'Charu said he was receiving threats, phone was being tapped'
In her testimony before police, Vrinda Walavalkar, close friend of late Charudatta Deshpande, has painted a grim picture of the pressures and intimidation the deceased allegedly faced during his stint with Tata Steel
Six months after the body of Charudatta Deshpande was found hanging at his Vasai residence on June 28, the testimony of a close friend of the former chief of Tata Steel’s corporate communications should help cops better determine what compelled the 57-year-old to take the extreme step.
The deposition of Vrinda Walavalkar was recorded on December 11 by Vasai police. In her statement, Vrinda a marketing professional and a former journalist has stated that she had tried to discourage Charu from accepting the job at Tata Steel, as he was doing very well at ICICI Bank. However, Charu had exciting reasons to take up the offer, which changed soon after he joined, she maintains. MiD DAY has accessed Vrinda’s statement; here are some excerpts:
Early days at Tata
Within the first few weeks itself, Charu realised he would face opposition from the corporate communications team, since his direct reportee, Prabhat Sharma, had harboured hopes of occupying Charu’s position, and was resentful of his appointment. Charu told me that in their first meeting, Prabhat came with an organisational chart and tried to dictate to Charu how he thought the department should function, and who should do what.
He also told Charu that there was no need for him to come to work every day. That Charu could just rest, and if he needed anything, he just had to tell Prabhat. Charu told me then that it was clear to him that Prabhat would not take kindly to Charu’s active, hands-on style. But those were early days, and Charu was more amused than concerned.
As the weeks progressed, Charu would often call from Jamshedpur to discuss the cost of various PR-related services, like website designing, development and maintenance, advertising in local papers, donations and sponsorships in the local community, etc. He expressed concern that in just about every case Tata Steel was paying as much as 3-4 times the market cost, and that contracts were being signed blindly without any negotiation or thought to safeguarding of the company’s interests.
Over the next few months, Charu travelled extensively, and was getting frustrated with the entire PR setup at Tata Steel, because while the plants and operations were in Kalinganagar, the PR agency was spilt between Mumbai and Delhi, and the corporate headquarters were in Bombay House. Charu often lamented that teams in Jamshedpur were completely non-aligned with Bombay House.
After his first couple of visits to Kalinganagar, in the initial six months on the job, Charu was extremely disturbed. He told me that he had seen rampant mismanagement and corruption on a scale he had never imagined. His belief was that such things could not be happening in a Tata company, and he was determined to bring it to the notice of senior executives in Bombay House.
Shortly after Diwali, I started finding it very difficult to get in touch with Charu. Whenever I called on his mobile (Tata Steel number), he would ask me to hang up and call me back from his personal cell. He simply said to me that there was a ‘mafia’ here, and he did not feel safe talking on that number. He confided that he felt his conversations were being tapped.
Around Jan-Feb, two incidents upset Charu greatly. The first was when he was asked to travel to Delhi to deal with a story that the Indian Express had reported, wherein it claimed that Mr Partha Sengupta, a VP with Tata Steel, was involved in dubious transactions with a company called AgustaWestland. Charu found the experience distasteful and not something he wanted to be involved with.
The second incident was the suicide of a young girl, the daughter of a Tata Steel employee posted in London. He was shaken up by that, and told me that the atmosphere in Jamshedpur was unbearable, and that the company functioned like a ‘mafia’ with absolutely no consideration for the personal lives of the employees.
Before I could probe further, he hung up, saying he would call back. When he did, he said repeatedly that he wished he could leave then and there, since the things he had seen were troubling him. I again urged him to leave, but he said he needed to see the Forbes story through, but had made up his mind to quit, come what may.
The Forbes story
In early April, the Forbes story hit the stands, and a distraught Charu called me, saying he was being accused of sharing confidential information with Forbes, and people were threatening him. I am afraid I did not fully appreciate the position he was in. I actually thought he was exaggerating the danger he was in because it is not uncommon for corporate communications people to be immediately accused of leaking information when negative stories on a company appear. But in my experience, managements calm down, sit with the corporate communications head, and take pains to understand how it happened.
