own, accusing Agarwal and Colette of violating their agreement and running the factory into debt.
The police would now investigate the case and file charges in the district court.
Colette and Agarwal had been seeing each other, off and on, for nearly five years now, but the last year had taken a toll on their relationship. Agarwal had not kept his promise of joining Colette in India. By the end of the year, their relationship petered out, though it seemed more like a pause than an end. “I think our relationship would have worked if he had followed through on his promise, retired from the US and moved to India. When that never happened I was fed up,” says Colette.
Colette continued in India, funded entirely by Agarwal since she was not formally paid for her work at Bella. He continued to indulge and encourage her, visiting every few months.
It was a comfortable life – she had a house with domestic staff, a chauffeur-driven car, and she got to travel. In early 2014, Colette enrolled for a leadership program conducted by the Harvard Business School in Mumbai. The program, designed to give working executives leadership skills, costs about as much as a year’s education at an Ivy League school.
Around this time, Ravikumar Rana, an officer of the Narcotics Control Bureau was transferred from Goa to Dehradun. As the superintendent in Dehradun, Rana was the top officer in the state.
Rana had had a chequered career. In Goa, a court had raised doubts about his deposition in a case in which two men had been arrested for allegedly trafficking amphetamines and LSD. There were glaring and amateurish inconsistencies between his statements and those of his deputy, who was investigating the case. One claimed the tip-off in the case was handwritten; the other said it hadn’t been put down on paper. The ‘handwritten’ note that was finally produced turned out to be typed. Logs presented in court were overwritten, and witnesses tutored.
In Dehradun, Rana started a campaign of extortion. “He started approaching pharmaceutical companies that dealt with pseudoephedrine, threatening to lodge fabricated cases against them if they didn’t pay bribes,” says Rakesh Bhargava, head of Cooper Pharmaceuticals, which was one of the companies targeted. Rana came to his factory, also in Selaqui, threatening to have him thrown in prison on cooked up charges. “He was a complete crook,” says Bhargava.
According to him, most companies Rana harassed paid up, too scared to take on the Narcotics Control Bureau. Cooper was one of two companies that did not.
Daffohils was a particularly low hanging fruit for Rana. The company was already in trouble with various government departments, and its records were a mess. Chawla, who was now back in control of operations at Daffohils, knew that Agarwal had a very strong case against him. Not only did he run the risk control of his company, but his house was mortgaged against company loans.
“He told me he was at his wit’s end,” says Reddy. “The only way out for him was to strike a deal with Rana.” Rana would ensure that Agarwal and Colette did not pursue the case against Chawla and that he’d get to keep his company; in return Chawla would start trafficking pure pseudoephedrine, giving a chunk of the proceeds to Rana and his men.
In July 2014, a few months after Rana came to Dehradun, and a year and three months after the Narcotics Control Bureau had first investigated Daffohils, the case against the company was revived with a vengeance.
Rana appointed a new investigating officer, Lav Kumar Singh, a pliant greenhorn who had never investigated a major case before this and, by his own admission, had no knowledge of pharmaceuticals.
The frame-up would have been laughable in its ham-handedness had its consequences not been so terrible. It was a cynical misuse of power that exploited the interminable slowness of India’s justice system.
Singh starting ‘investigating’ the chemists and distributors to which Daffohils had sold its pseudoephedrine-based tablets. They were asked to prove that they had received the drugs that Daffohils claims to have sold them. Singh also seized thousands of pages of documents from Daffohils, including sales registers, transportation receipts for medicines, tax papers and volumes of correspondence.
Of the fifteen parties to which summons were issued, most responded affirming that they had received the medicines that Daffohils claimed to have supplied.
The proprietor of only one company, Ryan Pharmaceuticals, claimed to have not received to the goods. His claim was accepted at face value. No effort was made to verify it with the transport company or the state’s sales tax department; neither was the company’s correspondence perused.
Summons to five companies were returned – some because there was nobody to receive them and others because the companies were not found at the addresses mentioned. One of these was to Reddy’s company, Omega Pharmaceuticals, which was functioning from another address.
Singh tried to track down the other companies – Sanjeevani Enterprises, Sri Ram Pharmaceuticals, Hari Om Enterprises and Mehak Pharmaceuticals – but wasn’t able to locate them.
In a leap of imagination, he concluded that they were fictitious. Charges filed by the Narcotics Control Bureau claim that ‘either these parties did not exist in the field or their addresses were incomplete. Hence it can be interpreted that the pseudoephedrine tablets which were shown to be dispatched on papers were actually diverted through the illicit channel’.
Later, requests sent under the Right to Information act would throw up licenses issued to these purportedly fictitious companies, correspondence from them to government departments, rent agreements, and even the educational certificates of some of their owners. These companies existed. Singh just hadn’t found them because three out of four of them had surrendered their drug licenses and shut shop over the course of 2013. It wasn’t surprising that they could not be found in the latter half of 2014.
