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The making of a tycoon

What is evident is that Deepak Bhardwaj's family,from brothers back in a Haryana village to wife and sons in Delhi,saw little of it.

Written by Shalini Narayan |
April 14, 2013 2:15:09 am

As the story of the boy from Chetiya Oliya who became the ‘richest Lok Sabha candidate’ unfolds in the wake of his murder,questions are being raised about the money “crorepati” Deepak Bhardwaj actually had. What is evident is that his family,from brothers back in a Haryana village to wife and sons in Delhi,saw little of it.

Deepak Bhardwaj’s classmate from school recalls the day they realised he had travelled too far from his native village of Chetiya Oliya in Haryana to ever look back. It was the early 1990s and Bhardwaj had come for a function with some friends from Delhi. He was standing with his father. “One of his friends asked Bhardwaj who the man next to him was. He replied,‘He is my cook’,” says Subey Singh Gurjjar.

It would be nearly two decades later that the rest of the country would notice Bhardwaj’s rise. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls,he stood on a BSP ticket from West Delhi,declaring assets of Rs 603 crore. That made him the richest candidate in the country.

Three years later,Bhardwaj is again in the news. The man who reportedly put money before everything,including his near ones,has been done in by it. Bhardwaj murdered,accused son in jail,the rest of the family under suspicion,life has come full circle for the scholarship student from Haryana who became a real estate tycoon in Delhi. What remains are the crores,though maybe not as much as he made them out to be,and the audacious story of how this money was assembled.

***

Deepak Bhardwaj was born Devi Singh Khati,the third of four brothers,in Chetiya Oliya. It’s an unassuming village,with the house Bhardwaj was born and grew up in in a shambles. Bhardwaj’s father Prithvi Singh Khati worked as a carpenter and the family never had much money. Bhardwaj’s elder brother Inder left home at 18 to join the Indian Air Force to supplement the family income.

“As the eldest brother,I decided to give up further studies and join the military. You might say I put Devi through school up to Class XI,” says Inder.

Bhardwaj did not disappoint. According to Inder,he did well in his Class X exams and won a national scholarship to do Classes XI and XII in a reputed college in Jalandhar.

In 1971,he enrolled for a B.Com course in Haryana,but dropped out a year later. “He wrote a test for a stenographer’s job in the Delhi government. With his academic skills,he got in easily,” Inder says. Bhardwaj joined as a stenographer at the registrar’s office in Delhi’s Tis Hazari Courts complex in 1972,a job that would prove propitious in his quick climb to riches through property.

Those were the last days Inder remembers Bhardwaj being part of the family. The brothers fell out of touch with him even though at one point or the other,they all lived in Delhi.

“I was in Delhi every now and then and my younger brother Rajpal is a conductor with the Delhi Transport Corporation. But other than family functions,we never met,” Inder says.

Classmate Gurjjar too was a conductor with the DTC and says he lived just minutes away when Bhardwaj stayed near Kashmere Gate in North Delhi in the early ’70s. “For the first few years,we met often and used to buy milk and vegetables from the same market. But after Bhardwaj quit his job to start a business,he refused to even recognise me.”

Bhardwaj visited Chetiya Oliya once in 1985 and then in the 1990s,when he stunned the village by allegedly referring to his father as his cook. “We knew then that Devi Singh did not exist anymore,” Gurjjar says. Inder adds that Bhardwaj explained it as a “status gap” that could not be bridged.

But an incident after Prithvi Singh Khati’s death in 1996 made everyone give up on him. “Till then,it was all right. He was my brother,he was ambitious and wanted success. But by the time our father died,Bhardwaj was already quite rich,and he refused to build a samadhi for our parents,” Inder says.

According to the brother,Bhardwaj was only interested in property by then. “He was always the smart one. He told us that property was the only thing of value in the world,” Gurjjar remembers.

***

For somebody so focused on the economics of land,Bhardwaj could not have got a better education than at the sub-registrar’s office. It was here that he learnt the intricacies of land,land registration,buyers and sellers.

“During his initial days as a stenographer,Bhardwaj was very excited. He was learning the ropes on not only buying and selling land,but how much the land was worth and where. He saved every paisa he earned to buy land in Delhi,” Inder says.

After five years,in 1977,Bhardwaj left his government job,much to everyone’s surprise,and started an automobile parts store. Ram Dayal,Bhardwaj’s neighbour at the time,says the sale of cars and scooters was on the rise and Bhardwaj wanted a piece of the pie. “He ran this business for a few years,but by that time many other people were doing the same. He dumped the auto business and used the money to buy some property in South Delhi,” Dayal says.

Explaining some of Bhardwaj’s purchases three decades ago,a senior Delhi MLA says: “Then South Delhi was almost non-existent. Bhardwaj started buying small pieces of land through whatever resources he could find.”

Shrewdly,Bhardwaj never sold the properties and waited patiently for the real estate boom he knew was headed Delhi’s way. According to a former business partner of Bhardwaj who did not wish to be named,it was the acquisition of land around the Indira Gandhi International Airport that set the ball rolling. “The government acquired large tracts of land in and around the airport and Bhardwaj owned quite a bit. This is where he got his initial working capital and he never looked back,” he says.

