Tamil Nadu coconut trader T.M. Ramalingam has sent a legal notice to the Income-Tax Department in Chennai asking them to return his international bills of exchange worth US $5 billion (Rs 27,000 crore), apparently issued by the US Treasury. Income tax officers seized the bills from Ramalingam's house in Dharapuram town in Tamil Nadu's Tirpur district on 31 December 2012. It is yet to be determined whether the bills are genuine.
"Kindly return me the bills issued by the US Treasury which you have confiscated from my residence on the night of 31 December within seven working days in the proper order in which they were at the time of the seizure or else, I will take recourse to legal action against you," is the gist of the notice sent on Wednesday, according to Ramalingam's lawyer Eelango Krishan, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian.
The bills were "issued" by the US Treasury on 25 February 2011 and have 26 February 2015 as their maturity date. Ramalingam kept them in a set of airtight covers in his house. Now he just possesses the photocopies of the bills and is worried about their safety. "The raid was not conducted in a proper manner and the attitude of the officials is doubtful," Eelango Krishan alleged.
This comes against the backdrop of I-T officials threatening to take action against Ramalingam for possessing these bills, which if found genuine would place him among the richest Indians, without disclosing his source of income to buy them. If they are found to be fake, he will be held guilty of trying to obtain a bank certificate saying they were genuine. When contacted, Ramalingam told this newspaper, "I have not done anything illegal. The bills that I possessed are genuine, issued by the US Treasury. Let the US government say that they are fake. I have bought them from a Brazilian businessman in exchange of Chinese gold bonds in 2011. I will disclose how I bought the gold bonds at an appropriate time in court."
The I-T sleuths who raided Ramalingam's two-bedroom single-storey house on a tip-off, are tight lipped about the ongoing inquiry into the authenticity of the bills. When contacted by this correspondent, I-T additional director general (investigation) S. Murali Mohan said: "The issue is still under investigation." He told journalists on 4 January, when Ramalingam was questioned for 10 hours, that the authenticity of the bills would be known within a week. The officials who sent the notes to Barclays Bank in Mumbai for verification, claimed on 9 January that they were bogus. Barclays Bank officials are understood to have orally conveyed this to the I-T sleuths. Barclays came into the picture because Ramalingam tried to obtain a valuation certificate from the bank's Tirupur branch on 20 December.
A senior official in the Chennai I-T headquarters said on the condition of anonymity, "The word of the Barclays Bank is not final. We are trying to ascertain the opinion of the Reserve Bank of India as well as that of the US consulate in Mumbai or Delhi. Presently, the bills are under the custody of our Delhi headquarters and it may take a few more days to find out the truth." Though no formal complaint has been lodged against the trader, the Tamil Nadu police are informally enquiring into Ramalingam's business links. Ramalingam, who also runs a Hindustan Petroleum petrol pump at Dharapur and gets a rental of Rs 30,000 per month from that, had stunned everyone by floating a firm, Bhageeradhan Oil Refinery Private Limited in 2010. He then applied for licence to establish a Rs 1,000 crore petroleum refinery at Thondi port near Ramanathapuram in south Tamil Nadu.
People in Dharapuram are, however, suspicious of his activities including his frequent trips to Singapore and Malaysia in the last two-three years. "Until a few years ago, he led a normal upper middle class life, but suddenly he started showing signs of money. We do not know how he thought of starting a refinery," a Dharapuram businessman told this newspaper on the condition of anonymity.
Asked whether there was any cover-up operation or Ramalingam could be the front man for any politician or had mafia links, his lawyer Eelango Krishan shot back angrily: "We suspect there could be a political conspiracy behind the I-T raid and some people may be trying to take away the bills by threatening us that they were fake."