Peter Jones, the former owner of Kodanadu estate, reveals how powerful businessmen close to Sasikala coerced his family.

Exclusive The takeover tycoon and liquor baron who helped Sasikala grab the Kodanadu Estate
news Corruption Monday, May 29, 2017 - 17:13

Death, it appears, has unravelled one of the many shadowy deals that late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her close aide VK Sasikala clinched in the early 1990s.

For more than one reason now, a spotlight has been put on the 906-acre Kodanadu estate in the Nilgiris district that was once Jayalalithaa’s favourite retreat to escape the scorching summer in Chennai. On April 24, the sprawling tea estate witnessed a break-in and murder of a security guard.  While the police nailed Jayalalithaa’s former driver for the crime, questions over what he was after have not been answered yet. Kanagaraj was found dead in Salem days later, purportedly killed in a road accident.

And while the police are still working on piecing together the murder mystery, the former owner of the Kodanadu estate has now alleged that he was forced to sell the property for a throwaway price after being harassed for two years by the late CM and her associates.

Until 1994, the 906-acre property belonged to the family of Peter Karl Edward Craig Jones, a British citizen. His father William Jones had bought the estate in 1975 and his family then went on to form the Kodanadu Tea Estate Private Limited, a company created to process and market tea produced in the estate in the early 1990s.   

Read: Listen to: Why the ex owner of Jayalalithaa’s Kodanadu estate never spoke up all these years

Speaking to TNM, Peter says the calls began in 1992. A politician in Chennai, he recalled, had evinced interest in the estate and wished to buy it. Sasikala, the now jailed AIADMK leader, used every means possible to acquire the property, including getting well-known businessmen to negotiate on Jayalalithaa and her behalf. What would follow was months of systemic pressure and harassment, until the Kodanadu property was finally handed over in 1994.

Detailing how the ‘deal’ was negotiated, Peter recounts that he and his family were in talks with Palaniappan Rajarathinam, a businessman from Coimbatore. “Rajarathinam was one of the very first people to start making enquiries about the estate. Throughout that period of time that we were under pressure, he was the main person marshalling it,” says the former Kodanadu estate owner.  

So, who is P Rajarathinam?  

Labelled the ‘takeover tycoon’ by the media, P Rajathinam shot to fame in the early 1990s by buying out sick companies. Tracing his growth story, India Today’s Sheela Raval and Ajith Pillai write in April 1995:

“Starting out on a paltry Rs 2 lakh borrowed from his father, Rajarathinam now lords it over a corporate realm that has set its sights on a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore by end-'95. But no one seems to know how the entrepreneur from Coimbatore graduated to being the celebrity that he is today.”

That he often rubbed shoulders with the political class was an open secret, with many even suggesting that his political connections were in fact the real source of his funds.  

From taking over Tunghabadra Sugars (renamed Deve Sugars), Benares State Bank to Apollo Tubes, Madras Motor Group, Garware Paints, Annapoorna Foods among others, the Coimbatore man acquired a range of loss-making companies in a short span.

But Rajarathiniam’s ascent to the top of Corporate India was short-lived. “His entire gameplan came unstuck when the market collapsed. He could not raise funds in the market. By 1996, SEBI was acquiring teeth and started examining Rajarathinam’s deals seriously. He went underground in 1997 leaving a trail of unpaid clients, bounced cheques and ruined companies,” Sushila Ravindranath writes in her book Surge.

With several cases against him, a red-corner notice was issued in 2002, with Interpol alerted to nab him. His present whereabouts are believed to be in the UK.  

The man to marshal pressure

From 1992 to 1994, Rajarathinam remained the point person with Peter and his family, facilitating meetings with Sasikala and KA Sengottaiyan, presently Education Minister and AIADMK Presidium Chairman. “I can’t recall where all exactly we met him, but there were a number of meetings and endless calls. He was the fellow who, as I said, marshalled pressure. We would get a call from Rajarathinam and then from a minister. We would take it for granted that he had made it happen. He was quite an interesting character; we tried to have as little to do with him as possible, but he was always in the picture,” notes Peter.

While the British family never had meetings with Jayalalithaa, their discussions with Sasikala and Rajarathinam were very often at the CM’s Veda Nilayam residence in Poes Garden. When negotiations hit rough weather, Peter alleges that he was harassed with calls, threatened and intimidated by goons.

He recalls, “It came to a point where we refused to have anything to do with Sasikala. So shortly thereafter, Udayar came on the field.”

Enter NPV Ramasamy Udayar

NPV Ramasamy Udayar was a liquor baron turned educationalist, who was close to former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. In fact, Udayar was so close to MGR that government land was allegedly given to him in the 1980s to set up the Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute at Porur in Chennai.  

Udayar with MGR. Pic courtesy: Mayyam

Udayar offered a solution to the Joneses, who refused to make a deal with Sasikala. His daughter-in-law Radha Venkatachalam would buy the 906-acre tea estate for a sum of Rs 7.6 crore. “While Udayar claimed he was solving the problem for us by buying the property for his children, it was clear right from day one that he was doing all this for Sasikala,” points out Peter.

The very next day after Udayar signed the deal, Sasikala, her nephew Sudhakaran and sister-in-law Ilaivarasi became partners of the Kodanadu Tea Estate Private Limited.

Peter says, “There was never a sale deed at all. We had a partnership (Kodanadu Tea Estates Limited), we retired, and Udayar’s family members became partners. It was just a benami transaction, and the day after we signed the document, Sasikala’s family took over the estate. Udayar never got involved in the estate in any way at all, other than facilitating this documentation.” 

The Kodanadu estate figures in the trial court judgement of the Disproportionate Assets case involving Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Sudhakaran and Ilaivarasi. It states, “This partnership was later reconstituted with inclusion of Mrs Radha Venkatachalam and her family members. A-3 (Sudhakaran) along with A-2 (Sasikala) and A-4 (Ilaivarasi) paid a consideration of Rs 7.6 crores to Mrs Radha Venkatachalm and became the partners of the said firm.”   

As quid-pro-quo for the deal, Radha Venkatachalam’s father R Krishnamurthy was made Advocate General by Jayalalithaa in 1994, reported Outlook.

The Kodanadu Estate wasn’t the only deal that industrialist Udayar finalised for Sasikala and co. The DA judgement makes mention of Ramraj Agro Mill, where Udayar negotiated a deal for Sudhakaran, Sundaravadanan (Sasikala’s brother) and Prabha (Sasikala’s niece). The three took over Ramraj Agro Mill’s Board of Management after buying 6,18,000 shares at a throwaway price of Rs 3 per share.   

What’s apparent from Peter’s tale is that for Sasikala and co, using industrialists like Udayar and Rajarathinam were only a means to an end. With Jayalalithaa dead and her close aide Sasikala behind bars, those like Peter, who were hounded, harassed and finally short-changed of their assets, now hope the time has finally come to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Peter Craig Jones in an interview with India Today.

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