A file released inadvertently by the Narcotics Control Bureau shows that Singh was actually aware of the existence of these documents. In a letter dated December 5, 2014, addressed to the drug licensing authority in Delhi, he asks for information about these companies. Balram Sahu, the drugs inspector writes back to him the same day attaching the documents. No mention of this was made in court.
The owner of Mehak Pharmaceuticals had already been arraigned by the Central Bureau of Investigation, so it very certainly existed. This information was also kept from the court by Singh and Rana.
Quizzed about this during his cross-examination in court, Lav Kumar Singh could only fumble and vacillate, retreating into inconsistencies and I-don’t- knows.
The final charges the agency filed were outlandish. The tablets that Daffohils claimed to have sent to these companies would have required 2,873 kg of pseudoephedrine to produce. This entire quantity, the agency claimed, had been diverted.
It was a case built solely on hypotheticals. Not a single gram of pseudoephedrine had been found. Nor did the allegations specify to where the pseudoephedrine had been diverted.
To justify this renewed investigation, the Narcotics Control Bureau claimed it had nothing to do with the seizures in Manipur, in which Daffohils had been absolved. They said it was a completely different case related to the diversion of pure pseudoephedrine.
Conveniently, their inquiry was limited to the period between June 2012 and February 2013 – the time during which Agarwal and Colette were responsible for the factory. On being asked why this was – as they claimed the case was unrelated to the incident in Manipur – Singh had no answer.
With this fabricated case in hand, Rana went after Daffohils. He first targeted Salunke, the manager; then Parul Sinha, the assistant general manager at the factory. Agarwal says he got frantic calls from Salunke and Sinha, saying that officials of the Narcotics Control Bureau were asking for “between Rs ten to fifteen lakh to drop the cases against them”.
Agarwal and Colette were not targeted yet. They were American – drawing them into the case would have meant taking things up a notch. Rana had hoped that by harassing the staff he would scare Agarwal into settling. But Agarwal was adamant.
“We’d done nothing wrong,” he says. “We would fight it out.”
On 24 December 2014, Salunke was called once again to the Narcotics Control Bureau office in Dehradun and arrested.
Colette had been so oblivious to what had been happening that she only learnt about this from the newspapers. “Even then,” she says, “I did not connect this with the case at Daffohils.” She had never liked Salunke, and put his arrest down to something else.
On the night of the January 13, 2015, Colette was on her way back to the US. She was going to celebrate her birthday with her family, and also use the trip to raise funds for Bella. It had been six months since she’d been home so she was looking forward to it.
She was stopped at immigration – there was, she was informed, a hold on her passport. A look-out circular demanding her detention had been issued by the Narcotics Control Bureau’s Dehradun office. A similar notice had been put out for Agarwal. “I had absolutely no idea what this what about,” she says, shaking her head.
An hour later, a team from the Bureau’s Delhi office arrived. Officials from the Dehradun office would arrive the next morning, she was told. Colette accuses the officials of assaulting her at the airport. “One of them kicked me hard in the legs multiple times, slapped my laptop out of my hand, and snatched my phone away while I was talking to staff at the American Embassy. If they’d recorded the call, you’d have heard my screams,” she says. “In the car, on the way from the airport, they asked me if I’d ever been tortured and whether I was looking forward to it.”
She was asked repeatedly about financial transactions from when she was running Daffohils. According to her, they kept referring to drugs, and the NDPS Act – which she would only later find out referred to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. She was terrified.
Late the next night, she was taken to the house of a metropolitan magistrate – a lower court judge – “surrounded by burly men from the Narcotics Bureau”. She was made to sign papers despite protesting that she could not see what she was signing. From there, she was bundled into a car and driven through the night to Dehradun. On January 15 she was produced before a special court that dealt with offences under the NDPS Act, which sent her to police custody.
The Narcotics Control Bureau then went to town with the news. They claimed to have busted a ‘major’ drug racket, catching a US national who was trying to flee the country. Every newspaper in the city carried the news. According to them, Colette ‘ran a large factory manufacturing pseudoephedrine’.
Agarwal, the alleged kingpin of the racket, was absconding in the US, they said. A look-out circular was in place against him, and they would request his extradition.
“It was so easy to sell. It made for a sexy story,” says Agarwal wearily on the phone from Albuquerque. “‘American girl and non-resident Indian doctor caught running a charitable NGO as a front for a huge drug running operation’ – it was the stuff of films.”
The US FBI and DEA paid their first visit to Agarwal soon after.
At the Narcotics Control Bureau’s office in Dehradun, Colette was brought face to face with Chawla, who accused her of selling pseudoephedrine from the company’s stock illegally. The bureau claimed that Daffohils had used multiple bank accounts, including personal accounts, to mask the money trail. Colette protested, saying these accounts were used since money sent into the company’s official accounts seemed to disappear into a “black hole”. As for medicines sent to the ‘non-existent’ firms, all the receipts were with Chawla at the factory.
