Paytm vice president, communications, Sonia Dhawan, her husband Roopak Jain, along with another Paytm employee, Devendra Kumar, have been sent on police remand for 14 days by the chief judicial magistrate (CJM), Gautam Buddha Nagar, (Noida). The trio was arrested on October 22 for their alleged involvement in an extortion attempt targeted at Paytm chief Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
Sonia is the alleged mastermind in the extortion case. The motive behind the blackmail plot is being touted as Dhawan’s husband Roopak Jain’s failing real estate business and the couple’s intention to buy a property. The extortion case came to light after Vijay’s brother, Ajay Shekhar Sharma, registered a complaint at Noida Sector 20 police station on October 22 and the police filed an FIR against the accused.
The founder of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma too has now commented on the incident. “I’m stunned and want to figure out the truth. I have always believed her (Sonia Dhawan, his secretary and one of the accused). It is possible that she has been used as a conduit. Cops will unearth the truth,” said Sharma.
Meanwhile, there’s a new twist to the tale. Sonia’s family members have now claimed that the Paytm boss had entrusted her with the company’s internal investigation into the case and that her arrest is, in fact, an attempt to cover up what she found about the data theft. They also claimed that it was Vijay who masterminded the entire plan to frame Sonia.
“When she investigated, she found someone from Vijay’s family was making the ransom call from Kolkata. But police ended up arresting Sonia for hatching the conspiracy,” Sonia’s brother-in-law was cited as saying by this ET report. He reportedly added that he has “hard evidence” to prove his claim.
Sonia’s lawyer Prashant Tripathi claimed that Sonia and Roopak had also received an extortion call for INR 5 Cr on September 22, two days after the Sharma brothers got the extortion calls.
Jain’s lawyer reportedly argued in the court, “The extortionist claimed his son would be harmed if they did not cough up the money. A complaint was also submitted to the police.”
Meanwhile, Sonia’s sister Rupali Dhawan has come out in support of her, arguing that Sonia’s salary package was INR 80 lakh per annum and that she has shares worth INR 10-15 Cr in the company. “How can she demand INR 10 Cr, that too in her bank account?” she asked.
Investigating inspector Manoj Pant told Inc42, “Defendants might try to mislead the investigation, but we have hard evidence against Sonia Dhawan and Devendra Kumar as a witness.” He added, “We will look into each and every aspect of the case.”
Even as the case develops and further details emerge, there are some questions that need to be asked, and answered:
- Even if we were to believe Ajay Shekhar Sharma’s version of the case and his complaint against Sonia Dhawan, what is this so-called “important personal data” that could affect the company and led the accused to believe that they could extort INR 10 Cr from Vijay Shekhar Sharma?
- Sonia has been with the company for the last 10 years and, as claimed by her sister, earned a handsome salary of INR 80 Lakh/annum; she also had a stake worth INR 10 Cr in the company (as claimed her sister and SSP Ajay Pal Sharma). Why, then, would she get involved in something that would jeopardise her career as well as her family’s reputation?
Sonia was working as the personal secretary and VP communications at Paytm, handling all its major brands like Paytm, Paytm Payments Bank, and Paytm Mall. Speaking to Inc42, two people who have worked closely with her said, “Sonia has had a huge role in making Paytm what it is today. She was the mastermind behind making things perfect for Vijay (Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma).”
During a conversation with various media persons, senior superintendent of police (SSP) Ajay Pal Sharma stated that the police have recovered a hard disc containing the stolen data, a pen drive which has records of the extortion calls and chats, printouts of WhatsApp chats, and four mobile phones. The data recovered by police also revealed that Roopak had faced some huge losses in his real estate business.
Dhawan’s husband Roopak was earlier associated with companies like the BRYS Group (vice president), and JM Housing Ltd (VP). He quit his position at BRYS in April 2014, and is said to be running his own real estate business since then, as per his Linkedin profile.
Earlier, on October 23, one of the members of the investigation team had told Inc42 that all the three accused had admitted to the crime. However, according to a report by The Indian Express, Sonia and Roopak have claimed innocence while Devendra has reportedly admitted to his role in the extortion. “Yes, I did copy data for them. They asked me. I do not know the nature of the data, but she (Sonia) was the one who roped me into the controversy,” Devendra told The Indian Express while inside the court.
Devendra Kumar was working in the administrative department at Paytm.
Paytm Extortion Case: The Turn Of Events
According to the FIR filed by Ajay Shekhar Sharma, Sonia, her husband Roopak, Devendra, and Rohit Chomal have been accused of extortion, fraud, humbuggery, getting illegal access to Vijay’s personal mobile and computer data, and making threats to him. The aim and intent were to malign Vijay and Paytm commercially and personally, the FIR said.
