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Simple Simon or shrewd scamster?
T M Ramalingam was found with bills of exchange worth Rs 27, 500 crore which are probably fake. Is the Class X dropout a sharp businessman or a swindler?
TM Ramalingam pulls four soiled ten-rupee notes from the pocket of his blue shirt and waves them around like a Japanese hand fan. "All I have in liquid cash with me right now is this Rs 40 as I cannot operate any of my 20 bank accounts, " says the 46-year-old agriculture commodities trader from Dharapuram in Tirupur district in Tamil Nadu. After a raid on his house on December 31, 2012, income tax authorities barred him from operating his accounts.
It's been over a fortnight since Ramalingam, also known as TMR, made national and international headlines after officials from the income tax department seized international bills of exchange worth Rs 27, 500 crore, or US$5 billion, from his modest residence. The documents were initially thought to be US Treasury bonds but later turned out to be International Bills of Exchange, which private banks checked and declared fake. Final confirmation is awaited from the Federal Reserve of the US.
It is still too early to give a clean chit to Ramalingam and sympathise with his plight as the real reason why he had the documents is unclear. He has taken anticipatory bail till January 21 and makes it clear that he will not talk about anything relating to the probe even before he sits down to speak after bolting the door to his house from the outside.
"I have been reiterating that the bills of exchange are genuine. I've said this to the media and to the investigators during the first round of questioning at the I-T office in Chennai. I will fight till I prove my point, " says Ramalingam. His version is that he bought the documents in return for Chinese gold bonds through a Brazilian finance broker from Dubai in 2011 as part of his dream project to start a petroleum refinery in Ramanathapuram district in southern Tamil Nadu.
He sits down on a sofa on the verandah of his single storey house in Dharapuram, waves the notes once again, and starts talking about his multi-billion dollar carbon fuel dream that went awry. "It is a major project. I have registered my firm as Bharaneedhars Refineries Private Limited with me and my wife as managing director and director. I submitted a proposal to the Union government for which I got an acknowledgement receipt. That was also taken away during the raid, " Ramalingam says.
I-T sleuths say it is not difficult to register a private company and that there is more to Ramalingam than meets the eye. "We suspect that the seized documents were to be used to dupe potential investors by luring them into some business proposition after showing it to them as security, " says an I-T official involved in the probe.
The fact that Ramalingam has made 12 trips abroad in the last year and is facing a Rs 2-crore cheating charge in Singapore leads to questions about his financial dealings. The balance-sheet of Bharaneedhars Refineries on March 31, 2012 recorded a transfer of Rs 2. 25 crore from a Singapore-based firm called Bharaneedhars Private Limited, which Ramalingam says is his own concern floated with the help of some 'business associates'.
Ramalingam, however, insists that he is just a regular businessman with a vision for a petroleum refinery in southern Tamil Nadu. His estimate for the project is around $28 million. He seems happy to talk about what he owns: "My house here in Dharapuram is built on 86 cents of land. I own eights cents near Perandur, which is caught in a court case. I-T officials sealed my bank lockers that have 5. 7kg of silver ornaments and 703g of gold ornaments. I own a Toyota Innova that I bought recently. "
Officials aren't fooled by his act. "Ramalingam gives the impression of being a simpleton but is well-versed in finance. He has studied only up to Class X but is very shrewd and has strong business acumen, " says a senior official with the I-T department in Coimbatore.
TOI-Crest met Ramalingam's relatives with whom he is not on cordial terms. They say Ramalingam arrived in Dharapuram after his marriage to Kalaiselvi, who is from the locality. He was born and brought up in rural Thondamuthur near Pollachi where his father ran a tea stall and did some agricultural trading.
Ramalingam moved to Dharapuram in the late 1990s after his wife Kalaiselvi's brother-inlaw, Dharmaraj, also an agricultural commodities trader, agreed to take him under his wing. The two parted ways after Ramalingam reportedly cashed a cheque for Rs 2 lakh without Dharmaraj's knowledge. A formal complaint was not registered since the family decided to keep it to themselves. The relatives added that Ramalingam was a quick learner with a flair for languages.
"We had two groundnut decorticator machines and Ramalingam had helped a mechanic fix one. A few months later, Ramalingam repaired the second machine when it developed a similar problem. He is smart but we are not really sure what he does for a living, " says a close relative on condition of anonymity. He described Ramalingam as a voracious reader, who pored over law books.
Ramalingam confirms that he loves reading newspapers and magazines. He describes himself as a Tamil movie buff and a fan of actor Vijay. He beams with pride as he says he is indeed a quick learner, blessed with a sharp eye for business and profit.
However, his tryst with fame - or infamy - has brought police attention back to his activities. Tirupur police are planning to look into a cheating case filed against him in 2011 in connection with pending payments of Rs 4 lakh in a ground nut procurement deal. Tirupur police superintendent Amit Kumar Singh says they registered a case before the I-T raids. "We are re-visiting the case in the wake of these developments. "
The I-T department is expected to hold a second round of questioning in the coming days. "Barclays bank has verbally confirmed that the bills of exchange seized from his residence are forged, " says Murali Mohan, additional director (investigation), income tax department, Chennai. "Ramalingam has been making contradictory statements about his business dealings and we are trying to verify his claims. "
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