She protested that she was not trying to flee the country – she had a round-trip ticket. She pointed out that the Bureau had not issued her any formal summons. The only indication she had of an investigation was an investigator’s business card left at Bella Health’s reception.
She was quizzed on Bella and the work it did – why did the NGO change address so many times? What was its source of funds?
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I was in utter shock,” says Colette, swatting away a mosquito in Bella’s tiny front office. Beads of perspiration appear on her face, smudging her mascara. “There must have been something in my karma for me to deserve this.”
After being held in the custody of the Narcotics Bureau, Colette was sent to Dehradun’s Sudhowala Jail. “They [Narcotic’s Bureau officials] said I might change my mind after spending two weeks in prison,” she says.
On February 7, Venkat Reddy was called to Dehradun and arrested. His company, Omega Pharmaceuticals, was accused of being integral to the operation, since it was the distributor selling the drugs to the allegedly ‘non-existent’ firms.
Stuck in Albuquerque, there was a little Agarwal could do. He was getting information of dubious quality from different people, his family wasn’t being helpful, and he would certainly be arrested if he came back to India.
Through the blur of events, the enormity of her situation was sinking in for Colette.
The concrete barracks of the women’s wing of the Sudhowala Jail was a bleak place. It was full of vermin, the toilets were filthy, there was no soap, the water supply was polluted and there were no water filters. The food bordered on the inedible – there were never any vegetables. Nor did the jail have a qualified doctor on the premises. Colette says the jail clinic was run by a man who had a bachelors degree in pharmacy. A woman inmate, a former nurse convicted of murder, administered injections.
There was nothing to read except for religious texts, and one newspaper shared among all the women. There were no sports or recreational facilities for women. There was absolutely nothing to do. “Every day was the same. I could feel my brain rotting away,” Colette sighs.
Three-quarters of the women in the prison were over sixty years old, held on charges of dowry harassment. Most were illiterate, and none spoke English. “It was like being in solitary confinement,” Colette says. “Someone or the other was always wailing – it was really depressing.”
She still wasn’t sure what exactly she’d been charged with. In her loneliness, thoughts ricocheted in her head. She obsessed on every small detail, every minor remark and incident.
Her lupus, endometriosis and hypothyroidism, which had been under control, started slipping in the absence of medicines. The jail clinic said her medications were too expensive, so she was given fistfuls of other pills – including on one occasion paracetamol, to which she was highly allergic.
“I wanted to die,” she says slowly, almost whispering. “I’d come to India with all good intentions. Just the week before I was arrested I was in Jaipur. I trekked up a hill to a monkey temple, carrying 4 kilos of peanuts with me. The priest was impressed. He told me I’d be blessed. Really?”
Soon Colette was having panic attacks, and suffering severe bouts of depression. That started a merry-go-round of hospital visits which she, being a trained nurse, recorded meticulously in a diary.
On March 4, 2015, the Narcotics Control Bureau filed their first set of charges in court. Colette’s hospital visits would soon be punctuated by futile trips to the court. The proceedings were largely conducted in Hindi. With nobody to translate, Colette would understand just the smidgen that was conveyed to her by her lawyer.
After being arrested Venkat Reddy had a change of heart. He says he “now felt bad for this clueless American girl who had come to India to help people.” To make amends he started talking to Colette during their court appearances, and they grew close.
Agarwal decided to get in touch with Prasad Reddy, Venkat Reddy’s brother, to work on a joint strategy to fight Venkat and Colette’s cases. Their WhatsApp conversation would span over a hundred foolscap pages. This conversation – with its machinations, setbacks and desperation – was revealed in August 2015 when Prasad Reddy was arrested.
The prosecution used the conversation to claim that Agarwal and Reddy were trying to bribe Ashok Kansal, the government’s prosecutor in court. The bulk of the conversation revolves around trying to get bail for Venkat and Colette; there is mention of lawyers and government officials being approached to ‘manage’ the case.
Kansal figures prominently.
On August 12 Agarwal sent Reddy this message: ‘Was all 5L (5 lakh rupees) transferred to him, right?’
Reddy replies: ‘Pls be sure, things have been done. Package was delivered.’
Reddy claims this part of the conversation was fabricated, and Agarwal refused to reply when I asked him about this bribe. ‘You can not take the liberty of asking me questions about your ‘story’ in this style,’ he wrote to me. ‘To you, this is a story, be it mundane or sensational, but for Colette and me, this has been a travesty and an ordeal.’
But the Narcotic’s Control Bureau’s Dehradun superintendent Ravikumar Rana asked for Kansal to be replaced, claiming that the ‘integrity of Public Prosecutor Mr Ashok Kansal might not have been beyond doubt’.
