Pulpit Fiction: The Church, The Police, Hot Cash & Greed
Barely a hundred metres from the ferry taking one from Vypin to Fort Kochi, opposite the corner gate of St Paul’s Public School on TM Muhammad Road, lies the nondescript hotel Casa Linda.
It was here that Joginder Singh and Rajpreet Singh had checked in the night before on 28 April. Unknown to the employees of the hotel, the two were fugitives - wanted in Punjab in connection with a missing sum of Rs 6.65 crore.
Two of their accomplices – one Dilbagh Singh, an ASI (Assistant Sub Inspector) with the Punjab Police who had helped them transport the cash, and Surinder Singh the informer who had led them to the cash, had already been arrested on 17 April.
Surinder's arrest was a botched job by all accounts. Police say he was nabbed by a team of the Samrala police during a routine check near Dhilwan village on the Samrala-Khanna road at around 7:30 p.m. and took him in for questioning.
He was presented before Magistrate Jessica Sood in Mohali on 17 April. Word is that Surinder was likely hiding in a superior officer's house.
Dilbagh Singh was arrested on 25 April. His involvement in the case was of providing the vehicle to transfer the money.
It was Joginder and Rajpreet, the prime suspects in the case, who had evaded police the longest. Late in the afternoon, on 29 April around 4:30 pm, the day after they checked in, exactly a month after the cash went missing, local Kerala policemen in mufti paid a visit to the hotel.
They had been tipped off by the Punjab police of the presence of the two absconding policemen in Fort Kochi. The duo were picked up from their room and detained. They did not resist.
In a quirk of fate, the police station itself was located just across the block on the road leading to the hotel. It was here that the two ASIs waited for their colleagues from Punjab to arrive and take them back.
“They hadn’t thought even in their wildest dreams that the money would be white,” a constable posted in Fort Kochi police station told The Lede on condition of anonymity.
The best laid plans tend to go awry. An accidental booty, a moment of greed, an error of judgement and another twist of fate had landed these two cops in deep trouble.
Here is their tale, connected to a far murkier one, both entwined by a dark comedy of errors.
The Raid In Jalandhar
“They came in brandishing guns,” is how Father Anthony Madassery describes the events of 29 March. “It was around 4 in the evening. The gates were opened to let the electrician in. They must have waited outside for a while as I had given the electrician a tour of the house and assigned the work to be undertaken by him.”
It was upon returning to see him off that Father Madassery came across the men with guns.
“Wearing civilian clothes, they were carrying guns!” he exclaimed. “They pushed themselves into the house by brandishing the gun. I assumed it to be a case of dacoity. There were four of them,” he recollects.
Meanwhile inside the house, Madassery’s secretary and bank official, watched by the bank’s gunman were counting money.
The exact amount, though still unclear, is said to be close to Rs 16.66 crore. The money had come in as “proceeds from sale of books and stationaries from Sahodhaya,” a company in which Father Madassery was the director.
Proceeds from sale of supplies to 70 schools had been present there, he claims. How a company was being run by a priest is a story in itself, which we shall come to later.
Once inside, the armed men pushed their way around and reached the room where the money was being counted.
“Has this money come from outside?” is all that they asked of Father Madassery. “But they wouldn’t let us talk. Then they made a few phone calls,” he adds.
Madassery claims there was nothing “unusual or secretive” about the presence of over Rs 16 crore in his residence in Partapura in Jalandhar district. “It is fairly common knowledge that in the months of February and March we have money coming in here,” he claims.
But it was never as large as the alleged amount of Rs 16.66 crore.
“Usually we deposit the money in banks every day,” says the Father. But since the model code of conduct was in force, company officials did not want to do it. “So we had the bank officials come to the house, count them and take possession instead.”
Father Madassery also glibly tries to explain away the larger than usual sum present at the venue. “They (bank officials) delayed it as it would help them to improve their balance sheets,” he says. “We had deposited around Rs 10 crore the previous day, though I wasn’t here then.”