Yet, it appears that Charu’s harassment went from bad to worse. He seemed extremely scared to talk, distracted, and at times incoherent and very disturbed. He mentioned on a couple of occasions that certain people were threatening him with what they claimed were ‘taped’ conversations between Charu and Forbes magazine. I asked him what, if anything, could these tapes contain? Had he at anytime divulged information that he should not have? Charu stated unequivocally that he had not.
I would like to state that I found this entire episode shocking and distressing. Had they (Tata Steels) been unhappy with Charu’s handling of the matter, why did they not constitute a committee to inquire into the issue? If they had taped evidence against Charu, as he said they claimed, why did they wait till after the story was published? Would it not have made sense for the company to take him off the story immediately? But Tata Steel had seized on Charu’s innocence and uprightness, and indulged in the most crude and cruel intimidation. Post this episode, Charu told me he was being subjected to systematic isolation. I asked him to return to Mumbai immediately, but he confessed that that was not being allowed to.
On the day he resigned, he called to tell me the good news, and I immediately asked him when he was reaching Mumbai. I was once again surprised and taken aback when he told me that Tata Steel was insisting that he serve his notice period in Jamshedpur. I argued with him, saying this was unheard of, and he should simply leave. But, by then Charu sounded completely defeated and tired, and said what was a month compared to the horrific year he had had to endure.
After he returned to Mumbai, Charu was a different person. Always in an agitated state, he appeared confused and displayed a total lack of confidence. His complexion had darkened, and he seemed incapable of focus or systematic thought. He repeatedly told me that he had escaped a ‘mafia’. At a party that we both attended in the first week of June, he told a common friend that he wished to sit down with him one day and describe the disturbing things he had witnessed.
2 days before death
On Wednesday, June 26, Charu visited me in my office in Malad, and I spent close to two hours with him. During this meeting, I had to repeatedly go over the same points that we had previously discussed on his job search. He seemed disorganised and forgetful, and incapable of action. During this meeting, he insisted that I should hire him.
He said I owed it to him since I had inducted and convinced him to join corporate communications all those years ago. I was both bemused and disturbed by his lack of confidence in himself. This was not the Charu I knew. At various points in my career, Charu had advised me very confidently and wisely on media relations, which was his forte. It is clear that his stint at Tata Steel had destroyed his confidence and had scarred him deeply.
I want to state in conclusion that there is not even an iota of doubt in my mind that it was Tata Steel’s harassment and intimidation, and possibly threats, that left Charu shattered and scared for his own life, and most importantly, the safety of his family. I am convinced that during his notice period in Jamshedpur, his life and the safety of his family had been threatened.
Who said what
Charu was seriously let down by senior officials at Tata Steel, who allowed some of the injustices to go unchecked, and I felt that it was my duty to tell the police everything I knew about his stint at Tata Steel, when cops questioned me.
- Vrinda Walavalkar
The testimony of Vrinda only strengthens our case, because it brings to light new materials that help bring greater understanding to what really transpired that led to Charu’s death. It shows the extent of threat and harassment that Charu was going through, and this plainly shows that Tata Steel failed to protect a whistleblower. The police must take full cognisance of Vrinda’s testimony.
- Indrajit Gupta, former Forbes editor and complainant
Charu shared a professional rapport with Indrajit Gupta, and narrated his work-related pressure and harassment at Tata Steel, which is evident even in Indrajit’s complaint. Whereas Vrinda was a very close personal friend of Charu, and her deposition clearly shows the personal aspect and psychological damage Charu suffered because of the harassment by certain Tata Steel officials.
- Gurbir Singh, president of Mumbai Press Club
I cannot share any information at this point. The investigation is in progress. The next date of hearing is January 6, when Prabhat Sharma is expected to be present before the Vasai Sessions court.
- Prashant Deshpande, deputy superintendent of police, Vasai division