As the conversation progresses, Agarwal and Reddy get more despondent. None of their strategies seem to be working and all the lawyers they’ve hired seem to be taking them for a ride. There are moments of distrust and recrimination between the two. Their money is running out – Reddy is constantly asking Agarwal to wire money, while Agarwal mentions having taken loans against his credit card.
Every few days, Agarwal interjects into the conversation a pithy two-liner that would make any self-help guru proud. He is the optimist, the man-in-charge; or maybe just scared, doing this to give himself courage.
At one-point Agarwal is the master strategist – ‘Let us think like a Godfather, not the sons of Godfather! Patience!’ – he tells Reddy.
A few days later: ‘If they [the prosecution] are exploiting our fear of losing our freedom, you need to exploit their greed of becoming rich’.
‘We are managers and owners…yes, socialists but not the invisibles’.
Occasionally he lapses into rhyme: ‘Let us get their nails/ Let us close our cases or threats or get anticipatory bails/ Let us then fight the cases/ Then we will decide who should be on our teams/ Then we take action against all those who have been vicious and malicious in hurting us!’
The pressure was beginning to tell, however. One day Agarwal tells Reddy: ‘Be careful. FYI, I had a minor stroke on the 13th while I was working at the hospital and stayed in the ICU for 24 hours. I got lucky and did not have permanent damage. It is overwhelming often, Mr Reddy but I know we can not give up because then who will carry the cross? This is life!’
The WhatsApp conversation ends on August 14, 2015. Things had gone awry. The Narcotics Control Bureau had been tracking Prasad Reddy. ‘Best of luck, Mr Reddy,’ writes Agarwal. ‘I got contacted by FBI/ DEA today, too’.
On August 17, six months after his brother, Prasad Reddy was arrested.
The only people completely untouched in the Daffohils case so far, despite their being directors in the company, were the Chawla brothers. The Narcotics Control Bureau’s reason for this, shared in court, was the brother’s claim that they weren’t involved in any way with the pseudoephedrine at the factory.
Ironically, outside court, the Chawla’s were making a killing smuggling just that. The Narcotics Control Bureau’s Dehradun office made sure they had a clear run of it.
On April 20, 2015, the Bureau’s zonal office in Lucknow (which supervised operations at the Dehradun office) had informed Daffohils that, ‘In view of the case registered against your firm… for illicit diversion of pseudoephedrine… [the license] issued to your firm is withdrawn with immediate effect. No further activities/ business in respect of controlled substance pseudoephedrine… should be made’. The letter was marked to the Superintendent, Sub Zonal Unit, Dehradun ‘For info and further necessary action’.
Ravikumar Rana received and signed the letter, but did absolutely nothing. Daffohils continued to get its supply of pseudoephedrine.
With Rana’s help, the Chawla brothers also managed to have the cases filed against them by Agarwal and Colette dismissed.
However, on August 19 and 20, 2015, just a few days after Prasad Reddy’s arrest, something happened that nobody had bargained for – another government agency stumbled upon Chawla.
On August 19, based on a tip-off, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence – the government agency responsible for tracking tax evasion and smuggling – searched the offices of a trading company in Delhi. There they found 250 kg of the white crystalline pseudoephedrine, all of it being smuggled.
The Narcotics Control Bureau was unaware of this operation.
Investigations revealed a complex network of suppliers and buyers spread across many states.
At the heart of it lay Daffohils Pharmaceuticals, Dehradun.
The Daffohils factory was searched the next day in the presence of Preetpal Singh Chawla, who claimed that his brother Inderpal Singh Chawla was out of town. The company records, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence discovered, were completely fudged. Manufacturing registers indicated wildly discrepant quantities. A 25 kg stock of what Chawla claimed to be pseudoephedrine turned out on analysis to be calcium sulphate, planted to hoodwink investigators.
Daffohils had sent a consignment of drugs to a company in Delhi on August 18. On being searched, this was found to contain 100 kilos of pseudoephedrine packed along with expired medicines.
The older Chawla and the company staff admitted that the company had been selling pure pseudoephedrine, without doing any manufacturing. They purchased it at Rs 12,000 ($185) a kilo and sold it for Rs 50,000 ($770). According to Chawla, the company had got 1500 kg of pseudoephedrine since April 2013. Out of this, investigators believe that Daffohils diverted 1,300 kg.
In court filings, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence noted that ‘Despite the cancellation [of their license] Daffohils…contrived to deal in (a) controlled substance’.
If this weren’t bad enough for Inderpal Singh Chawla and the Narcotics Control Bureau, another familiar name cropped up: Sanjeevani Enterprises. This was the very company that the Bureau had claimed (in Colette’s case) did not exist. Yet here was its owner, Vikas Bathla, being interrogated by another government agency.
