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Arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari booked under Secrets Act. A peek into his murky world

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:45 IST

Controversial arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari, a Lutyens wheeler-dealer who runs Offset India Solutions, has been booked by the Delhi Police under the stringent Official Secrets Act.

The police has invoked Sections 3 and 5 of the OSA against him. The FIR was based on a complaint reportedly filed by defence ministry official Col Puneet Ahuja after classified documents related to big-ticket procurements were found in his possession by the Income Tax department during a raid. Bhandari is also being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate.

Among the papers found by the IT sleuths were minutes of meetings on procurements chaired by former defence minister AK Antony, and some related to the purchase of six mid-air refuelling aircraft for the Indian Air Force.

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The home ministry had earlier asked the defence ministry to ascertain if the documents found in Bhandari's possession violated the OSA. Bhandari's aide, and a director in several companies linked to the arms dealer, Ashok Shankar also figures in the FIR. His house in Delhi was among the properties raided by the IT officials.

Since Bhandari, the son of renowned homeopath Rajinder Bhandari, first hit the headlines in May this year, speculation has been rife that he played a key role in some of the biggest defence deals of recent years.

Bhandari is no ordinary arms dealer. If his call records are to be believed, he is connected to the high and mighty of India's political establishment cutting across party lines, from Robert Vadra to Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathy Raju. The investigators had found that he also had extensive contacts with journalists and representatives of defense companies like Thales and Airbus, among others.

According to a French website, Bhandari started out in the defence sector in the late 1990s. The website, which describes him as being close to the Gandhi family, said he worked on the 1997 Sukhoi deal. Before venturing into the murky world of arms dealing, Bhandari was embroiled in a case of forgery in 1994 - the deputy general manager of the Vijaya Bank complained Bhandari and others had defrauded the bank to the tune of about Rs 47 lakh between 1987 and 1990.

The ED is also investigating whether Bhandari helped Vadra acquire a posh mansion in London. Bhandari's firm has a European subsidiary called Offset Europe, headquartered in Piccadilly, London. In June, Bhandari was stopped from boarding a British Airways flight to UK after an alert to the immigration authorities against him. Both Vadra and Raju have denied links with the arms dealer.

IT sleuths had raided 18 premises linked to Bhandari after intelligence agencies flagged his "phenomenal rise" in the last seven years. Bhandari founded Offset only in 2008 after the 2006 Defence Procurement Policy mandated a 35% component in every defence deal.

Also Read: Was Vadra real owner of arms dealer Bhandari's London mansion?

The intelligence agencies had reportedly found that Bhandari's company was engaged by the Swiss defence manufacturer Pilatus to help land the Rs 4,000 crore trainer aircraft deal. For his services, Bhandari is said to have received Rs 69.38 crore from 35 shell companies between 2009 and 2014. His firm also received a million Swiss francs from Pilatus Flugzeugwerke AG-SPA two years after it landed the Rs 4,000 crore deal for 75 trainer aircraft. The BJP government has indicated it may probe the deal.

The classified documents at the heart of the probe, however, pertain to a refuelling aircraft deal. Airbus had won a tender to supply six A330 MRTT aircraft to India during the UPA 2 rule. The tender though was scrapped by the Narendra Modi government due to cost concerns, according to Aviation Week.

This deal aside,Airbus is also facing a CBI case and a BJP MP has reportedly raised a red flag over the fuel tanker deal with the company.

While the government is considering Russian Ilyushin-78 as the replacement for the A330 MRTT, Boeing has also offered its KC-46 Pegasus, according to latest reports.

The Delhi Police probe into Bhandari, it appears, is set to open the Pandora's Box of shady defence deals.

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First published: 17 October 2016, 11:25 IST