The FIR accuses her of having made a plan to extort INR 10 Cr from Vijay.
According to police, Sonia, who was a close aide of Vijay having joined the company in 2010, had frequent access to his mobile and computer. The duo allegedly brought another Paytm employee, Devendra, into the loop, asking him to steal certain data from Vijay’s computer and mobile. Devendra is said to have hired his friend Rohit Chomal to execute the extortion plan, assuring to pay him 20% of the extortion amount, according to the FIR.
As per a written complaint filed by Ajay to police, on September 20, Vijay got a call from a Kolkata-based man named Rohit Chomal at 11am and Ajay got a call from him at 4pm. Both the calls were made through WhatsApp to avoid call tracing.
The caller claimed to have had access to some sensitive personal data belonging to Vijay that was stored in the Paytm chief’s mobile and computer, and demanded he immediately deposit a ransom amount of INR 10 Cr. Otherwise, the caller threatened that he would leak the personal data, which would not only damage the image of Vijay Shekhar but would also affect the company’s business. The nature of the “personal data” has not been revealed yet by the police.
It is worth noting that Paytm is backed by some of the world’s biggest investors, which include names like SoftBank, Alibaba, and Berkshire Hathaway.
In the initial complaint, the extortion amount demanded was mentioned as INR 20 Cr. However, investigating officer Manoj Pant told Inc42 on October 25 that when the police took a restatement from the complainant, the amount actually turned out to be INR 10 Cr.
The account details shared by the caller was for ICICI account No. 000605021598, which is registered at an ICICI Bank branch on 22, R N Mukherjee Road, Kolkata, 700001. Ajay Shekhar claimed that he had transferred INR 67K and INR 200K to the above account on October 10 and 15 respectively.
However, unsatisfied with the deposited money, Rohit reportedly demanded that INR 10 Cr be deposited immediately to his abovementioned ICICI account. Otherwise, his team was ready to leak all of Vijay’s personal and classified information to the public.
The complaint says that Rohit, during the course of multiple conversations (on WhatsApp) with Ajay, told him about the involvement of Sonia Dhawan, her husband Roopak, and Paytm employee Devendra. Ajay has also submitted the call recordings to the police.
Rohit is still absconding.
As reviewed by Inc42, Sonia had 1,400 shares in the company as per One 97 Communications shareholding as on March 31 2017. ET claimed that in the company’s latest filing of shareholders, Sonia is not listed and that she might have sold her vested shares.
Sonia’s lawyer, Prashant Tripathi, however, made some contradictory claims. According to a Moneycontrol report, Tripathi claimed that the promoters of Paytm were pressurising Sonia to sell her stake in the company and that she has been framed.
An Open-And-Shut Case? No, We Think
Although the UP Police has joined hands with Kolkata Police and accelerated its search for the fourth accused — Rohit Chomal — who was the executor of the extortion plan, as far as the police is concerned, it’s an “open-and-shut case” with the evidence clearly pointing towards the couple — Sonia and Roopak Dhawan.
SSP Ajay told The Indian Express, “Around two months ago, she (Sonia) asked her boss for financial help of INR 4 Cr to buy a flat. But he ignored it. This could have been a trigger.”
There is another clue that the police says makes it believe that Sonia was the mastermind behind the crime. After Vijay got the alleged extortion call from Rohit, Sonia is said to have repeatedly suggested to him to pay the money to the extortionist.
“She was in contact with both parties. She knew these calls were coming. The complainant has told us she convinced him ‘ki abhi pay kar dijiye aap, kya pata kaisa data ho (pay up for now, god knows what kind of data may be there),’” Ajay Pal Sharma told ET.
Sonia’s lawyer Tripathi was cited as saying that he would contest the police theory that Sonia and Roopak needed the money because of the reported losses in Rupak’s real estate business. “She is being targeted for her meteoric rise. Sonia had risen to vice-president on the recommendation of Vijay Shekhar Sharma and some of her colleagues in were not happy with her success, which is also a reason behind the conspiracy,” Tripathi said.
With neither Paytm nor the police revealing the nature of the stolen data yet, the big question is: What is the “sensitive personal data” belonging to Vijay Shekhar Sharma that could affect the company’s business and that led to an extortion bid of INR 10 Cr? What implications could it have if revealed in the public domain?
Paytm, in a statement on October 24, said all of its user data was safe and that only Vijay’s personal data had been stolen.
Meanwhile, the counter-claims made by Sonia Dhawan’s lawyer and her family that the arrest was a cover-up to hide Sonia’s “findings” from the company’s internal probe into the data theft incident are yet to be backed by evidence.
In such a scenario, we expect further details and twists in the tale to emerge and it certainly doesn’t seem like an “open-and-shut case” to us.