Preetpal Singh Chawla had already let the cat out the bag, but his brother was the lynchpin, and he was only working on his instructions. If more people, primarily Rana, were to not be incriminated, and hard evidence was to be concealed, Inderpal would have to be protected from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. It would have to happen quickly.
The straightforward solution was to pre-empt the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence.
Within 48 hours, on August 20, 2015, Inderpal, who his brother had claimed was out of town, was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau. He was arrested for the Daffohils case – for which charges had been filed more than six months ago, and the crime dated back two years.
In what Ravikumar Rana would have liked everyone to believe was a freak coincidence of timing, he claimed to have unearthed new evidence against Chawla in the original Daffohils case.
Laws dictated that the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence would now have to interrogate Chawla in prison, as opposed to in their custody. The interrogation would perforce be sanitised and far less probing.
That’s exactly how it panned out. On being interrogated by the sleuths from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence on October 12, 2015, Inderpal was able to backtrack on everything his brother had said. He denied all the charges or put things down to minor clerical mistakes. They would get nothing out of him.
In a large press conference organised on August 20, 2015, officials from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence had claimed that ‘government officials’ were also involved in the case, and their role was ‘under scrutiny’. But the charges filed mid-October made no mention of this – it was buried quietly.
In another harsh irony, nearly all the accused in this second case would post bail in a Delhi court, because the diversion of ‘controlled substances’ (as opposed to psychotropic substances) fell under a category in which the accused were entitled to bail pending sentencing.
Yet the Narcotics Control Bureau ensured that those imprisoned in Dehradun – in a case in which not a single gram of pseudoephedrine had been recovered – were shown no such magnanimity.
Just when it seemed that Chawla and Rana had escaped by the skin of their teeth, there was yet another twist in the tale.
Rakesh Bhargava of Cooper Pharmaceuticals had tired of Rana’s extortion attempts and had complained to the zonal director of the Narcotics Control Bureau in Delhi. “We had solid evidence – recordings of phone calls, WhatsApp messages – against him, which we submitted,” he says. Another company had also handed over evidence against Rana.
In December 2015, Ravikumar Rana was suspended.
Inderpal Singh Chawla had been saved from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, but in the Daffohils case he was now on his own.
The Narcotics Control Bureau and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence did not respond to detailed questionnaires.
In jail, Colette was verging on collapse. “I was so depressed, I just wanted to die,” she says.
Her medical condition deteriorated sharply – the endometriosis had led to severe pelvic pain, and left untreated, her lupus had already damaged her kidneys. A urinary tract infection required the insertion of a catheter, but the catheter was changed irregularly, exacerbating the infection. She had trouble breathing, and the panic attacks were getting worse.
The meticulous diary she kept of her hospital visits lists over a hundred visits during the course of her time in prison. “I was in hospital every second day; and had a health emergency almost every second week,” she says wearily. She was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh, an hour and a half away, thirty times; to a large hospital in Chandigarh, nearly four hours away, ten times; and to local hospitals in Dehradun far more frequently.
On March 27, 2016, her diary note of her medical condition reads: ‘UTI – proteus > 105 Resistant to almost ALL antibiotics; Rising creatinine levels. Greater than 1 now means kidneys are affected; Low hematocrit levels, High ESR; Fluid retention, weight gain, swelling; Psychiatric problems; Vomiting 2-3 times a day; Urine spasms; Fever, chills, ( I do not have malaria – DAILY – ALL DAY they checked. ); Swelling – stomach, legs, weight gain of 10kg; Breathing problems’.
“It’s a miracle I even survived,” she says. But in the same breath, she adds, “At least I was getting some treatment. It’s difficult to feel bad for yourself when you know how much worse it is for other people in prison.”
Meenakshi Baliyal, a 27-year old girl in the women’s ward who Colette had befriended, died of meningitis and tuberculosis. “She’d been running a very high fever for a long time.”
In Santa Fe, her mother Rosemary Nowak was frantic with worry. “Every single day, every conversation I had was about Colette. I just longed to have a normal conversation,” Nowak says. She wrote a steady stream of letters to politicians, judges and lawyers in India and the US requesting their intervention. She also started a Twitter account from which she would tweet on her daughter’s predicament to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of India. The latter, Sushma Swaraj, responded – ensuring that Colette got better treatment temporarily. But the respite was short-lived.
Nowak was livid with Agarwal, and complained about him to the medical authorities in New Mexico. “He used Colette, and when the time came threw her under the bus.” “I took two jobs, working day and night, just so that I didn’t have to be by myself,” she told me over the phone.
She and Colette’s sisters were too scared to visit her in India, but Scott Smith, Colette’s dad came to visit her every few months. “He’s great with people. Even though he didn’t understand the Indian legal system he’d build rapport with people and get them to help,” says Colette.
