Alex C Joseph & His Technicolour Dream Ride

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

On 21 March, just 36 hours after the DMK withdrew support to the UPA government, the CBI raided the house of MK Stalin and the farmhouse of MK Alagiri. Both these gentlemen, sons of DMK leader M Karunanidhi, were implicated in a case related to evading customs duties while buying imported cars. The CBI raided 17 locations in Tamil Nadu on that day, and seized 33 cars. Some fairly big reputations were damaged. N Srinivasan, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and chairman of India Cements, lost 11 cars. R Venkatachalam, vice-chancellor of Sree Ram Chandra Medical College, had seven cars seized. GK Shetty Ramanna, promoter of GK Shetty Builders, saw five cars driven away. Raja Shanker, Stalin’s private secretary, was left without two cars.

The politics of the case — the DMK-Congress rift — attracted headlines. But the car import scandal was more than just a political squabble; it was a gigantic financial fraud. Two days later, on 23 March, the CBI registered cases against the kingpins: Alex Chekkattu Joseph and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) officer Muruganandan. According to a CBI officer in Chennai, Joseph had been on the authorities’ radar since at least 1997. Muruganandan had been his facilitator at the DRI.

The raid brought Joseph back in the news. The CBI’s Kochi unit tried to locate him but found him untraceable. Its officers approached the assistant commissioner of police (crime records) in Kochi. He had been investigating a fake passport case against Joseph and boasted he would get him with just a phone call. He tried Joseph’s number but found the mobile phone switched off. A frantic search began for the fugitive — but the closest the police got to him was on primetime television.

While the CBI was frantically searching for him, Joseph was happily giving exclusive interviews to Asianet News as well as to a Tamil-language channel. In the interviews, he insisted the cases against him were false. He accused VS Syed Mohammed, DRI’s chief vigilance officer in Kochi, of framing him. He had refused to pay Mohammed a bribe, he told his interviewers. As it happens, Mohammed has been hunting Joseph for almost a decade. After the television appearance, Joseph vanished.

“He is clever and elusive,” muttered a DRI official. “He just knew how to divert attention.” He has been doing it for some 20 years now. A villager from Kerala who never completed college, migrated to Dubai in search of a job and then hit the jackpot with a hawala and car trading business, Joseph could well be the subject of a film scriptwriter’s imagination. In 21 years, he has sold more than 450 imported cars to India’s rich and famous — business tycoons, movie stars and, of course, politicians — and evaded import duties amounting to Rs 500 crore.

How has he survived the law? On 13 April 2000, the DRI issued a warrant against him for violation of the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act (COFEPOSA). Astonishingly, the agency waited 11 years and seven months to execute the warrant. On 6 November 2011, Joseph was arrested at Hyderabad airport while travelling on a fake passport (issued in the name of Abey John). A year later, on 30 March 2012, the Kerala High Court released him from a Thiruvananthapuram prison after holding his arrest as illegal. Astonishingly, the DRI never appealed. Joseph’s political godfathers had prevented his arrest for 11 years. They helped him escape yet again.

The Conman & His Clients
 Salman Khan
 Actor
 Mammootty
Actor
 Yashwant Sinha
 BJP Politician
 Udhayanidhi Stalin
 Son of Mk Stalin, DMK
 N Srinivasan
 BCCI President &
 Promoter, India cements
 Sharad Pawar & Supriya Sule
 NCP Politicians
 TR Baalu
 DMK Politician
 Durai Dayanidhi Alagiri
 Son of Mk Alagiri, DMK

Joseph was born on 28 July 1961 in Thadiyur village of Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. It was an ordinary life. His father, CA Joseph, was a respected teacher who retired as headmaster of the village primary school. As a boy, Joseph was industrious and entrepreneurial. He collected stamps and matchbox stickers, and sometimes sold these to his classmates at the Thadiyur Nair Social Service Society School. As he grew, he began selling foreign perfumes, soaps and pens as well. “He was a good marketing man,” a classmate said, “and he could sell foreign goods to even our teachers.”

Joseph was an ordinary student, but ambitious. After school, he experimented with a medicine shop and then a moneylending business in Tiruvalla, 17 km from his village. Both ventures failed but Joseph won goodwill by not resorting to sharp practice and, unlike other moneylenders, not cheating clients. “He was full of enthusiasm,” a Tiruvalla lawyer remembered. “His father was a pious man. And he sought my legal opinion regarding filing cases against defaulters.”

