‘Tell them the money is for poverty, unemployment', Rajaram Rege told Headley while demanding millions to be paid into tax-dodge trust
Late in the summer of 1998, as Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadist David Coleman Headley desperately searched for a means to assassinate Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and hit a brick wall, he ran into a small-time party apparatchik with big dreams — and an even bigger appetite for cash.
Rajaram Rege's relentless pursuit of money, and Headley's unremitting search for a means to kill — laid bare in documents filed by prosecutors in the Chicago court where 26/11 suspect Tahawwur Rana is being tried — have provided jurors with some low farce in the midst of an otherwise grim proceedings.
But it provides riveting insights into the grim world of political operators and fixers who feed off the Shiv Sena's clout.
In a meeting with the Lashkar's supreme leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Headley had been told the Hindutva group needed to be “taught a lesson.” He sought, therefore, to conduct reconnaissance inside the Shiv Sena's heavily guarded central office in Mumbai's crowded Dadar area.
Vilas Varkey, a physical fitness instructor Headley met at a local gym, provided an introduction to Mr. Rege, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as an information technology officer with an Indian electronics firm.
Mr. Rege was introduced to Headley as a public relations officer for Mr. Thackeray's son. The Shiv Sena and Mr. Rege both deny he held that post, but admit he is linked to the party.
“Headley told me he wanted to see Sena Bhavan. I told him it was not a tourist spot and asked him to go away,” Mr. Rege says.
That wasn't quite the whole truth. Following their encounter at Mumbai's Shiv Sena central office on May 18, 2008, documents filed by prosecutors in the ongoing trial of Chicago-based Rana show that Mr. Rege sent Headley what might be called a business plan.
His pitch was crude — and not just in its grasp of spelling and grammar.
“I am politically and socially very well connected here in Bombay (mumbai), gujarat and delhi [sic., throughout],” he wrote. “Projects worth 10,000 crores sanctioned by govt are with me. are you getting my point????”
Mr. Rege's mail sent a frisson of excitement through the ISI and the Lashkar. “How should I respond,” Headley asked in a May 19, 2008, e-mail to his ISI handler.
The man Headley knew as ‘Major Iqbal' wrote back the next day. “I red [sic] your mail and gave a cool thought to all this,” he wrote. ‘Major Iqbal' counselled Headley to “engage raja by helping him getting seminars and confesses [sic., conferences] in usa.”
The following Friday, on May 23, 2008, Headley wrote back to Mr. Rege. He promised to set up a meeting with his bosses in the United States to discuss the Sena workers' business proposals — and also his pleas for a suitable job abroad.
Headley's mail also makes it clear that the two men had discussed the prospect of a western lecture tour where Mr. Rege could raise funds for the party. He wrote: “If it is possible, you should have some big name personality from your party to accompany you to America for maximum results. Would you be able to do that? This would guarantee all fund-raising activities to be a big success.”
In his statements to Indian and U.S. investigators, Headley has said he was in fact considering the prospect of assassinating Mr. Thackeray on the tour. The plan was doomed to fail: Mumbai's would-be Führer has a deep fear of flying — a fear that has led him to never leave the city, let alone venture abroad.
But Mr. Rege replied the same day, returning, with obsessive focus, to his main theme: “How to get both of us financially benefitted.”
In India, he wrote, “there are many huge projects of constructions, dams, roads, flyovers, bridges, cannals, power, agriculture etc. these projects I have from govt. sector as well as private sector.” For a share of the pie, he explained, “we have to give under table money and manupulate the tendor.”
Mr. Rege wanted his consultancy fees, which “renges from a few hundred lacs to few hundred crores of indian rupees,” and an additional “minimum if 10 lac US$ of donations,” paid into a trust he ran in Mumbai, which “gives me saving Income Tax.”
If there were questions, he said, without the least trace of irony, “You can simply tell them you are generating funds for well fare of mumbai people for poverty, unemployment, education, medical etc.”
Mr. Rege denies his e-mail exchange with Headley was unethical. “By talking of political connections and the signing of the MoU, I was only trying to gauge his capacity to pay and undertake projects. To test how genuine this person is.”
Police sources in Mumbai told The Hindu they were unaware of any trust run by Mr. Rege, and that he was not being investigated for potential wrong-doing.