The court case in the meantime was progressing at a snail’s pace. The final charges had been framed on October 15, 2015. This was followed by adjournment after adjournment on different grounds. It was June 2016, by the time the statement of the chief witness, investigating officer Lav Kumar Singh, was recorded in court.
Colette never understood what was going on in court. According to her, “it was always utter bedlam, with many cases going on simultaneously.” The lawyers would whisper things to each other or to the judge, none of which were audible to her. Her interactions with the male co-accused were limited, but over time she and Venkat Reddy got so close that she now refers to him as her “lawyer and guide”.
The worst part of the court appearances was the police escort and lock-up in court. Colette says the policemen were often ‘visibly drunk and passed lewd remarks’, and the lockups were filthy, with no privacy. It was at one of these appearances she claims, that the police assaulted her.
The cross-examination of the first of six prosecution witnesses, Lav Kumar Singh, started only at the end of August 2016. Venkat Reddy did it himself.
From transcripts, and Colette and Reddy’s descriptions, the proceedings appear to have veered between being bumbling, preposterous, naive and arrogant. As the officer investigating the case, Lav Kumar Singh was the prosecution’s protagonist, but he couldn’t even decide if the allegations were about the diversion of pseudoephedrine or tablets made using it.
On being asked by Reddy what licenses a pharmaceutical company or distributor required to legally transact business, Singh said he did not know. Nor was he aware of manufacturing processes, medicine batch sizes, or the fact that pharmaceutical companies required analytical reports from laboratories to certify the manufactured medicines.
When he was stumped, which was often, Singh retreated into claiming that he hadn’t pursued certain lines of enquiry because he thought they were ‘irrelevant’.
Exasperated by Singh’s incompetence, Reddy decided to toy with him. ‘How many milligrams are there in a kilogram?’ he asked him.
‘I cannot answer this correctly right now’, came the reply.
This cross-examination would stretch over many hearings, extending into 2017.
By December 2016 Colette’s condition had deteriorated so much that she was admitted to hospital. She’d spend the next two months, “Christmas, New Year and my birthday” there, she says.
In the nearly two years she’d been in prison, just one witness had been cross-examined.
At this rate, the case would drag on for a few more years. Years which, Colette and her family suspected, she did not have.
On February 4, 2017, Agarwal emailed me. ‘Some interesting events have taken place,’ he wrote cryptically. According to him, Salunke had been told by the public prosecutor that if they, the accused, pled guilty they would be let off with ‘time served’ as sentence.
In India, plea bargains only apply in certain kinds of crimes – this was not one of them. Rather, it seemed to be a tacit admission on the part of Narcotics Control Bureau that their case would not stand up to scrutiny.
Faced with the uncertainty of a slow trial, on February 4, Salunke, Chawla and Venkat and Prasad Reddy pled guilty to the charges.
Colette wasn’t sure that this was the best thing to do. Her lawyer, Aman Rab, tried to dissuade her, but a few days later, on February 8, she filed her confession. It read:
‘The applicant/accused has been seriously unwell and requires immediate and urgent medical attention, and such medical facilities are not available within jail premises. The applicant is languishing in jail since 14.01.2015, and her medical condition is deteriorating day by day. In view of the aforementioned conditions, the applicant/accused voluntarily wishes to confess to the offences charged with.’
On February 9, 2017, a few days short of the two-year mark, the judge passed an order sentencing Colette to two years in prison (which she’d already done) and a fine of Rs 1,00,000.
All the other accused were similarly let off, despite having spent different lengths of time in prison.
A week later Colette sent her mother, sisters, a few friends and me an email, through her assistant, announcing:
‘In a anti-climatic ending, Colette made a plea bargain and confessed her “fake crime” in order to only get “time served” as the sentence. The Judge Wrote down 2 years on her paper, not deducting the time when she was on bail for medical reasons. She will be released March 11, 2017. Exactly the 2 year mark, along with a hefty fine.so the case is closed. The prosecution & Judge are happy they get 6 convictions. And the 6 “convicts” can resume life outside these brick walls. i will then be deported sometime between April to June back to the USA. on the Govt. of India’s tab. i hope i can get an upgrade & extra bags/weight? i will be sending you the official link to my PNIJ homepage.
In prison Colette had started writing PNIJ – Pink Nails in Jail, her memoir which, according to the blurb, ‘shares her love/hate relationship with India – both the beautiful experiences with Bella Health and the brutal years facing a corrupt judicial system and the atrocities she witnesses in jail.’
When I met her in July 2017, she’d been working intermittently on the book since her release in March. It would be published by the end of the year, she said.
She was conflicted, though – in jail writing had been therapeutic but now that she was out she was finding the going difficult. “I’m afraid it’s going to be re-traumatizing now,” she told me.
Getting back to life outside prison had not been easy. “Both me and Venkat (Reddy) are very angry at society. We want to forget about what happened, but it’s not easy to resume life where we left off. Besides, Venkat wants revenge.”
