Mangaluru/Bengaluru: Billionaire coffee tycoon V G Siddhartha, whose body was fished out of a river two days after he went missing, was Wednesday cremated at his estate in his home district of Chikmagalur after hundreds of people paid a tearful adieu to him.
Amid a sombre atmosphere, his son Amartya lit the funeral pyre after the last rites were performed according to the traditions of the Vokkaliga community from which he hailed, in the presence of a large number of people.
Poignant scenes were witnessed as Amartya broke down several times while performing the rituals. 87-year-old former Chief Minister S M Krishna, father-in-law of Siddhartha and his wife Prema too fought hard to control their emotions.
A police official said, “everything” points to suicide, but nothing can be ruled out until the investigation is over.
Siddhartha, whose chain of cafes helped make coffee a lifestyle beverage and brought in latte, cappuccino, Americano and espresso into the urban Indian lexicon, was 59. He is survived by his wife Malavika and two sons, Amartya and Ishaan.
Siddhartha’s body was found by local fishermen and patrolling policemen on the banks of Nethravathi river near Mangaluru on Wednesday, two days after he went missing. His body was identified by his friends, said Dakshina Kannada district Deputy Commissioner Sasikanth Senthil. The remains of Siddhartha was traced after 36 hours of an intensive search operation with a letter allegedly written by him to the Board of Directors and employees of his company Coffee Day Enterprises, showing he was struggling with financial problems due to debt, taxes and share buy backs.
The search involved multiple agencies, which scoured the waters under a bridge across Nethravathi, where Siddhartha, founder of India’s largest coffee chain Cafe Coffee Day, was reportedly last seen on Monday night, officials said.
After the post-mortem at Wenlock Hospital in Mangaluru, the body was taken to Siddhartha’s home district of Chikmagalur A large number of people from within the coffee estate and neighbouring villages, whom Siddhartha had helped come up in life, thronged to pay their homage to the ‘coffee king’.
Before Chethanahalli, the body was kept at Chikkamagalur for people to pay their last respects. Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, his predecessor H D Kumaraswamy and several political leaders attended the funeral.
Borrowing Rs 5 lakh from his father to pursue his dreams, Siddhartha, known for being shy and self-effacing, went on to become ‘coffee king,’ creating jobs for thousands of youth instead of joining the family business.
The family owned over 350 acres of coffee estate and had been in the business for over 140 years. A senior police official told PTI, “Investigation is going on. Prima facie every thing points out to that (suicide) only. But we still we can’t rule out anything. We will have to finish the investigation.”
“We have found the body….. I have no words to comfort the family,” Yediyurappa said in Bengaluru. “He had more assets than liabilities,” Yediyurappa added.
The authorities predicted the probable location where the body could be traced using a ‘model’ developed by Hyderabad based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), which makes predictions based on current, low and high tide among other parameters, he said.
A political war also broke out over Siddhartha’s allegation of harassment by the Income Tax Department, as the Congress accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of betraying the people who voted for an independent and hassle-free economy.
“There is an old notion of government has no business in business and Modi in his pre 2014 election campaign made a big deal about it. Today he has absolutely betrayed the people who voted for him to see a robust, independent, hassle free economy,” Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi said on Twitter.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said Siddhartha’s death reflected a “worrying trend”. “Ease of Doing Business” under BJP translates into “Ease of Ending Business”. The #VGSiddhartha tragedy reflects the worst of a broader, deeply worrying trend,” he tweeted.
Reacting to Siddhartha’s death, the Karnataka Congress said on Twitter, “Result of harassment by IT officials and decline of India’s entrepreneurial position turning virulent by the day, with Tax Terror & collapse of economy.” Former Karnataka Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Siddaramaiah said Siddhartha’s death is both “disturbing and mysterious.”
“The reasons and the invisible hands that ended his life in this tragic way should be unearthed through impartial & fair investigation,” Siddaramaiah said, referring to a letter purportedly written by Siddhartha, where he alleged harassment by the Income Tax department.
He said the letter supposed to have been written by Siddhartha discussed “tax terrorism”, which is the “ugly face of politically motivated institutions”. In his letter, allegedly written to the Board of Directors and employees of Coffee Day Enterprises, Siddhartha complained of “a lot of harassment” from the previous DG Income Tax.
The IT department refuted the charges and said it had acted according to the provisions of the Income Tax Act. Siddhartha went missing on Monday night near Ullal bridge on Nethravathi river.
The businessman left Bengaluru for Sakleshpur in Hassan district in an SUV on Monday afternoon. On the way, he asked his driver to go towards Mangaluru, police said. He got off the vehicle and told his driver to wait for him at the end of the bridge, saying he was going for a walk.
On Tuesday, a fisherman claimed he saw someone jumping off the bridge. The letter purportedly written by Siddhartha, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, also showed he was under “tremendous pressure” from lenders.
“I have failed as an entrepreneur,” he said in the alleged letter. Siddhartha said he had fought for a long time, but “today I gave up as I could not take any more pressure from one of the private equity partners forcing me to buy back shares, a transaction I had partially completed six months ago by borrowing a large sum of money from a friend.”
“Tremendous pressure from other lenders lead to me succumbing to the situation,” he said in the letter. According to reports, Siddartha had been in talks with Coca-Cola to sell the company for $1.45bn although it was not officially confirmed from either side. Coffee Day Enterprises on Wednesday named independent director S V Ranganath as the interim chairman of the company to replace Siddhartha.
The company board, wherein Siddhartha’s wife Malavika Hegde is also a director, met on Wednesday to put in place a working structure of the company. The board appointed “S V Ranganath as the interim chairman of the board” and “Nitin Bagmane as an interim chief operating officer (COO) of the company,” Coffee Day Enterprises, which runs India’s biggest coffee chain CCD, said in a regulatory filing.
It also constituted an executive committee comprising Ranganath, COO Nitin Bagmane and CFO R Ram Mohan “to exercise the powers previously vested with the Chief Executive Officer of the company and the Administrative Committee constituted by the Board in 2015.”