No One Wants This Scandal

A meat trader wields his cleaver over the CBI, and other tales

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

It is estimated that around $500 billion of illegal money belonging to Indians is deposited in tax havens abroad. The largest depositors in Swiss banks are also reported to be Indians,” AP Singh, the then Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief, told a gathering at the maiden Interpol global programme on anti-corruption and asset recovery in 2012. It was perhaps the first instance of a top official furnishing an estimate of Indians’ ill-gotten wealth parked in off-shore bank accounts.

In a surprising turn of events, two years later, Singh is being probed for his links with Moin Akhtar Qureshi, a shady meat exporter. After BBM exchanges between Singh and Qureshi were leaked to the media, there is an allegation that Singh, now a member of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), is in cahoots with the hawala operator who is being investigated for money-laundering and tax evasion.

The Income Tax Department has asked Singh to furnish details of his income and properties. The ongoing investigation has not just unnerved Singh but other CBI officials too. “There are a number of top CBI officials who could come under the arc of the probe,” says a source. “You look at the way the CBI is going about investigating cases in the past two years and you will figure out for yourself why they are worried and how deep is Qureshi’s influence in the system,” another official says.

Even the current CBI chief, Ranjit Sinha, is deeply worried about the agency’s reputation since the case came out, according to an investigator with the Finance Ministry. In May, Sinha shot off a letter to the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) Chairman, seeking details of the investigation that the agency was pursuing against Qureshi. In his letter, the CBI chief asked the CBDT to provide him with any evidence that the IT Department may have amassed during the course of its probe against any present or former CBI officials so that proper action could be taken. The letter was leaked to the media.

Unlike the usual procedure in such sensitive cases, Sinha also gave out a statement in which he said a ‘witch hunt’ against the CBI was afoot. He also expressed anguish over the matter being selectively leaked to the media.

Sinha’s request for information on the contents of the investigation was turned down by the Income Tax authorities. It is learnt that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley himself directed the IT department to exercise restraint and not share any information until the probe is complete. Soon after he took charge as the Finance Minister, Jaitley was given a special briefing on the high-profile case.  

The case has indeed set off a tug-of-war between the many agencies. The CBI is not the only one which has been denied information since the case came to the fore in March this year. Even the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the agency entrusted with investigating cases which have a money-laundering aspect to them, has been kept away from the case. “It is quite surprising and suspicious how the case has not come to us till now,” says an ED investigator. “Both the Income Tax Department and the ED are under the same Finance Ministry, I don’t understand what the problem is that they are not ready to share details with us.”

The ED officials say that although tax evasion is apparent in the case, they are still not clear why the IT Department has not sought their support to unearth the whole network. “It is clear that Qureshi has more wealth than he has declared and they can, of course, do it on their own under the double tax avoidance treaty. But there is a violation of Foreign Exchange Management Act. The case should have come to us,” the official says.  Even several weeks after the IT Department said it would seek ED help, the case is yet to come to the agency.

Who is Moin Qureshi?

Qureshi’s name drew a blank from most people until Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, raised the issue in an election rally in Akbarpur — claiming that the exporter’s links reached right up to 10 Janpath, the official residence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. This allegation differed from his usual complaint about meat subsidies or what he called the ‘pink revolution’.

Modi was referring to the IT Department raids on Qureshi in February this year, which unearthed unaccounted wealth to the tune of `20 crore. Reports suggest that the actual amount of ill-gotten money may run into several hundred crore. The raids at many of his Delhi properties, including his office in Defence Colony and his residences in Chatarpur and Rampur, unearthed not just unaccounted-for cash stuffed in lockers, but also conversations that Qureshi himself had recorded with many of his powerful clients. “The chatter on those tapes is interesting. In fact, there used to be a mad scramble among officials to listen to his telephone,” says a source. The IT Department officials reportedly unearthed wealth many times more than the turnover of his several companies put together.

Files with the Registrar of Companies show Qureshi as an active director in only two firms during the 1990s — Glory Exports Private Limited (since 1994) and Juneja Marketing Private Limited (since 1996). Flagship firm AMQ Agro was incorporated in 2003. Qureshi has 25 other firms registered with the Registrar. “Money-laundering through the meat business is easy. First, there is no major investment and no cap on the amount you can export. Second, since the agencies have been told to go easy on the meat traders for they mostly come from the minority community, they mostly usually to evade the law,” says an official.

The background to the raids is interesting. It is believed that the trigger of this investigation was the alleged apprehension of a senior minister in the UPA II government who was told that the CBI could tighten the noose around his son — under scrutiny for his alleged involvement in a telecom deal. The minister got into action and used the IT Department to delve into the nexus of the enforcement agencies that blackmailed politicians and businessmen on issues of corruption. The IT probe forced the CBI to stall
its investigation.

Around this time, British intelligence alerted the Indian authorities about a huge sum of money (said to be around `30 crore) being transferred from a bank account in Dubai to one in London. The account-holder had an Indian passport. The money routed from Dubai to London, sources say, was a bribe paid to a former CBI chief considered close to Qureshi. The meat exporter was allegedly cutting deals at the behest of corporates and politicians.

