Paytm founder had accused her of nearly bringing down firm, but Sonia Dhawan is back as V-P

Amil Bhatnagar
Sonia Dhawan in court last October. (Express photo)

Early this month, the parent company of Paytm welcomed back Sonia Dhawan, a former employee of the digital payment firm, who played an instrumental role in building the brands since inception . But barely a year ago, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma had told police that she had allegedly stolen data that could have destroyed the company.

This is just one of the key details in the chargesheet filed against Dhawan, who was in custody for four months, in the Rs 10-crore extortion case that took the corporate world by surprise last year. The chargesheet details serious allegations levelled by Sharma against Dhawan and others from the first alleged extortion call to Sharma s brother over WhatsApp at 4 pm on September 20, 2018.

Currently, charges in the case are being framed at the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court in Surajpur. But Dhawan is back with the group as vice-president (corporate communications). When she was first named in an FIR filed by Sharma s brother Ajay on October 22 last year, she was working as vice-president (communications) with Paytm.

On September 6, 2019, Gamepind Entertainment, a joint-venture between AGTech Holdings, an Alibaba Group company, and One97 Communications, Paytm s parent company, announced Dhawan s return with this line: She comes with over a decade of experience in leadership roles across marketing, PR and corporate communications and has played an instrumental role in building the brands since inception.

This is in contrast to Sharma s allegations last year, when he told police that data allegedly stolen by Dhawan and others could have been used by an enemy to blackmail us and set up a company similar to Paytm . This was Sonia Dhawan s ambition. Because… she had access to the company s internal workings and customer base, she wanted to use this to start a similar company, the chargesheet quotes him as saying.

Had it gone public, the company that we built could have been destroyed and we would have had to face financial and social repercussions, he told police.

Paytm and Dhawan refused to comment on the chargesheet and her rehiring.

Police records show that Dhawan, her husband Rupak Jain and another Paytm employee, Devendra Kumar, were arrested for allegedly trying to extort Rs 10 crore from Sharma in exchange for stolen company and personal data. She was sent to police custody on October 23 last year, and released on bail on March 5.

While being presented in court for custody appeal at the time of arrest, she had said that there is more to this than what meets the eye . A fourth accused, Rohit Chomwal, who allegedly got in touch with Sharma and his brother Ajay, remains absconding.

I felt betrayed

In his statement to police, Sharma had said: Sonia and I sat on the second floor… She would keep coming to me for work. In my absence, she would take international calls that came on my phone. She would also note down trade-related, confidential and important information… and store it in my computer.

He told police that she was promoted to V-P in April 2018, based on her dedication and hard work . Her annual package was increased to Rs 70 lakh…, he said.

Recalling the first extortion call received by his brother, Sharma told police: A WhatsApp call was received on my brother s phone from some Rohit Chomwal. I also got a call from the same number around 11 am. He told my brother that he had data from my company as well as my personal data. He threatened us and demanded Rs 10 crore not to make the data public. He said this data could be used to harm our company and my personal and public life. He told police that Ajay made a payment of Rs 67, apparently as a test, and then Rs 2 lakh following the threat.

Paytm and Dhawan refused to comment on the chargesheet and her rehiring. (Representational Image)

In one screenshot of a purported WhatsApp conversation, Chomwal tells Sharma on September 22: If we do not come to terms, I have other options.

On September 24, he says: Ajay is unnecessarily wasting our time. We don t think he wants to settle the issue. We will wait till Thursday. After that, some other person will handle. This won t be good for you. We will send you a clip for your satisfaction.

On October 11, he wrote: I don t think this is going in the right way. He (Ajay) only transferred Rs 67… is this a joke… The amount is non-negotiable… If nothing concrete comes to me, I will have no option…

In another series of messages, Ajay tells Chomwal: Call and close this. Talk about money. Maal kahin nahi jaana chahiye (The stuff should not go anywhere else). You are asking for too much. Negotiate a little. I will give you token money. This was after Chomwal told Sharma in a chat that once the deal is done, it won t surface up .

In his statement to police, Sharma said: Chomwal told me that Sonia, her husband and Kumar were part of the conspiracy. Since she was my personal secretary, she stole the data from my computer and mobile phone with the help of her husband and Kumar to misuse it.

Asked if he saw Dhawan and Kumar interacting in office, Vijay said: Yes, he would only meet Sonia in the entire hall. They would talk very quietly, and in gestures (ishaare). I had seen this. When asked about this, she would smile and say that Kumar had come for official work, and wouldn t arouse any suspicion.

He told police he first found out about the involvement of Dhawan, her husband and Kumar on October 15, 2018 during a WhatsApp conversation with Chomwal. He also told police that Chomwal showed him conversations he was having with the other accused on a WhatsApp group. I felt betrayed and wondered why they had done this to me, Sharma said.

Real estate link

According to the chargesheet, a slump in her husband s real estate business drove Dhawan to allegedly steal the data. My husband Rupak Jain s real estate business was in a bad shape because of a financial slump. Since I was an old employee of Paytm, I had access to confidential company data and WhatsApp. Hence, (accused) Devendra Kumar and I told my husband about this (access to data). We included Devendra s friend Rohit Chomwal in the conspiracy to steal confidential data so that we could get rich, the chargesheet quotes Sonia as telling police.

For two years, we stole and collected data on a hard disk and told Chomwal about it. With the intention of extorting Rs 10 crore from Vijay, we contacted him on WhatsApp and his mobile phone. Of this amount, he transferred Rs 2 lakh into an ICICI bank account. I have made a mistake, please forgive me, the chargesheet quotes her as saying.