After shutting down his moneylending business, Joseph looked for a job  before deciding to try his luck in Dubai, home to a teeming population from his district. A friend working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a driver sponsored him and he arrived on a tourist visa. This is where the story gets mysterious. “There is no information whether Joseph worked in Dubai,” admitted a DRI official, “but we have tracked his business activity since 1989 in Dubai. He started importing cars since then and carried on till 2009.”

An NRI businessman who had a Mitsubishi dealership in Dubai filled in some of the gaps. He said Joseph exported 125 Mitsubishi Pajeros to Indian ports under various names in the period from 1989 to 2009. “I met him in 1988,” recalled the businessman. “One day he dropped in at my office and enquired about the prices of vehicles. He looked very naïve. He could speak only Malayalam fluently. When he was wandering in our showroom, our sales executives asked him about his purpose of visit as we were selling only high-end cars. He looked more like a labourer…”

Joseph insisted on meeting the boss and found his way to the businessman’s office. He convinced him that he could help him sell his cars in India. It was an inviting proposition. “In the 1990s, luxury cars were not available in India,” the businessman said. “Nobody could imagine that a person like Joseph, who had only very limited knowledge about cars, could facilitate the export of foreign cars to India as it could fetch even four times the Dubai showroom price.”

After a few initial meetings, Joseph turned up at the showroom with hard cash to buy a number of cars. He wanted the chassis numbers of the cars to prepare the export documents. This was the late 1980s, a period before banking transactions were made mandatory for buying cars in the UAE, a time before 9/11 made big cash transactions seem fishy. It was an easy deal.

Joseph was no ordinary exporter though. He had a devious plan. He convinced the Mitsubishi dealership to give him registration documents dated two years previously. This was because India did not allow import of new vehicles. When the showroom manager refused, Joseph assured him all would be well and he would fix the Dubai Police. He duly did this and found a willing accomplice in the Dubai Police, an officer who validated his pre-dated registration for new cars.

Next, Joseph identified a labourer from India, preferably Kerala, working in Dubai and returning home after four years. This timeframe was crucial as it gave the individual transfer of residence rights. The car was officially registered and imported in the name of this labourer. The labourer never saw the car but was paid a small fee. When the car was sold in India, to a big movie star or a business baron’s son for example, the official registration or ownership remained that of the labourer who had never seen the vehicle.

In 1990, Joseph took over Alfa General Trading, an Ajman-based company and started regular export of high-end cars to India, even opening his showroom in New Delhi in 1992. New cars were bought and pre-dated registrations were procured from not just Dubai but other emirates such as Umm al-Quwain and exported to India under the name of some random labourer. In India, Joseph paid a 110 percent customs duty — but in the big cities where he sold his cars, he more than doubled his investment. Of course, some of his profits went into bribing his network of DRI and Customs officials.

The operation was quite sophisticated. Joseph would identify a poor migrant who wanted to return home. He would then offer to buy the man a ticket and arrange his transfer of residence certificate. For this he would borrow the man’s passport and other documents and take his photographs. With these documents, he would open a bank account in the name of the person (the returning migrant), pick up the chequebook and use it to pay for the car or to pay for a bank draft to pay for the car. This removed all trace of Joseph from the deal. In this manner some 450 bank accounts were opened, most of them used for just a single transaction.

In the early 1990s, Joseph moved to Delhi. He lived for a while in the outhouse of politician PJ Kurien’s residence in the city (Kurien was a minister at the time). He also got to know several other politicians. However, he made a powerful enemy — rival car dealer Lalit Kumar Bagla. Business opponents registered cases against Joseph and framed him in a murder case. In 1994, he was arrested by Delhi Police but escaped from a hospital. The capital was too hot for him.

Returning to Dubai, Joseph now began sending cars into India through the Kochi port alone. He started to move from one emirate to another, Ajman for a while, then Sharjah, next Umm al-Quwain. Everywhere he tried to find friendly policeman. A very senior police officer in Dubai became his closest supporter and virtual business partner. A Pakistani cartel specialising in importing stolen cars from Japan also came to be associated with him and used Joseph as a front for selling these cars.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s client list in India just grew and grew. The daughter of a very senior BJP politician, otherwise known for his austerity; a BJP MP who held two top portfolios in the NDA government; the Delhi-based chief of a leading regional party; Maharashtra’s most resourceful politician; a battery of DMK politicians: all of them began to drive Joseph-sold cars.

