29 May 2017 16:14 IST

The dramatic arrest of Godman Chandraswami in 1996

Vinay Kamath recounts the fast-paced events that led up to the arrest

News of the passing away of the controversial Godman Chandraswami, brought back memories of one dramatic night in May 1996 when he was arrested by the CBI at a hotel in Chennai.

I had just returned to my office in my previous job with a television news company. It was around 8 pm. It had been a long day and we were just going to wind up and lock up the office when I received a call from my Delhi office that Chandraswami was holed up in a Chennai hotel, Sindoori, next to Apollo Hospitals, and was likely to be arrested that night. We needed to be there to get footage of his arrest. The charges were that he had defrauded a London-based businessman of $100,000. Chandraswami also faced charges for repeated violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA).

So, wearily, my team and I packed the camera. It was the pre-digital, pre-mobile (only pagers existed), pre-internet era, and cameras were large and bulky beta-cams which filmed on tape. We packed the camera and other paraphernalia into our Maruti Omni van, quite sure that nothing would happen that night. How wrong I was to be. We reached Sindoori hotel to find that most of the press persons had left as they were told by the police force present that an arrest was unlikely. Like a few others I too waited outside the hotel wondering what to do. It was just at that time, a CBI team arrived, led by, a CBI joint director, D Mukherjee. He told the few of us waiting outside the hotel that he had instructions from Delhi to arrest the Godman at all costs and send him to Delhi by the first available flight.

So, a long stake-out began in the hotel lobby, while the CBI team negotiated and bargained with Chandraswami. Slowly, word spread of his imminent arrest and the press persons began to trickle back. The lobby was overflowing soon. The Sindoori restaurant did brisk business with the press ordering tea and sandwiches. It was soon past midnight and still no sign of Chandraswami being arrested. We waited still, knowing it would have to happen eventually.

Dr Subramaniam Swamy, who was as close to Chandraswami as former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was, also arrived at the hotel but was not allowed by the CBI team into the Godman’s room. The CBI team was polite and firm with him. He waited angrily in the lobby as well, along with the press corp, and was fulminating to the media till Chandraswami was brought down.

Finally, around 1 am or so we were told Chandraswami was being brought down from his room. He was told there would be no media people as he wished. The Sindoori lift from the rooms descended to the ground floor and opened to a bare wall and one had to turn right to get to the lobby. Imagine Chandraswami’s face when he was brought down a wheel chair and turned right to face a phalanx of photographers and reporters. He was livid but the CBI team couldn’t be bothered now. They had their man. He was wheeled outside the hotel, refusing to speak to the waiting media.

Chandraswami was bundled into one of the CBI vehicles, an Ambassador with a flashing red light, and was to be taken to Saligramam, a city suburb to the home of a duty Magistrate who had to give the order of his arrest and his move to Delhi. We scambled into our Maruti Omni and our cameraman, Ravi, sat in the passenger seat and filmed the convoy ahead of us as we chased it all the way the suburb. The city was sleeping and the convoy slowly and silently snaking through the brightly-lit streets looked quite eerie. Since we moved slowly, the footage of the convoy which Ravi filmed was quite dramatic, like in a movie.

We reached the magistrate’s small house in a quiet street. He was told of his high-profile visitor and was waiting. The cops wheeled Chandraswami into the compound while the CBI personnel went in to get the order from the Judge. For a while Chandraswami was left alone in his wheel chair while the cops on guard kept a distance and waited at the gate. He looked kind of forlorn at that moment — one of India’s most powerful men till a few years before, and here he was in some distant suburb of Chennai in a magistrate’s compound, awaiting the order that would take him to a jail in Delhi, and none of his erstwhile powerful friends around to help him.

Once the CBI received the order from the judge, they took Chandraswami straight to the airport for the 6 am flight to Delhi. They weren’t taking any chances that night. We followed the convoy to the airport and turned off to the cargo section of the airport. Our tape, in a sealed cover, of Chandraswami’s arrest, would be on the same plane to Delhi, headed to our studio to be aired on the first news show that morning. It was almost day break by the time I headed home and crawled into bed for some shut-eye.