Media reports pegged the amount deposited the previous day at Rs 14 crore.
But the smooth talking Father Madassery is not just any other priest. He is a successful entrepreneur.
And the riches found on the night of 29 March was the result of the evolution of the Diocese of Jalandhar and Father Madassery’s role in it.
The Diocese of Jalandhar
The Diocese of Jalandhar, one among the current 148 dioceses of the Latin Catholic Church in India came into being in 1971. Until partition, the area was part of the Diocese of Lahore looked after by Cappuchin missionaries of the Belgian Province.
After partition, in 1952 the Prefecture of Jullundur was created and entrusted to the British province of Cappuchins. In 1971, the prefecture was raised to the status of Diocese. But its ascent into riches started after 2007.
For it was in 2007, that Bishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto, the Auxilliary Bishop of Delhi was appointed as the Bishop of Jullundur. His bishophood changed the Jalandhar Diocese by starting a trend which would go on to make the priests under the Jalandhar Diocese financially powerful.
After his transfer in 2012, Rt Rev Dr Franco Mulakkal took charge of Jalandhar. Bishop Franco took forward the policies of his predecessor resulting in the birth of a few entrepreneur priests; much to the annoyance of some old clergy.
He waived the prohibition of clerics from “conducting business or trade personally or through others, for their own advantage or that of others, except with permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority”- a canonical law which was expected to be followed by all clergy.
This was to give birth to the businessmen priests of Jalandhar. This move was anathema to many parishioners and clergy alike – what they considered an unholy mix of money and faith became a talking point even in distant Kerala, where most of this clergy had come from.
The Parishioner’s View
“It all began under Bishop Anil Joseph,” says a parishioner under the Archdiocese of Verapolly in Kerala and a policeman by profession.
He has been closely associated with the church and knows its inner workings well. “All this Madassery and other businessmen priests are the result of what he started. It was started to make the diocese financially secure. Maybe it has gone too far,” he opines, referring to the bad press that money has brought to the church.
The Church and its clergy have always been expected to remain spotless and clean, and any association with business was bound to go wrong at some point.
At the time, Bishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto’s decision to grant permission to set up a charitable society was for the formation of one NGO.
Navjeevan Charitable Society as the NGO came to be named was registered on 16 July 2008.
Father Anthony Madassery was its executive secretary, entrusted with the responsibility to register the society and mobilise funds for developmental works.
Navjeevan was an experiment. And a fairly successful model for the many others that followed shortly.
Since the NGO’s office was in the Bishop’s house of Jalandhar, Father Antony soon came to be seen as close to the Bishop. The stated purpose of the NGO was the social, political, cultural and economic development of the underprivileged and the poor.
During his attempts to mobilise funds, Father Madassery was to face the first hurdle, something which would change the direction of the Diocese itself. In his attempts to get donations, he ran into many book publishers who refused to respond positively claiming that they were already donating to the schools, run by the diocese and headed by priests themselves as a means to ensure that they bought books from them.
This then gave birth to ‘Navjeevan Enterprises’ in 2009 with Father Anthony Madassery as the proprietor of the company. The diocese was to keep an arm’s distance from the company though it was clear that the company benefited from the position of its proprietor within the Diocese.
In the first year, Navjeevan Enterprises sold books to nine schools. This year Father Madassery sold books to 70 schools but not through Navjeevan. They were sold by Sahodhaya.
The success of Navjeevan Enterprises led Madassery to get into other areas such as a publishing house (Words Worth Educational and Private Limited) and a firm to supply smart class boards and related materials (EduZone Multimedia Private Limited) in partnership with a Delhi-based businessman. Even an NBFC was begun - Navjeevan Nidhi Limited - founded in 2016 with Father Madassery being one of the three directors.
