Bank is the culprit: Mehul Choksi in exclusive interview to THE WEEK

Interview/ Mehul Choksi , Fugitive Businessman

54-Mehul-Choksi Mehul Choksi | Amey Mansabdar

MEHUL CHOKSI, fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi’s uncle and managing director of Gitanjali Gems, is an accused in the Rs14,000-crore Punjab National Bank fraud case.

For more than a year, Choksi has been living in Antigua. He became a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda in January last year. He says he has ceased to be an Indian citizen; the Indian government, which has been trying to bring him back to India, denies it.

How is it possible that such a large amount of money was going in and coming out without the knowledge of the bank? It is a complete failure on the part of the bank.

In an exclusive interview, Choksi told THE WEEK that it was wrong to label him a fugitive and that he was willing to return to India if he was promised a fair trial. Excerpts:

Where are you right now? Why did you leave India?

I am in Antigua. I had gone out of India on January 4 [2018], and was supposed to return on January 20. I was in New York, when suddenly on my way back, I developed health problems and my family insisted that I stay there and get some tests done.

My doctor at Lenox [Hill] Hospital found that I had blocked arteries and put me through a heart procedure. I was told that I would have to undergo an open-heart surgery if I delayed [the procedure] any further. My stay became longer in New York, as I kept visiting my doctor who advised complete rest. My visa was getting over, so I came to Antigua. I am suffering from heart and neurological issues that affect my breathing and nervous system. Doctors have advised me not to travel for long.

Why did you choose Antigua?

In 2017, I had taken a decision to expand my American chain stores to the Caribbean. I have been a reputed businessman, running a group since 1966, a pathbreaker who took the gems and diamonds industry into a new era. I had an Indian passport and the visas used to take a lot of time. Antigua offers free travel to 130 countries, so I moved an application in January 2017 for Antiguan citizenship, which got cleared by October 2017. I then travelled to Antigua for taking the oath, on January 14, 2018, for half a day.

So, the fact is that I had applied for the citizenship of Antigua much before the CBI registered a case against me on January 31, 2018. The two are entirely unrelated. I am settled in Antigua since July 2018.

Are you saying you have committed no wrong? How are you linked to Nirav Modi?

When the CBI registered its FIR in the Nirav case, they put my name in it. The FIR said we were partners in three companies—Diamond R US, Solar Exports and Stellar Diamonds.

The truth is that I was a partner only in the first company, but had retired from it a long time ago. I realised that my name had been given in the KYC (‘know your customer’ documents) to the bank. I had no role whatsoever in the other two companies. I informed the CBI and the SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) about it, but before anyone could hear me out, the banks froze my accounts, citing the FIR.

I approached the Punjab National Bank on February 13, and they were ready to resolve the issue. But then, on the same day, they filed a complaint and a new FIR was registered on February 15. Even before the FIRs were registered, a lot of seizures had taken place. To cover up their own mistakes, the state-owned bank put the onus on me.

There has been no default from my side up to the date of the FIR. On what basis have they taken action against me then? The banks misled the investigating agencies. My reputed company was shut down in 3-4 days, without any probe. This does not happen in any other country. Nirav is my nephew and he trained with me from 1992 to 1998. We parted ways because of personal reasons, which I don’t wish to share.

Why do you think you are being targeted?

I was a reputed businessman and a two-time chairman of the FICCI Gems and Jewellery Committee. I have suddenly become the poster boy of corruption. Both the opposition and the ruling party are using my name for political gains. How can corruption charges be levelled against me when I have not committed any fraud? My stocks and my brand have been ruined. Six thousand people lost their jobs suddenly.

Were they sleeping all this while if a fraud was actually being committed? The reality is that no fraud or default happened. The only defaults that occurred were after February 7, because of the FIR. Today, all my businesses are shut down and I am in dire straits financially. All my American operations have broken down and huge amounts of goods and properties have been seized. My assets worth more than Rs4,000 crore were seized before the FIR was registered. No one even bothered to hear me out.

Who do you hold responsible for this?

It is complete misinformation and coverup by the bank. The bankers did not put the data in the centralised system. How is it possible that such a large amount of money was going in and coming out without the knowledge of the bank? At least 250 people would be working in that bank. It is a complete failure on the part of the bank. And, because it is a state-owned bank, the ultimate responsibility lies with the government. Which is why no action has been taken against the bank as such, and the customer has been made a scapegoat. The culprit is the bank, which the government owns and is responsible for.

Are you willing to come to India to face the law?

Who wouldn’t like to be back in India? But I don’t expect much with the way I was treated there. It is frightening for me and my family. Is it possible to get a fair treatment? Every third headline on television labels me a fugitive. At the moment, I am recouping and I need to get back my health to be able to travel.

How is Antigua treating you?

It is a small country and certainly people know about the case. I am living under a stigma and it is not a very nice feeling. All my time is spent talking to lawyers or attending to my medical condition. I am 60 years old. They keep putting cases against me every day. My family is affected and I am distraught.

Are you not an Indian citizen anymore?

Under the Indian law, once you are a passport holder of another country, you cease to be an Indian citizen. Earlier I had thought that they revoked my passport, but the law in India [refuses] to recognise me as an Indian citizen because I am a passport holder of another country now.

The Indian government is in touch with the Antiguan government to bring you back.

Under the law, whatever is required, I am ready to cooperate.