The Haldiram baron’s sudden conviction reveals how business and crime mix only too well
There’s an old saying among Marwaris: After a point, all business is crime. For Prabhu Shankar Agarwal — coowner of Kolkata’s Rs 500- crore food company, Haldiram Bhujiawala — the maxim proved to be the end credit of a biography of gluttonous commerce. On January 29, in a judgment no one was expecting, 54-year-old Prabhu was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Kolkata trial court. Going by his beaming face as he stepped out of the jail van, he wasn’t expecting it either. He’s a man who’s always known how to bend the world.
Five years ago, Prabhu had ordered a supari on Satyanarayan Thakur, a small teashop owner whose stall was obstructing Prabhu’s plans for a multi-storeyed food mall. In Burrabazar — Kolkata’s byzantine market — such business acumen can be disconcertingly commonplace and Prabhu probably would’ve got away with it. Except, in a curious twist, the supari comically backfired.
Prabhu began his offensive by filing a case against the premise’s landlord Chandrawali Singh. Later in February 2005, when a court officer was due to inspect if any shops were still standing there, local goons demolished Thakur’s stubborn stall. About a month later, Thakur was virtually kidnapped by Prabhu. There he was offered two choices: a suitcase of money or a gun brandished by dreaded thug, Gopal Tiwari. The dogged Thakur still refused.
Prabhu’s grandfather Gangabishan Agarwal started the business with a sweet shop in Bikaner in 1937. Prabhu’s father is said to have sold bhujia from a bag in Kolkata’s Cheenipatti area. Prabhu himself started as a small namkeen Burrabazar shopkeeper; reportedly, his favourite line ran: “Apka bhaao kitna hai? (What’s your price?)” He offered Thakur Rs 4 lakh; the police estimate the stall is worth Rs 8 lakh. No one could’ve predicted that in this standoff between two family businesses, the tiny three-generation-old teashop would stall the multi-crore Haldiram.
The thwarted Prabhu now instructed Tiwari to eliminate the nuisance. Accounts vary of the supari being from Rs 2.5 to Rs 6 lakh, along with four Scotch whiskey bottles and a packet of sweets. At 5am on March 30, 2005, a dead drunk Tiwari and accomplices arrived at Thakur’s stall. As luck would have it, only Thakur’s nephew Pramod Sharma was sleeping there. The drunken assassin fired and missed, only wounding Pramod in the thigh. Two months later when Tiwari was caught, he sang like a canary.
Today, all the conspirators find themselves sentenced for life. On hearing the sentence, Prabhu was apparently heard asking his lawyer if a ‘life sentence’ actually meant till death. Pramod, who after a leg surgery can no longer run, told TEHELKA, “Jaisi karni waisi bharni. Prabhu Agarwal deserves the sentence he got. I can’t afford to be scared. Nor can I run away. I can’t think of ever selling this tea stall and going back to Benaras.”
While it’s tempting to imagine Prabhu’s conviction to be a case of lese majeste, this isn’t his first stint in jail. In a sense, his conviction has publicised a peculiar mindset – a sort of habitual, legally insouciant way of conducting business. Prabhu was once arrested for allegedly manhandling a customer. There are other reports of Prabhu’s cruelties, of beating up errant employees and intimidating foes. He apparently maintained a band of trouble-shooters who lunched at his outlets, awaiting orders to rough up his adversaries. A decade ago, they allegedly smashed the jeep of a police team investigating how his operations were running on generators, violating fire laws – he was locked in a solitary cell for 20 days, during which he’s said to have reportedly bribed the police Rs 10,000 per day to avoid harsh questioning. Anandabazar Patrika has reported his connection with the scam-tainted Ketan Parekh, and once reported that his men had stuffed cash in rosogolla tins headed across the Bengal border. A highly placed Intelligence Bureau official also told TEHELKA that Prabhu’s name has often figured in hawala transactions from the state.
Haldiram’s pioneered packaged foods retailing in India; getting expensive packaging on credit from suppliers was key. However, Prabhu’s decision to enter real estate split the business into local fiefdoms of Kolkata, Delhi, Nagpur and Bikaner in the 1980s. The bigger Delhi wing is the original visionary – the Haldiram’s packets available globally bear its brand. Prabhu owns the smaller “Haldiram’s Prabhuji”. It seems Prabhu’s three brothers have a raft of legal cases against him. Bred hands-on at the altar of business, these are battles Prabhu’s sons — Manish and Sharad — seem well equipped to handle.
So what explains Prabhu’s sense of immunity? Why would he risk the Haldiram’s empire by ordering the murder of such a small man rather than fighting him legally or with more money?
Some answers seem to lie in the community itself. The Marwaris are deeply entrenched in Kolkata society and control most of the city’s business. Lore has it that in the early migration from Rajasthan, every Marwari entrant to the city was given Re 1 and a token brick by each family of the community. The Haldirams, however, don’t have a very old history here and aren’t considered part of the city’s elite. Many in the community, in fact, deride them as upstarts. One reason Prabhu went the length he did is that he wanted the shine of upward mobility at any cost.
But a more cogent explanation might lie in the psychology of being a Marwari businessman. Disturbingly, there seems to be scant community opprobrium for crime: peer opinion is no deterrent. Right through the case — and now conviction — the community has stoically looked the other way, expressing neither shock nor outrage. One Marwari businessman from Kolkata, requesting anonymity, in fact expressed sympathy for Prabhu’s problems, saying, “The teashop owner should’ve been more reasonable.” Prominent Kolkata-based businessman Sandeep Bhutoria however disagrees that the case reflects the community’s silent complicity: “No one’s beyond the law. [But] this is like blaming the Sikhs when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. You can’t say such things about the larger community.”
Either way, Prabhu represents a recognisable stock of predatory businessmen. “He rarely followed the law of the land,” comments Congressman Nirbed Ray. More than two decades ago, the family’s acquisition of huge land on VIP road triggered a clash between CPM and Congress members in the state assembly – rumour was that CPM leader Subhas Chakraborty had brokered the deal at a very low rate. Prabhu also ran aground with his massive Chowringee store, an acquisition also eased by Chakraborty. Prabhu was also close to the thenchief minister Jyoti Basu and three major CPM players: municipality Chairman Tapas Chatterjee, former MP Amitava Nandi and Self-Employment Minister Rekha Goswami. Prabhu reportedly couldn’t cut much ice with the current CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, even though last year he printed banners proclaiming himself “a friend of Buddhadeb”.
There’s astonishment that a tycoon like Prabhu could actually be indicted for a crime. His younger son, Sharad told TEHELKA that the brothers are readying a High Court appeal. Perhaps they believe, like their father’s crime, his conviction is merely an unfunny comedy of errors: Prabhu’s conviction was reportedly Judge Tapan Sen’s last case before retirement. Now, Prabhu Agarwal is flexing muscle for his next round of insouciance.