Father Anthony along with the other partners-cum-directors Father Jose P, Father Paul and Father Scaria also set up Sahodhaya Partnership Company - a group of companies which included Sahodhaya Text Books and Stationery (2014) supplying books to almost all the schools under the Diocese, Sahodhaya Securities (2015) providing security staff to the institutions under the Diocese, Sahodhaya Construction (2017) taking up construction activities under the Diocese, Sahodhaya Garments (2016) supplying uniforms to the schools and Sahodhaya Sports Goods Manufacturing (2015).
It was the money from the text books and stationery division which was allegedly caught in the raid in March.
A few others companies which followed on similar lines were Sahodhaya Transport, a separate entity not involving Father Anthony Madassery, with a fleet of 30 buses ferrying children of various schools of the Diocese and SHINE - a coaching centre - of which Father Madassery is the director.
Bishop Franco Mulakkal who was seen as close to Father Madassery, was last year accused of sexually abusing a nun several times between 2014 and 2016 and forced to relinquish his duties in September 2018.
Following his request to be relieved from the administration, Bishop Angelo Rufino Gracias, the Emeritus Auxillary Bishop of Bombay was appointed as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Jalandhar and took charge in October 2018.
And on 29 March, Bishop Angelo Rufino Gracias was to witness a major test of his administrational prowess.
Given the clout that Father Madassery and his many companies enjoyed, it would have been only natural for the bishop to come to his defense. He issued an undated clarification which stated the purpose of the Sahodhaya group of companies and that they had all been running with due permission from the Diocese. The proceeds from these companies, he said was used for social work operated through a network of social and charitable services.
The Businessman Priest In Soup
Meanwhile, on the evening of 29 March, Father Madassery heaved a sigh of relief when uniformed policemen arrived.
“It was when the men in uniform came that I was relieved,” says Madassery. “Until then I had thought this was a dacoity.” The problem was that the ASIs would not let him talk, nor did they produce any warrant for the raids. “They took possession of all our mobile phones and held us at gunpoint,” he claims.
This bizarre drama acted itself out for about 15-20 minutes according to Madassery, after which “they took me at gunpoint along with the uncounted cash in the house in my own car, driven by one of the policemen, to Khanna Police Station”.
While Madassery was picked up by a team of Khanna Police allegedly along with the allegedly unaccounted cash from his residence in Partapura in Jalandhar district, police records showed that the recovery was from Daroha in Ludhiana district.
All the initial media reports spoke of Bishop Franco Mulakkal’s aide Father Anthony Madassery being arrested with unaccounted cash in a routine roadside check in Daroha, the insinuation hinting at the unholy nexus between the two.
Madassery was kept at the station until 5 am the next day, during which he was grilled about the money.
But the story changed soon after.
When asked why, Madassery is quick to state - “There were so many witnesses here. There was CCTV footage showing the raid also.”
The obvious lie about the venue from where the money was recovered was soon redacted. “They had no choice really,” says Madassery.
Next came the discovery that while the cash at his residence had totaled around Rs 16.66 crore, the police had logged in only Rs 9.66 crore as having been seized.
Madassery then accused the police of having taken Rs 6.66 crore of money from the total cash that was present at his residence and of having not reported it as being recovered and registered a complaint.
Bank officials who had been at Father Madassery’s residence since morning, according to him, also came to the priest’s defence as did the Diocese which issued a release explaining that the money was from a company functioning with permission from the Diocese.
“The IT officials had refused to sign the recovery,” Madassery says. Unlike standard procedure wherein when a raid results in discovery of cash, Income Tax sleuths are brought in to verify the recovery and the amount; in this case, policemen had called the IT officials to the police station instead. The procedural lapse was not taken lightly by the IT officials who, Madassery says, “expressed their displeasure then and there,” as they could not vouch for the amount of Rs 9.66 crore that was in the police station.
Madassery says he had initially assumed that the counted money in possession of the bank officials had been left behind. It was later when he came to know that the counted money too had been taken by the raiding policemen that he raised his doubts and realised that the junior cops had likely nicked some of the cash.