***

Cut to 20 years later and a trip to Palam and Bijwasan in South West Delhi shows Bhardwaj’s reach. Says a veteran political leader,“There is not a single village in Bijwasan and surrounding areas where Bhardwaj has not bought or sold property. He would specifically target a disputed property and sell it to another party.”

Senior police officials probing Bhardwaj’s murder vouch for this modus operandi. “He has hundreds of civil cases pending against him and his various firms in Delhi’s courts. We believe he hired different lawyers for not only different courts,but for different areas where the disputed land was located,” says a senior official.

In a rare trait for a businessman,Bhardwaj did not shun the courts. “He would appear personally for every court hearing. From his experience of working in Tis Hazari,he knew civil cases could drag on for decades. In some cases,he settled cases out of court after making a profit,in others he did not mind continuous hearings,” a senior official says.

A former business partner talks about one plot of land Bhardwaj bought in the 1990s. “He bought it for around Rs 5,000 an acre. He sold this property recently and it was worth Rs 20 crore an acre. The return on investment is staggering!”

He adds that the farmhouse where Bhardwaj lived and was shot in on March 26 was now worth several crores. “He had bought the Nitesh Kunj land for just about Rs 20 lakh,” an official notes.

***

Even though he lost,the 2009 Lok Sabha elections that Bhardwaj fought were a masterstroke. Up against Congress and BJP heavyweights like Mahabal Mishra (who won) and Jagdish Mukhi,Bhardwaj finished third,with 5 per cent of the vote. However,it was he who grabbed all the headlines with his declaration of Rs 603 crore worth of assets—Rs 550 crore of them property in his wife’s and his name.

Inder says that though Bhardwaj knew he had no chance of winning,he got him to campaign for him. “He asked us to come and help. We travelled with him and canvassed for votes,” he says.

As the Delhi MLA explains,the election may have been a way for Bhardwaj to legitimise and bloat the value of his property. “Bhardwaj had not specified the land in his or his wife’s name. He only listed various pieces of land and their worth. I believe the land he possessed was not worth what he claimed. But the election affidavit ensured the land was now worth much more,” he says.

With assets valued at greater than Rs 600 crore came more leverage and the shift from property dealer to developer. Police officials believe Bhardwaj changed gears post the 2009 elections and decided to dream bigger.

“He had projects in Haridwar,Canada and Dubai. In Haridwar,he was developing an entire township called Gagandeep and owned hotels in countries abroad,” says a senior police official.

With the new-found wealth and almost unlimited opportunities,came the first family disputes. Sources in the police believe the relations between Bhardwaj and his immediate family—wife Ramesh Kumari and sons Nitesh and Hitesh—soured after Bhardwaj’s refusal to let anyone into the business. Soon,Bhardwaj was living on his own in his farmhouse,while Ramesh Kumari and the sons stayed separately in their own houses.

As the rift within the family widened,tales began of Bhardwaj’s proximity to three employees. And they were all women.

***

While all are tightlipped about who these women are,ironically,in the end,it was the testimony of the three—painting a picture of humiliation,exploitation and,at times,generosity—that gave the Delhi Police the breakthrough they needed in investigating Bhardwaj’s murder.

According to the police,a 30-year-old employee who had worked with Bhardwaj for four years first shed light on his strained relationship with his wife and sons. “She is a lawyer and was handling Bhardwaj’s legal requirements for the farmhouse. She disclosed that Bhardwaj was drafting a will that excluded the family from all the wealth,” says a senior police officer.

The police believe that the will was the last straw for Nitesh. “The same employee was also close to Nitesh,who always feared that his father would eventually marry one of his woman employees. She told Nitesh about the will last year,” says a source. He adds that investigations had shown that it was at this point that Nitesh hatched a plan to eliminate his father.

The woman has also reportedly disclosed to the police that Bhardwaj’s wife Ramesh Kumari had hurled abuses at her and blamed her for all the family infighting. “She has also told us that Bhardwaj regularly humiliated his family in front of her and that in the few months before his murder,she was getting 50 per cent of the profits from the farmhouse,” an official says.

The second woman the police have zeroed in on is a 28-year-old journalist who had quit her job with a well-known TV channel to join Bhardwaj’s business. “She joined as a public relations consultant for one of Bhardwaj’s business ventures a few years ago. She left the PR job after a few years but returned in March,” a police official says,adding that they do not suspect she had any role in the conspiracy to kill Bhardwaj.

The police have also questioned a third woman,a 29-year-old former employee in Bhardwaj’s Shiksha Bharti School,which is in Ramesh Kumari’s name. “She worked in the school for two years. Ramesh Kumari had fought with her as well for creating a rift in the family. She quit the job two years ago claiming Bhardwaj had ‘used’ her,” say the police.

With Nitesh under arrest for planning his father’s murder and the police not letting any member of the family off the hook,Gurjjar says it perhaps fits in with how Bhardwaj lived his life.

“Family did not mean much to Devi Singh when there was money to be made and position to attain,” he says. “It seems his son inherited the same qualities.”

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