By Rajesh Ahuja
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
In his first interview since being accused, along with his nephew Nirav Modi, in the Rs 13,500 crore Punjab National Bank fraud, diamond jeweller Mehul Choksi talks to Hindustan Times about his business, the charges, the probe, the extradition process, and life in Antigua. The interview – partly a phone conversation and partly written responses – was facilitated by his legal team. Edited excerpts:
It is being alleged that your operations were always dubious even prior to the PNB fraud came to light?
My companies were having more than 4,000 outlets or franchised outlets across India. There might be some commercial disputes of civil nature with my companies considering the size of operations but there were no criminal charges against me. I and my companies always had good image and excellent brand value.
I have won more than 150 national and international awards. There have not been any allegations of criminal nature against me in the last 50 years that I have been in business.
I was given the President’s Award amongst various other awards for my services for employing large number of physically challenged people in my companies.
My company was adjudged as the 40th largest luxury company the world over for two successive years in 2015-16 and 2016-17 in the survey conducted by Deolite. I also won Asia Pacific Entrepreneur Award and I was selected as one of the five most important influencer by JCK Magazine, USA, consistently for two years and I was the final contender in Earnest & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Why did you run away from India?
I was already aboard receiving cardiac treatment and was hospitalized when the news of the PNB case broke and the FIR got registered against me. There isn’t any iota of truth in this running away allegation. I had created number of brands and invested huge amount of money in India and created thousands of jobs. I have huge immovable properties in India so why would a person invest so much if he intends to run away.
Why don’t you come back if you are not a fugitive?
My passport stands revoked for the reason of being a ‘security threat to India’. When I wrote to passport authorities seeking suspension of revocation, I didn’t receive reply. I was not given any explanation.
Besides I was restrained from travelling due to my medical condition. I was later told by doctors that I had several blocked arteries. While travelling abroad, I began to feel breathlessness and soon became ill. On the insistence of my family members, I decided to see foreign doctors to evaluate my medical condition. I went through a cardiac procedure and was advised bed rest. I was specifically advised not to travel due to which I was constrained from travelling and now I need continues monitoring and medical supervision. I have an apprehension that I may be denied proper and necessary medical treatment once I am arrested on my return to India.
Also, the manner in which the events unfolded in the last six months makes it clear that my life would be in danger in India. There have been various reported cases of mob lynching, and in one of the cases an accused was lynched while being inside a jail.
There are people who have grievances and anger against me — the employees whose salaries and dues have not been paid because of freezing of the accounts, the families of detained employees who have been arrested without any rhyme or reason, the landlords whose premises the companies had taken on rent who have not been paid their dues, the customers whose jewellery in showroom have been taken away by the Enforcement Directorate, and the creditors of supplies and services who have not been paid their dues.
I may also face danger from hardened criminals inside jail. There is also high risk of extortion by jail staff and the other inmates. My assets have been seized making me monetarily handicapped. In absence of monetary resources, how am I expected to defend myself? How will I afford a lawyer? Does the government expect that I should defend myself by my own in the court?
The server of my company with all the data and communication has been seized too. How will I retrieve documents to defend myself?
If you think you have not done anything wrong, why have CBI and ED filed cases against you?
Ever since I have arrived in Antigua about two months back, pressure is being mounted upon me and I am being considered as a soft or easy target because the Indian government is finding it difficult it impossible to extradite other wanted persons from other countries such as the UK. I have full respect for the rule of law and I am also confident that the government of Antigua will protect its citizen in accordance with the law.
In India, elections are approaching and I am a victim of political persecution. There were complacencies in the bank operations, systems, procedures guidelines etc as many bank officials have been charged for not doing their job according to the banking norms and policies. The bank is squarely liable for the lapses however I have been made a scapegoat.
Are you saying you have not committed any fraud?
I do not know the exact financial details because there were officers in my company who dealt with such matters. I know that we have a more than a two-decade-old relationship with PNB.
Are still interested in settling the dues with PNB?
My brand value has come to zero. Everything I have has been seized. They can sell off my assets and pay whoever has to be paid. They should take it from ED, I am in no position to return any money.
Why did you take Antigiuan citizenship?
I wanted to expand my business and that is why I took Antiguan citizenship. Besides the treatment meted out to other accused (in the case against him) like denial permission to meet lawyer and illegal arrests by the CBI made me lose faith in the Indian legal system. There was a huge public outcry without any rhyme or reason and umpteen number of investigating agencies were after me and everything was taking place briskly without there being any fault on my part. My case was being discussed in panel discussions on prime time TV and in one of the shows suggestions were made to set secret agencies after me to hunt me down and kill me. Because of the above human right violation, nothing was left for me in India and I had to renounce the citizenship (of India) and now I am an Antiguan citizen
Are you hopeful that Antigua will not extradite you, even though a law exists that permits extradition between Commonwealth countries?
I have filed a petition in Antigua court challenging the vires of section 9(4)of the Antigua Extradition Act, 1993. This section authorises the minister of external affairs to forward the request of any Commonwealth country for extradition to court, which may result even in provisional arrest. However, I have challenged this power itself granted by law to the External Affairs Minister. The challenge is on the ground that the said power is arbitrary and does not give the person sought to be extradited right to be heard and that it affects my rights as Antiguan citizen as it does not have requirement to record reasons and there have been no rules enacted so far despite 25 years of existence of this provision. The challenge is also on the grounds that this act is straightaway lifted from UK extradition act 1989 which went under change by reviews report in 2001 and a new act in UK came into the being in 2003 and Antigua act is old and needs to be updated. Antiguan laws follow English common law principles where in citizen human rights are treated at very high pedestal. I am thus would be seeking same protection as sought by Vijay Mallya.
How is life in Antigua?
Contrary to the popular belief, I am not living a luxury life in Antigua and I am being hounded by media persons of Antigua and India as they know that I am in Antigua now. I feel extremely sad that serving my country (India) to the best of the ability and after being a patriot and I am compelled to live such a life in such old age when I need constant medical attention.
Let me also tell you that before the registration of FIR in my case, there was an internal audit conducted by the PNB wherein all the bank officials were named and lapses were pointed out at the branch and zonal office level, however agencies have only selectively prosecuted persons.
Persons were discretionally named as accused in some cases and were made witness in some cases. All senior level persons from my company and PNB were made accused. However, my companies too were also made accused but not PNB. There is utter discrimination in this regard by the agencies.
My case has become a media trial and everything is being looked into with extreme prejudice.
The investigating agencies will force me to give self-incriminating statement not only against me but also against my family members. Dangers of being persecuted hence are looming large and the media interference and the politicization of the case is a great cause for the same.
By Rajesh Ahuja