The Income Tax authorities started listening to his mobile phone conversations in December last year. By February, they had amassed 520 hours of explosive recordings which reportedly feature at least four ministers in the previous Union Cabinet, top CBI officials and several corporates who have cases pending with the apex investigating agency. “This could be bigger than the Radia tapes,” a lobbyist told Hardnews. “The former minister, known to be close to the current Finance Minister, has been successful in keeping his son away from the arc of the probe,” an investigator with the Finance Ministry says.

Fixers active in elite circles, as well as politicians, say Qureshi is not just any meat exporter. He runs his office out of a rented accommodation in posh Defence Colony. The property is registered in the name of AP Singh.

Informed chatter suggests Qureshi is a well-connected hawala operator with links to not just senior politicians — cutting across party lines — but also top bureaucrats, including the current CBI chief. “In 2004, his close relatives said he was trying hard to be the BJP candidate from Rampur,” says a source.

His business interests include meat processing, real estate and even fashion marketing, run by daughter Pernia Qureshi. She is married to Arjun Prasad, a close relative of a former junior Cabinet Minister, Jitin Prasada. Many politicians, including Ahmed Patel, the political secretary to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, former Union Ministers Kamal Nath, RPN Singh, Member of Parliament Mohammad Azharuddin and even the daughter of a senior BJP leader are said to be close to Qureshi. “RPN Singh and Azharuddin were regulars at his Defence Colony home,” a Congress politician from western UP says. “At one point he was close to UP Minister Azam Khan as well and he flew down in a chopper especially for the inauguration of the Mohammad Ali Jauhar University in Rampur.” The politician talks about Qureshi’s high-flying life, fancy parties and the exalted company that he kept. “Many of the officers and the politicians would come to such events to have a good time,” the politician says.

SM Productions, a firm owned by Qureshi and another daughter, Sylvia Moin, was given contracts by AP Singh and Ranjit Sinha to organise two official events of the CBI.  

Born to Abdul Majid Qureshi, famous in the city as Munshi Majid, a small-time meat trader in Rampur, Qureshi was the privileged of three sons. “His father, who was known in the city for selling cow meat and smuggling narcotics, including marijuana, and even gold, was able to earn enough to ensure his proper education,” says a local who has known the family for years. He attended Doon School in Dehradun and later St Stephen’s College in New Delhi.

“After his father died, he took over the small abattoir in Rampur for a couple of years,” the local says. “He used to trade in sausage casings then.” Qureshi then moved to Delhi. “He lived in rented accommodation in Defence Colony with his wife, Nasreen Qureshi, a Pakistani national whose family had moved to the other side of the border from Rampur. Within a short span, he was rubbing shoulders with elite businessmen like the Burmans of Dabur fame and the Modis,” adds the local.

Insiders suggest that Qureshi’s big break came a few years later, in the mid-1990s. “Somehow, he managed proximity to a senior Congress politician in Punjab who later went on to become the Chief Minister. That’s how he and his associate, Ponty Chadha, the controversial businessman who was killed last year in a shootout, managed to get the licence for alcohol trade in the state,” says the source.

Many people attribute his rise to the connections he developed with Doscos and Stephanians, several of whom man important positions in political parties, the government and the bureaucracy.

In June, days after the CBI chief wrote to the CBDT, there was a suggestion that the case be transferred to the newly constituted Special Investigations Team, headed by Justice MB Shah, to investigate black money. The request was turned down, citing the ‘sensitivity’ of the case.  “That would not have made any difference because that SIT looks like a toothless body. How can you have an SIT with no members who have the expertise to investigate such matters from the agencies?” points out an investigator.  “However, the way the IT Department has gone about keeping the whole investigation a tightly guarded secret does suggest that there is an attempt to blackmail the CBI chief.”

“The earlier government may have had a motive to not pursue the investigations to their logical end. But the new government is also not doing it very proactively because they too would want the CBI on a leash,” an official says.   

Meanwhile, in bureaucratic circles, criticism of the CBI is rising. “They deserve this sort of treatment, the way things are going in the agency,” remarks a Finance Ministry official. He points to a pattern. “Earlier, one would see the CBI arrest people, file strong chargesheets. Now, one sees no arrests and watered-down chargesheets.”

Indeed, many people were surprised at how Amit Shah, Prime Minister Modi’s Man Friday, got relief despite the suggestion of strong evidence against him. Similarly, officials point out that the CBI has not been able to make any arrests in the coal-gate scam, or even in the 2G scam where the agency went easy on the corporates allegedly involved in the scam. Insiders say the jigsaw puzzle falls in place once you bring Qureshi into the picture. They also say Subramanian Swamy’s allegations of a money-laundering angle behind the death of Sunanda Pushkar is seemingly an indication of the same nexus.

Many doubt if the truth will ever come out in this case. The CBI and the CBDT are taking it easy. “It looks like a quid pro quo where the government too is happily not interfering. The CBI is investigating the stockguru scam where IT Department officials are facing charges of corruption. And now you have the IT Department probing a case where CBI officials are allegedly mixed up with a hawala operator,” says a source. “Don’t expect things to move till the present dispensations in the CBDT and CBI change.” Meanwhile, Qureshi is biding his time in London.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014