He lived an enigma, died a mystery

S Raju and Atul Mathur

Moradabad, Nov. 20 -- Gurpreet alias Ponty Chadha was always an enigma, and his life as mysterious as his gory death.

Chadha's name - oft-repeated in the corridors of power - is still being whispered across Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttarakhand. But the liquor baron, who had many political godfathers while alive, has few still willing to talk openly about him after his death in a hail of bullets November 18.

The clout that Chadha wielded in UP is well known, and it extended to leaders on either side of the political divide. The liquor baron - who got away with charging what became known as the 'Mayawati tax' (an extra sum of money for every bottle sold in the state's monopolised market) - could call on the BSP supremo at 6 in the morning. Even after she was ousted, new rulers Mulayam and Akhilesh remained equally accessible. But all of them stayed away from the packed crematorium in Delhi, from where Chadha was sent off on his last journey.

While he was alive, there were many who rubbed shoulders with the liquor baron and real estate tycoon - said to have an empire worth Rs. 6,000 crore. As one of his friends put it, Chadha had a knack for making contacts and sharing his spoils. "He was indeed a fascinating character. He knew exactly how to woo people and grease palms."

Not a good student in school, Chadha let life teach him most of his lessons. From helping his father sell snacks outside a liquor store in Moradabad, he went on to master the art of working the system, befriending the powerful, and building his own empire.

Gifting watches, gold-plated pens, silverware, mobile phones and artwork was Chadha's way of making friends and expanding his circle of contacts. While many of them attended his parties, often hosted at the same farmhouse where his life came to an abrupt end, they wouldn't talk about him today without opting for the shroud of anonymity.

They'll tell you that the farmhouse was a regular party venue, where several politicians and bureaucrats partook of his hospitality. One of them even revealed: "At least two former chief ministers, several ministers, MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats have stayed at the very farmhouse where the brothers killed each other."

Insiders say that the 56-year-old, generous with friends, was asked by his mother to sit at the head of the family table after his father's death in 2011. However, the violent shoot-out that killed him and his brother, Hardeep, is a testimony to the business acrimony that finally split the Chadhas. And more's the irony, sources say, considering that Chadha himself was a marvellous arbitrator.

"Chadha would bring warring relatives, even brothers, to the discussion table. He would help them iron out their differences," said a Sikh leader in Delhi. People would listen to him, and his compromise formula was usually accepted.

However, compromise is not a word that comes to mind when one recalls Chadha's battle with Hardeep. And the fact that they were united in death, with their cremations being conducted side-by-side, can be nothing but cold comfort for their mother.

The liquor baron, a former associate said, enjoyed being an enigma. "Staying away from the media was a deliberate strategy. He allowed fables to be built."

So, did Chadha actually suffer a disability in both hands due to an electric shock while flying kites? The answer is as elusive as the truth behind what transpired at the Chhattarpur farm on November 18, when both the brothers were slain.

However, Chadha's early years are not as much a closed book - probably because the commonfolk in Moradabad are still willing to talk about him and his father. Elderly residents recall how a small opium shop in the congested Ganj Bazaar of the old city acted as the foundation stone for the Chadha empire, which now extends even into real estate, sugar mills and film production.

But then, in the fifties, Chadha's father Kulwant Singh got the rights for running the government opium and bhang shop after shifting base from Ramnagar (now Uttarakhand). A good profit helped Singh venture into the liquor trade, and he set up his first liquor shop at Moradabad's Phool Mandi and then a second one at Tarikhana. "Ponty's grandfather, Gurbachan, his wife and sons worked hard to make a fortune for his family," said octogenarian Triloki Chand Khanna, who runs a utensil shop at Neem Ki Piau, where the Chadhas' opium shop was located. The family never looked back ever since, he added.

Well, they are doing it now, and questions are being raised over the fate of the liquor baron's vast empire. Yet another mystery in the life and death of Ponty Chadha.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.