In 2004, Joseph distributed his CV, describing himself as a “self-made entrepreneur … [with] over 20 years of experience in the fields of finance, export-import business, sale of cars, consultant for various domestic and overseas infrastructure development projects”. He listed a dozen companies he ran or worked with, many of them shell operations, and also cited Yashwant Sinha, then foreign minister, as a referee. His Delhi address was listed as a house in Jor Bagh, among India’s poshest neighbourhoods. Interestingly, he gave his date of birth as 27 July 1964, pretending to be three years younger than he was.

By then the COFEPOSA case had been registered against him. Even so, political friends ensured no action was taken, not till November 2011 — and no high-profile clients were touched, not till March 2013. What caused this? Joseph would know, but right now he has disappeared with his millions.

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How Alex Used the Courts to Beat the Law

Even though the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence made a strong case against Alex C Joseph, the wheeler dealer manipulated the legal process in his favour

1.  When Alex Joseph was arrested by the DRI at the Hyderabad Airport in 2011, he claimed he didn’t know anyone by that name, and admitted his identity only when the officials confronted him with documents

2.  Joseph’s political mentors knew that his prolonged custody would harm their interests and they blocked the DRI’s attempt to register a money-laundering case against him

3.  After being handed over to the Kerala Police, he used a mobile phone to contact his lawyers in New Delhi and Kochi

4.  Though COFEPOSA detainees are not allowed to have lawyers to represent their case, Joseph managed to persuade the Customs and Central Excise Advisory Board (CCEAB) in Thiruvananthapuram to allow his lawyers to be present

5.   He denied all charges, forcing the DRI officials to present more documents as evidence. Then his lawyer asked for the documents’ copies to be handed over to him, but the CCEAB refused and confirmed his detention

6.  Within a week, he moved a writ petition against his detention at the Kerala High Court, where it came to light that the fake passport (issued to ‘Abey John’) that had been seized from him at the Hyderabad Airport could not be found.

7.  Immigration officials in Hyderabad informed the DRI that they had handed over the passport to Kerala Police, which said it had then been returned to Joseph. Having destroying a crucial piece of evidence, Joseph was safe from prosecution in the fake passport case

8.  During the hearing of another petition before the high court, the petitioner, Joseph’s brother, said that the CCEAB had declined to hand over copies of the documents presented as evidence.

9.  The court reprimanded the Board for denying ‘natural justice’ to a detainee and ordered Joseph’s release, “unless his detention is wanted in connection with any other case”.

10.  Joseph was released in less than two hours after the order was read, though the judges signed the order only after a month and the DRI received a copy much later

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Bureau Chief, South

Jeemon Jacob has been a journalist for 26 years both in print and television, as of 2011. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He has headed the political bureau in New Delhi of the Rashtra Deepika group of publications and later joined News Express in Brunei Darussalam as Features Editor. He won the Statesman award for rural reporting in 1987 for his seven articles that exposed a brown sugar racket in Kumily, Kerala.

In 1990, he won the state award for best reporting and in 1992, his article on social alienation of people with HIV/AIDS won the prestigious PUCL Award for human rights reporting in 1992. Jeemon is a graduate in English Literature and Journalism and has exposed the corruption behind the DMK government’s allotting prime land to high court judges, senior civil servants, and the kith and kin of politicians under the government’s discretionary quota. He is based in Thiruvananthapuram.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m going to divert attention from Joseph to the repercussions and importance of the language, content and context creation by journalists.
    “He sells cars for a living. But he is no ordinary auto dealer. Jeemon Jacob tracks the extraordinary story of a Malayalee conman who’s got the DRI in a spin.”

    Joseph is a Malayalee (as you have clearly stated), but what does that have to do in the context of a con-man dealing with swindling cars into the country? Was it included as comic relief? Or to imply that con men and Malayalees are synonymous and that this is just the work of art of yet another shrewd, cunning Malayalee?

    I’m aware of the larger problems such as rampant corruption, tax evasion amongst the elite etc etc that the article is trying to bring out, but this is a very subtle form of profiling and as a journalist one must strive to be more objective in presenting information to the public. Joseph being a Malayalee has nothing to do with the situation at hand and there was no rational reason to have specified the same.
    I believe its important to stir clear of such unnecessary associations which only leads to generalization of sections of society, especially in a country such as India, with its enormous diversity coupled with a complete lack of political correctness, especially in the media.

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