Prominent Indian in Bangkok may be deported for taking sides

Indian businessman Satish Sehgal with a ''We Love the King'' strap he gives out to people at rallies on the streets. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Indian businessman Satish Sehgal with a ''We Love the King'' strap he gives out to people at rallies on the streets. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Mr Satish Sehgal appears to need security nowadays; four men lurk near the gates of his condo off busy Silom road.

They are from the People's Democratic Committee (PDRC), the group trying to force prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the entire government out of office in a bid to “eradicate the Thaksin regime” from Thailand.

Mr Sehgal is the subject of a deportation effort by the government - because he is a foreigner, and has actively and openly supported the PDRC. The case is being seen as a bellwether, closely watched for its implications for foreigners taking sides in Thailand’s bitterly divisive conflict, where there is little or no middle ground left.

But announcing the move to deport Mr Sehgal may have backfired on the government. Mr Sehgal may not be quite the “tycoon” some reports have described him as, but he is influential – and in the emotionally charged atmosphere of Thailand’s ongoing political fight, the effort to deport him has handed the PDRC a hero, regardless of the facts and merits of the case.

A child of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent – a violent upheaval that saw many losing all they owned and fleeing India and newly created Pakistan in search of better prospects, the now silver-haired 71-year-old has lived in Thailand since he was around 12, and once worked for the Bangkok Post. He is now “semi-retired,” he says. His range of medium-sized businesses including publishing.

He was the first Asian and first non-Thai Asian, he proudly says, to sit on the Committee of the Royal Bangkok Sports Cub (RSBC) - a place coveted in Bangkok's rarified “hi-so” or high society circles. He has been an advisor to every Thai government since 1992, on Thai-Indian business relations, and proudly identifies himself as Thai.

He says he has long been devoted to Thailand’s monarchy. Family sources say he has a penchant for monarchies; he received a title – Dato’- from the late Sultan of Johor when the latter was king of Malaysia. His modest apartment is strewn with awards, and pictures of him with members of Thailand’s royal family. He has been active in raising charitable contributions for the Thai monarchy’s development and welfare projects.

But, he still has an Indian passport. Asked why he never changed that, he skirted the question, saying only that it had been a matter of convenience because he was on the RSBC committee on its foreign quota.

Mr Sehgal has spoken from PDRC stages, and on at least one occasion sat behind PDRC leader Mr Suthep Thaugsuban at a press conference, openly aligning himself with the movement.

He insists that he has no political agenda, never advocated violence and only ever spoke to emphasise the good works of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“I have two agendas: I have advocated the importance of the monarchy in Thai society; and I love this country. And nobody has done more than me, for Thai-Indian trade relations,” he said.

But on some prodding, he launched into a tirade against the government.

“This is autocracy, it’s one man rule. You have a convict running this country from overseas. Have you seen a Thai election? Do you know that votes are bought? There is rampant vote buying. There is vote rigging. Elections.. upcountry are all doctored.”

Speaking slowly and with utter conviction, he added: “Thaksin (Shinawatra, the premier’s billionaire brother) wants to be President of Thailand - and that day will never come.” The implication - as many conservative royalists are convinced - is that Mr Thaksin wants to supplant the monarchy.

He claimed that in response to a warning conveyed to him, he had backed off from his involvement with the PDRC before the state of emergency was declared in Bangkok on Jan 23. He says the government knew this but targeted him anyway in an attempt to make him a scapegoat.

He admits there is no getting around the fact that at the end of the day he has an Indian passport. Neither India nor Thailand allows dual nationality. But also, at the end of the day, he says, “I am not a criminal.”

Mr Sehgal says he will fight deportation - “I have complete faith in Thai courts” - if there is no due process. News of his possible deportation has turned him into a media star; reporters and TV crews are queuing up and his mobile phone never ceases to buzz with supportive calls and messages mostly from the business community – and at the highest levels and beyond Thailand as well. Vir Sanghvi, a prominent media personality in New Delhi – called during the interview at Mr Sehgal's apartment to offer support.

As for the Indian government, officials on condition of anonymity made a point of saying Mr Sehgal was acting in his own individual capacity and did not reflect the views of the Indian community. Sources in Bangkok’s substantial Thai-Indian community have reported some consternation at the move to deport him, fearing that others who support the PDRC may also be targeted. There is no doubt the case has sent a signal.

Last month Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation reportedly said it had found that five leaders of the PDRC were foreigners. Names were not revealed, and it is not known whether the DSI was referring to the committee of 30-odd people that is the PDRC, or to those who speak from the protest stages. Mr Sehgal appears to be the first to be targeted.

Undeterred, Mr Sehgal was on the PDRC stage again on Thursday night.