Singh Brothers: Jail Or Bail?
Housed in Asia’s largest prison are two businessmen brothers who once owned one of India’s leading pharmaceutical companies. Central Jail, Tihar, mostly referred to as Tihar jail, describes itself as a model prison—advanced security systems, cable television, indoor outdoor games, even a baking school. The prison complex has nine central jails and 11,000 inmates, says its website that looks as if it hasn’t been updated in years.
Time has stood still for the Singh brothers too—Malvinder Singh is lodged in jail number 8, whereas younger brother Shivinder Singh is in jail number 7. They’ve been there for some 270 days and counting.
Both brothers have ongoing appeals—in Shivinder’s bail plea, the Delhi High Court reserved its order on July 16. On 17th the court reserved its order on Malvinder’s plea for relief. Not far away from the high court, in the Supreme Court a bench is hearing a plea seeking the completion of Malaysia-based IHH Healthcare’s takeover of Fortis Hospitals—a company founded and lost by the Singh brothers.
The transaction is held up on account of another claim on the brothers’ wealth—by Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo to whom the brothers sold their family firm Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. At the time of sale, in 2008, the brothers took home an estimated $2.4 billion, using that over time to build healthcare (Fortis) and financial services (Religare) businesses. Ten years later, they had lost control of both businesses, their money -- which one of them claims was siphoned by the family’s spiritual guru Gurinder Singh Dhillon, leader of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas -- and owed Daiichi Rs 3,500 crore for having concealed information during the sale.
Soon, the brothers fell out with each other as well.
This unholy mess became the subject matter of an investigation by Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing.
The EOW arrested Malvinder on the night of Oct. 11, 2019, from Ludhiana. Shivinder was arrested the next morning and the two were subsequently produced in a Delhi court. The arrests were on a complaint of fraud registered by the management of Religare Finvest Ltd., a financial services firm the brothers once owned. The brothers stand accused of having diverted money from Religare Finvest and its parent Religare Enterprises Ltd. via loans to private companies owned by them. The alleged fraud is to the tune of Rs 2,397 crore.
That is just one of the many cases they are now embroiled in.
Eight Months And Counting
Immediately after the arrest in October, the brothers were produced in South Delhi’s Saket Court. Malvinder Singh opposed the arrest claiming he had been cooperating with the police. Shivinder chose not to engage a lawyer nor oppose arrest. He said he’d been a victim of fraud himself.
The brothers were taken in to police custody till Oct. 17 and, thereafter, sent to judicial custody in Tihar Jail.
While in jail, the Enforcement Directorate, a financial investigation agency under the union government’s finance ministry, too arrested them on money laundering charges—under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. This investigation also pertains to alleged fund divergence from Religare Finvest.
The ED subsequently registered two new Enforcement Case Information Report against Shivinder and an entity controlled by him. The Delhi Police’s EOW filed its chargesheet against the brothers in March.
Singhs In Tihar
Malvinder and Shivinder have been inmates of Tihar Jail since October last year, except for the brief spells they each spent in ED custody where they were allowed access to home-cooked food and daily 30-minute visits with family.
Malvinder is lodged in Tihar’s jail number 8, Shivinder in jail number 7, a block not far away, according to information shared by their lawyers. At one of Malvinder’s bail hearings, jail authorities said he had been lodged in virtual isolation with no contact with other prisoners. Not much is recorded in the court papers of Shivinder’s jail stay.
Numerous efforts by the two brothers to secure bail have failed.
Shivinder unsuccessfully petitioned the Delhi High Court in April for bail on special grounds of the pandemic. He then moved the lower court for regular bail.
South Delhi’s Saket Court denied Shivinder bail on grounds that when he was in ED custody he smuggled a phone via his driver who used to deliver food. Shivinder allegedly went to the washroom to use the phone and then, according to the ED which was opposing his bail, made calls to known associates.
The Saket Court found that Shivinder had failed the triple test required for grant of bail and hence continued to keep him in prison. The triple test requires that a court must ensure an accused person is not a flight risk, will not influence witnesses and will not tamper with evidence before granting bail to him.
Now he’s back at the Delhi High Court seeking—that order is reserved and will be made public soon.
Malvinder too has made attempts to secure his release, unsuccessfully so far.
In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Delhi High Court set up a committee to release undertrial prisoners to de-congest prisons and facilitate social distancing.
However, in a meeting held on March 28, the committee decided to exclude prisoners being investigated for PMLA violations. Malvinder approached the Delhi High Court seeking a stay on the criteria determined by the committee for release of prisoners. He petitioned for interim bail.
In court, his counsel argued that Malvinder is immunocompromised and the jail conditions present a reasonable risk of contracting Covid-19. However, the court noted that the criteria fixed by the committee excludes those accused of economic offences. Malvinder subsequently made a representation to the high powered committee but that too was denied. The Delhi High Court is currently hearing his plea challenging the criteria for release of prisoners.
At one time Malvinder and Shivinder were members of top business chambers and Davos regulars—now they’ve spent a Diwali, Christmas, New Year's eve and a deadly pandemic in jail.
An earlier version of this story was amended to correct that Shivinder Singh allegedly sneaked use of a mobile phone when in ED custody and not when in Tiihar jail.