New Delhi:The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) seem to be aggressively pursuing the main accused in what is said to be the biggest bank fraud of its kind in India in the Punjab National Bank (PNB). The main accused in the scam are Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi. The amount involved in the fraud is estimated at around Rs 14,000 crore.
Nirav Modi and Choksi, allegedly the kingpin of the scam, were recently in the news. The ED announced on June 10 that 108 consignments of pearls, silver jewellery and polished diamonds worth Rs 1,350 crore belonging to the two had been brought back from the Hong Kong godown of Nirav Modi.
While this has been the most recent news regarding Indian investigation authorities tightening the noose around the finances of the two alleged fraudsters since the PNB registered its first complaint in February 2018, life has not particularly been easy for either Choksi or Nirav Modi.
The nephew-uncle duo is in the news every few months regarding Indian investigation authorities seizing their assets worth hundreds of crore or the attempts made to ensure their extradition from the United Kingdom and the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda, respectively.
The disgraced diamond merchant, Nirav, is currently lodged in Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth in London, one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. He is awaiting his second extradition hearing scheduled to begin on September 7. The first hearing took place from May 11 to May 14.
It was reported in March that Interpol had turned down Choksi’s plea to revoke the Red Notice against him. The CBI had told Interpol that it was necessary to not revoke the Red Notice in order to keep track of his movements.
However, the involvement of Neeshal Deepak Modi, a 36-year-old businessman who is the brother of Nirav Modi and is also married to the niece of Indian industrialist Mukesh Ambani, seems to have escaped the attention of many. Neeshal is currently believed to be in Belgium, a country whose citizenship he holds.
On February 13, 2018, the PNB had registered a case with the CBI against Nirav, his brother Neeshal and their uncle Choksi. The PNB fraud has resulted in a massive financial strain to what is currently India’s second largest public sector bank
Neeshal was a director of Belgium-based Firestar Diamond BVBA, a company founded by his and Nirav’s father in 2009, which has been accused by the ED of laundering money. In a charge-sheet filed in May 2018 under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 24 accused have been named by the ED, including Neeshal.
The firms named in the charge-sheet include Stellar Diamonds, Solar Exports and Diamonds R Us. A part of a statement issued by the ED reads: “These firms and (Nirav) Modi’s Firestar group of companies had fraudulently obtained Rs 6,498 crore through Letters of Undertaking (LoUs) issued by the Punjab National Bank, Brady House Branch in Mumbai.”
In December 2019, according to news reports, a special PMLA court had directed Neeshal and another accused in the scam, Subhash Parab, to appear before the court by January 15, regarding a plea filed by the CBI to declare them and Nirav as “fugitive economic offenders” under the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, 2018. However, it is not clear what happened after that.
On the same day, Nirav was the second individual, after absconding liquor baron Vijay Mallya, to have been declared as a “fugitive economic offender” under the new Act by the Special PMLA court.
It was reported in April that Neeshal had written to the ED 11 months earlier with a plea to cooperate in the case. He also claimed his innocence. Neeshal had shared a forensic audit by Werner Van Den Keybus - Van Der Jeught, a self-appointed independent Belgian auditing firm, which had reportedly given a clean chit to him and Firestar Diamond BBVA.
Absconding Neeshal Modi
On September 10, 2018, it was reported that the CBI had sent an extradition request to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for bringing Neeshal back from Belgium. The MHA confirmed in a Right to Information (RTI) response that it had forwarded CBI’s request to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The MEA also confirmed that it had forwarded the extradition request for Neeshal in October 2018.
However, the MEA refused to disclose copies of correspondence that the Indian government may have had with the Belgian authorities regarding the matter under Article 8(1) (f) of the RTI Act. This Section of the Act deals with “confidential” information received by a foreign government.
The Banking Securities Fraud Zone of the CBI refused to answer questions related to the current status of the case against Neeshal, pursued by the investigation authorities and regarding his current whereabouts. It refused the information under Section 24 and Section 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act. Section 24 of the act allows the CBI and other intelligence and security organisations not to disclose information, unless the information requested for pertains to allegations of corruption or human rights violations. Section 8(1)(h) allows government authorities to prevent disclosure of information if it impedes the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders.
It is interesting to note that information requested from the CBI pertained to two individuals allegedly involved in a bank fraud estimated to be around Rs 14,000 crore. While the CBI used Section 8(1)(h) to deny information to this writer, it is not clear how questions related to the current whereabouts of Neeshal or the current status of the case could impede investigations or apprehension or prosecution of offenders.
The Hindu had reported in October 2019 that the Red Notices which had been issued by Interpol against Neeshal and Nehal Modi, another accused in the PNB scam, had vanished from its website.
In May, the profile of Nehal was back on the Interpol website and is still there. However, Neeshal’s name is still not available on the Interpol website for public viewing.
The name of Neeshal continues to be absent from both the Interpol as well as the CBI website. India Today reported in October 2019 that its sources in the CBI had clarified to the media group that the Red Notices of neither Neeshal nor Nehal had been withdrawn; Interpol was going through a verification process after both Neeshal and Nehal had filed a plea to remove their profile from the list and that the notice would only be visible to police agencies of member countries till then. There are currently around 62,000 Red Notices and only around 7,000 of them are available to the public.
While Nehal’s Red Notice is back for public viewing on the website, Neeshal Modi’s notice isn’t yet. It is possible that Interpol is looking into the merits of a plea put forward by Neeshal, asking for removal of his name from the Red Notice list and that his name is still there, but not available for public viewing, as India Today claims.
Who Is Neeshal Modi?
Neeshal Modi, the brother of Nirav Modi, married Isheta Salgaocar, the niece of Mukesh and Anil Ambani in December 2016.Isheta is the daughter of Dipti Salgaocar, the sister of Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Dipti is married to Dattaraj Salgaocar, one of the three sons of VS Salgaocar, the founder of the VS Salgaocar group. The Salgaocars are one of the top business families in Goa with interests in mining, hospitality, real estate and healthcare.
The Economic Times had reported in December 2016 that the wedding celebrations of Neeshal and Isheta had taken place in the Goa home of the Salgaocars, and at the JW Marriott and Grand Hyatt Hotels at Panaji and Bambolim.
In November 2016, Mukesh Ambani had hosted a star-studded pre-wedding bash for the couple at his Mumbai residence. Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone were among those who attended the party.
On July 29, 2019, the Tao Art Gallery in Mumbai hosted an exhibition with works of around 80 sculptors and painters to celebrate International Tiger Day. The Economic Times had reported that photographs clicked by Isheta and her father ‘Raj’ Salgaocar were on display.
As a show of support to Isheta, the event was attended by family members of Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Nita, wife of Mukesh Ambani, Tina, Anil Ambani’s wife, along with Mukesh and Anil’s mother Kokilaben Ambani and Mukesh Ambani’s daughter-in-law Shloka Mehta were present at the event.
Neeshal is evidently a young man whose family has, or at least had until recently, close links with Mukesh Ambani and his younger brother Anil, whose company has been accused by many in the Indian political Opposition, of getting undue favours from the Narendra Modi-led government in securing the contract to partner the French aviation company Dassault to assemble and manufacture Rafale fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Anil Ambani’s business conglomerate is said to be bankrupt at present.
The pertinent question to ask is: Why is the CBI refusing to divulge information regarding the status of investigation regarding Neeshal Modi in a bank fraud involving around Rs 14,000 crore worth of public money. The public surely has the right to know about the government’s actions against this well-connected individual.
The writer is an independent journalist.