Paytm case: A blackmailer without a motive?

From humble personal secretary to company vice president to alleged criminal, it’s been a roller-coaster of a ride for Paytm’s communications chief Sonia Dhawan, currently in jail. Vijaita Singh and Yuthika Bhargava piece together the elements of what seems to have all the makings of an intriguing crime drama

November 05, 2018 01:37 am | Updated 09:12 am IST

Sonia Dhawan

Sonia Dhawan

S croll through Sonia Dhawan’s Facebook or Twitter profile, and it would be hard to find a post which is not related to her employer. Many people who know her or have worked with her described her as a loyal and committed employee.

A star performer at digital payments firm Paytm, Ms. Dhawan’s meteoric rise was often discussed in professional circles. But now such discussions have acquired a different hue. Ms. Dhawan, her husband Rupak Jain, and office assistant Devender Kumar were arrested last month for allegedly blackmailing company CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma.

Those who have followed the Paytm growth story found it hard to believe that Ms. Dhawan, who was only this year promoted as a vice-president, could commit such a crime.

Paytm, owned by One97 Communications, became a household name post demonetisation in November 2016. The company is currently valued at over USD 10 billion, and counts the likes of Warren Buffet, SoftBank, Ant Financial and Alibaba among its key investors.

Eye on a property

Noida Police said Ms. Dhawan allegedly masterminded the entire plot and wanted to extort ₹20 crore from Mr. Sharma to buy a property she had eyed for long.

Ms. Dhawan had an annual salary package of ₹70 lakh and held equity shares worth ₹10 crore in One97 Communication, the parent company of Paytm.

She was at her office desk in the plush Paytm office at Noida when she was picked by the police on October 22. Her husband was arrested the same day from the couple’s rented home in Noida’s Sector-20 while he was in the shower. They have a son.

Sonia Dhawan's husband Rupak Jain

Sonia Dhawan's husband Rupak Jain


When asked if the desire to buy a property was the only motive to blackmail her boss, Noida Senior Superintendent of Police Ajay Pal said, “We are still investigating the case. This is one of the reasons cited by the complainant. We are verifying it.”

The police said they were also working on a hawala angle. There is suspicion that Ms. Dhawan had access to information about some hawala dealings in the company. “The hawala angle cannot be ruled out. We are probing it,” said Mr. Pal

Her lawyer Prashant Tripathi said Ms. Dhawan’s phenomenal growth from “lower management level to being a vice-president” and the “clout” she enjoyed were the factors that got her into this mess.

She had joined Paytm at a junior management levelabout 10 years ago. Over the years, she worked hard, and rose to become a vice-president. The kind of career growth she has achieved is phenomenal, Mr. Tripathi claimed.

Calls on WhatsApp

“There has been some kind of internal pressure on her to sell the employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) that she had. There were informal communications made to her that she should handover, sell off, and stuff like that,” Mr. Tripathi said.

The police said that Mr. Sharma got extortion calls on WhatsApp. The CEO is known to carry multiple mobile handsets, as he likes to conduct random checks on Paytm’s efficiency on different devices. The first such call came on September 20.

“It was a WhatsApp call. The caller told Mr. Sharma that he knew his email id and also its password. He called back again and told him his ATM card number and its password to Mr. Shekhar,” Mr. Pal said.

The police said that the calls were masked so that they seemed to be originating from Philippines or Thailand.

“When the complainant became convinced that the caller had access to private information, he decided to pay up. He was provided an account number by the caller. Mr. Sharma deposited ₹67 in the Kolkata-based account to check if it was genuine. Subsequently, he transferred another ₹2 lakh,” Mr. Pal said.

Even after he paid the amount, the calls did not stop. The demand was escalated to ₹30 crore, and following some negotiation, it came down to ₹20 crore. After playing along with the extortionists for a month, Mr. Sharma decided to give a verbal complaint to the police in October.

The police began investigations and found that Ms. Dhawan was the only one in office who had access to such personal and confidential information about Mr. Sharma.

A source said that after Mr. Sharma started getting extortion calls, he took Ms. Dhawan into confidence. Interestingly, Ms. Dhawan was part of the internal team to look into the matter and try to track the blackmailer.

On the basis of Mr. Sharma’s apprehension that she had once expressed a desire to buy a property and could have been in need of money, the police tracked Ms. Dhawan’s movements.

Mr. Pal said they have not been able to identify the property she wanted to purchase.

It was also during investigations that Devender, the office assistant, was linked to the caller, one ‘Mr. Chomal’ in Kolkata, through a common friend, a woman who works at a massage parlour in Kolkata. She knew Devender and introduced him to Mr. Chomal. The police said Ms. Dhawan had roped in Devender to commit the crime, and he in turn approached Mr. Chomal to make the calls. The money was also deposited in his account.

The online transfer of the money to the alleged extortionist’s bank account also raised suspicion about the motive. Mr. Pal described it as a “mistake” committed by the accused, enabling them to crack the case.

“There are many organised gangs that ask people to deposit money in bank accounts, there is nothing new about it. This step of the accused only helped us,” Mr. Pal said. The police said that they have conducted raids in Kolkata but have not been able to arrest Mr. Chomal yet.

Pressure to sell ESOPs

Ms. Dhawan, who is in her early 30s, has a post-graduate diploma in Human Resource Management from IMT Ghaziabad and is an MBA from Sunstone Business School, as per her LinkedIn profile.

She joined Paytm in 2010 as its founder’s personal secretary. Before this, she had worked at three places, including as business operations manager at Times Internet and Corporate Officer at Cairn India.

Office assistant Devender Kumar

Office assistant Devender Kumar


At the time of her arrest, Ms. Dhawan held the post of vice-president at One97 Communications. She was in charge of the media strategy for all company products, including Paytm mobile wallet, Paytm Mall and Paytm Payments Bank. She got promoted as the vice-president this year.

In her position, she worked closely with the media as well the company’s management. Most news related to Paytm, including marketing plans, proposed investments and partnerships, was disseminated through her.

Mr. Tripathi added that she was not willing to part with her earned benefits and ESOPs as Paytm growing at a phenomenal rate, and she was expecting the value of her holdings also to grow manifold in the near future. “And that is the main bone of contention... this has probably led to some kind of strategy to get her out of the organisation,” he said.

Besides the “substantial” amount of ESOPs, worth a couple of crores, already with her, Ms. Dhawan was to get another 3,000-4,000 ESOPs for this financial year.

“And if you see the valuation of these ESOPs, they would add up to several crores. Given that she is already financially so well-off, the motive has not been established even today.”

He also pointed out that the hard disk with confidential information had been in her possession for a long time. “All that information claimed to be with her was always there and it was there with the knowledge of the owners and the promoters,” he said.

The police said they have sent the hard disk recovered from Devender for forensic analysis. On being asked what private information the disk contained, Mr. Pal said, “That can only be ascertained after getting the forensic report but it had the marketing and expansion plans of the company.”

Mr. Jain, a property consultant, had also approached the police in September claiming he received an extortion call. “He approached the police but there was no merit in his complaint. He only received the call once and we suspect it was just an alibi for his crime,” a police official said.

Despite repeated attempts, Ms. Dhawan’s family could not be contacted. She is currently in jail. Mr. Tripathi said he was awaiting word from his client so that he could move a bail application in the court.

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