We were sitting in the small reception area of Bella Health. The July heat was stifling, and Colette looked uncomfortable. But there was something defiant about her. Perhaps it was the colorful tasseled top, turquoise ear hoops or the series of intertwined gold bangles she wore on each hand – which seemed to announce her intention to not fade away or lie low. Or the deep unfettered laugh that would occasionally convulse her.
It’s the same defiance that comes through on the Facebook page of Pink Nails in Jail. In a recent post accompanying a photograph of her with a policewoman, she wrote:
‘These people can take my liberty and humiliate me, but they cannot take my SPIRIT, FYI: for the first 6 months in jail, I only had one pair of Aldo boots, one pair of black leggings, one Guess woolen jacket, one racerback bra (very uncomfortable), vaseline as face cream and lipbalm, one comb (no conditioner), 2 pairs of panties. homemade kajal (organic eyeliner), peacock earrings, sunglasses and MYFILES (full of complaints)’
Work at Bella had continued through Colette’s imprisonment. The budget had been slashed but the organization had nevertheless expanded its reproductive health education program to cover boys. It had also managed to get sponsorship from the Max Foundation, the charitable offshoot of the Maxa large Indian hospital chain.
The office and clinic were run-down. Dusty health advocacy posters and photographs of the clinic staff, Agarwal and Colette from happier days hung forlornly on the wall.
In a small plastic tray, Colette carried a bundle of papers and a few books. “An author I met recently asked me to model my book on The Prison Diaries,” she said, handing me a well-marked copy of Jeffery Archer’s book. “It’s a day-by-day account, but I found it very boring. I think my story is far more interesting.” She’d decided to find a compromise between Archer’s style and her own inclination toward a much more freewheeling narrative.
Also in the tray was a heavily underlined book called Human Rights: Concepts, Issues and Laws.
“I’ve been asking many questions recently,” says Colette pensively. “Are prisoners human? Do they have human rights? Should justice only be punitive?”
She felt that criminal justice the world over was brutal and unfair. The US was no exception. “Had I been in an American prison I’d been stuck with murderers and lesbians.”
Ever so often, Colette would go to the bathroom. “My bladder capacity is down to 150ml from a normal of between 600-1,000ml,” she says. “The doctors say it will be while before it returns to normal.”
“Thanks to how badly my medical problems were managed in hospital I’m now in induced menopause.”
She didn’t work at Bella Health anymore. Things between her and Agarwal had soured. “Dr Agarwal didn’t want me to work here, he refused to acknowledge me as co-founder, and he doesn’t particularly like my coming here,” she says. She hasn’t spoken to him in four months.
“In prison,” she says angrily, “things (with Agarwal) were fine. But now that I’ve had time to process my thoughts, things have gone out of control. I am really angry with him.”
Agarwal she says, was an excellent doctor but a terrible businessman. He’d made major mistakes. “I was here for Bella. He had no right to involve me with the pharmaceutical company. I feel I was coerced into it,” says Colette. “He should have been looking out for me.”
She also accuses Agarwal of abandoning her in another court case that she is embroiled in. As director of Daffohils she’d issued checks to K Pharma, a company based in the state of Punjab. The checks had bounced, and K Pharma filed a case against her. The case, which is ongoing, has prevented her from leaving India.
According to her, Agarwal claims he had subsequently made this payment to K Pharma in the US, via a relative of K Pharma’s owner. But he has refused to send her emails to prove that, claiming that “they were sent from a different email account, to which he had lost the password,” Colette says. “I wish he’d send them just on humanitarian grounds.”
She also holds Agarwal responsible for getting involved in and tanking her father’s business. “He has this uncanny ability, like a parasite, of worming his way into people’s lives,” she says.
Agarwal hasn’t tried to call her. “Maybe it’s because I’ve stopped worshipping him.”
I asked Agarwal for his take. “There were certain things Colette did, behaviors, which made me lose trust in her,” he says over the phone. According to him, shortly after he’d been introduced to Chawla, Colette had called him from Delhi. “She sounded drunk. She said Chawla was in love with her – they were in Delhi, and had checked into a hotel.” According to Agarwal, he told Colette to head back to Dehradun immediately, but she spent a few days in Delhi with Chawla. Just a week later he says, inexplicably, Colette was dead against Chawla.
Agarwal says Colette also got in touch with Chawla after being released.
During the trial she had often ignored the advice of the lawyer he’d hired, relying instead on Venkat Reddy. This had adversely affected the case, including the case against him.
The look-out circular was still in place against him. He’d be arrested if he came back to India. But Agarwal says he is desperate to come back. He’d like to see his mother who is suffering from cancer. “I’m going to come back within the year,” he told me, “even if it means I’m arrested.”
Agarwal says he took care of all payments in Colette’s court case, since he felt “morally responsible; and her parents were not stepping up to the plate.” But now he sees no more reason to support her.