“All of this money goes into the bank and then it is used to pay the vendors. None of this was going into my account. There was no question ever of not reporting it,” says Madassery.
And that was the fatal error of judgement made by the impulsive ASIs. Joginder and Rajpreet who made away with the cash made a miscalculation that they would dearly pay for.
Their assumption that this was all hawala money and that no one would dare report money that was allegedly being “laundered” backfired on them. It should have been the safest of methods to make a few extra bucks. And the booty was considerable too.
“Neither the Commissioner nor any other authority in the district was aware of the raid. Election Commission was also not informed about the same,” claims Madassery. As for who authorised the raid and why a fake story was circulated, answers are still awaited.
Asked if he suspected foul play from within the clergy since he had claimed it was fairly common knowledge that there was money at his residence, Madassery replies - “I am a priest I don’t want to doubt anyone. It is for the investigating team to find who was behind it.”
Praveen Kumar Sinha, Inspector General of Police - Crime and in charge of the SIT (Special Investigation team) probing the disappearance of the Rs 6.66 crore has a different way of looking at it.
“As of now, no one has been able to give us a figure as to how much money was present at Father Madassery’s house when the raids happened at 3:45 pm on 29 March,” he said.
Sinha had led the operation which had tracked the absconding duo to Kerala and eventually arrested them. This was also necessitated as a few of the superior officers were already in the dock for having helped the accused.
As for the claims that the policemen were misled about hawala money being present there, he says - “This was a decoy operation based on specific inputs that CSR funds (generated in the companies being run by the church) was being laundered.” Sinha also pointed out that the intel was accurate since a large stash of money was indeed found. As for the legality of the money, it forms the “financial part of the investigation,” which is to be completed.
Where things went wrong, according to Sinha, was the “momentary lapse on the part of the two ASIs who found themselves unsupervised in the presence of considerable amounts of money.”
It was a test of their moral character and they failed, he says.
Tracking Down The Stolen Money
What is known is that in what has been described as a “momentary lapse of judgement”, the trio comprising Joginder Singh, Rajpreet Singh and the informer Surinder Singh, took hold of the cash and stuffed them into the Verna car they had arrived in and made away.
While the men in uniform had gone to Khanna police station through NH-1, the trio in their Verna took a different route, going by the Moga-Jagraon route to Khanna.
On the way they called Dilbagh Singh, another ASI with the Punjab Police, and asked him to arrange for a vehicle to transfer the cash. Dilbagh in turn came in his own Maruti Swift car and relieved the Verna of its cash. After this the trio headed back to the Khanna police station where they reached half an hour after the uniformed officers.
“As of now I have been informed that Rs 4.58 crore has been recovered,” says Father Madassery when asked about the arrests of Joginder and Rajpreet and the subsequent recoveries made from them. “I am happy with the investigation so far. They have worked hard and results have been fast too.”
He continues - “When I will be really happy is when they hand back the money to me,” says the priest, referring to the pending investigation into the legality and origins of the money recovered from him.
Madassery says he has submitted documents to IT officials accounting for the recovered sum. “They conducted surveys in the institutions from where the sales had been registered and tallied them. It is very normal for the company to have sales worth Rs 25-30 crores in March every year,” he insists.
“This should be counted as bank robbery,” is how Anthony Madassery views the raid and subsequent theft. “They didn’t rob from me but the money that had been taken possession of by the bank.”
A senior official with the Punjab Police in the know feels that perhaps the ASIs were tricked into a trap. “They believed it was hawala money, that no one would report it. They had not thought about the consequences and walked into it letting their greed take control,” he said.
But questions are many and the investigation could now pave way for a good close look into the companies being run by the Diocese and the many allegations against Father Madassery.
The priest would likely have to answer how such a large sum of money made its way into his residence. Who was the informer and what was the informer’s motivation?
While for the two ASIs, the error in judgment is clearer with each passing day, for the Church, enlightenment may still take time.