“I was conned, and paid the price for trusting people. I’ve spent all my money on this case – I now have financial foreclosures and owe the IRS $387,000 in past taxes.”
In that case, why did he keep Bella Health alive? “It doesn’t make sense to punish Bella – they’re the silent ones. You don’t sacrifice your pet,” he says.
One of the many complaints Colette had filed when imprisoned was against some police officers for custodial torture. This complaint had made its way to the National Human Rights Commission. In February 2017, it instructed a special branch of the Dehradun police to investigate it.
In May, Colette was asked to give a statement regarding her complaint, after which she says Dehradun police officials started harassing her. They first contacted her friends, then her lawyer, pressuring them to get her to withdraw her complaint.
In the past, complaints she filed had had effect. A complaint she filed about conditions in jail had led to books being purchased; a creche started for the women inmate’s children and the installation of a water filter. But this time, finally, she decided the risk was not worth it.
On July 10, 2017 she wrote to the National Human Rights Commission wishing to ‘withdraw my complaint due to personal stress and other obligations’.
“I’m not the right person for this fight. I’m a foreigner, a woman and I live alone,” she says. “I also withdrew this complaint for my family – they’d be devastated if anything else happened to me.”
Stuck in Dehradun because of the check-bounce case, Colette spends her time working with Tibetan refugees, helping them manufacture jewelry out of glass beads. To support herself, she says she does editing work and online content creation. She also helps out a friend who runs an accessories shop in Dubai by supplying her things from Delhi. “I love accessories and shopping so that works out well,” she laughs.
She also asked her mother to start a campaign on the online fundraising site Youcaring to support her.
“My only other option would be to go hang out with the Nigerians at the deportation center in Delhi,” she guffaws. “You know, I hate stereotyping people, but Nigerians in India are their own stereotype. The only other foreigner in Dehradun prison was a Nigerian. He told me he’d learnt so many new and exciting things in prison – auto fraud, insurance fraud. It was hilarious”.
I asked her about her future plans.
At the time she was arrested, Colette had made up her mind to move to the Middle East. “I’d got a job in Dubai,” she tells me. “All the paperwork was done. I was going to come back from the US to India, then wrap up here.” Now she’s not sure what she’ll do after her current case gives over.
“I love the work I’ve done here. I love my house in Dehradun, next to the jungle. I can spend hours nowadays just walking my dogs. I love the comforts of being here – like having a driver and a cook. I’d never be able to afford that back home. But I miss my family, I wish they would come.”
She’s only been out of prison a few months and is still recovering from the trauma she tells me. “I can only think a week ahead,” she says.
Then she reaches into her bag and pulls out a doctor’s prescription. It’s a psychiatric evaluation. ‘Depersonalization disorder’, it says. “I still feel like I’m looking at life from behind a glass pane,” she says. “It feels like a bad film. I often can’t believe it happened to me.”
In the struggle between remembering and forgetting, she wonders if she’ll ever “be able to form new memories… about say, going to the beach with friends.”
There’s a pause in our conversation.
“Everyone was praying for me – maybe that’s what saved me,” she says after a while. “Maybe there is a bigger purpose to why this happened. I want to help people in similar situations.”
In August 2017, I started asking Colette and Agarwal probing questions, the former about her drinking and incidents in other countries, and the latter about the many companies he’d set up and allegations of bribing officials in India. They did not like it. Agarwal stopped responding to me. Colette accused me ‘of taking advantage of our [her and her family’s] naivete’.
Then, sometime in November 2017, the website of Bella Health was amended. From having disappeared, Colette had been brought back. In a ‘Message from our President and Founder’ Agarwal wrote:
‘Due to some unforeseen and unfortunate events over the last many months, Ms Colette Smith, our co-founder and COO Emeritus, has been unable to devote all her energies and resources to the growth of Bella Healthcare. However, the team that she has put in place, has followed her directions and continued to successfully strive to reach the goals set by her.
The future is bright. And we are impatiently waiting for Ms Colette Smith to return and lead Bella to that bright future!’
- Colette was acquitted in the cheque bounce case and deported back to America in November 2017.
- The Narcotics Control Bureau refused to answer questions about Ravikumar Rana’s current status. When called the Bureau’s Dehradun office said he was in Delhi. The Delhi office said he wasn’t part of the Delhi operations. They claimed they did not know where he was.
- The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence case against Inderpal Singh Chawla and Preetpal Singh Chalwa continues in Delhi’s Saket District Court (Case number CRN: DLST010021312015). The brothers have remained out on bail for most of the duration of the case. The latest hearing was on 28th November, 2018.
- Daffohils remains in control of the Chawla brothers. Going by its website (daffohils.com) the company is doing well, having expanded its portfolio of medicines significantly.
Akshai Jain is a Delhi-based journalist.