MEA Cites Nirav Modi's 'Privacy' to Deny RTI Query on Passport Status

In June, an RTI query with multiple questions was submitted to the ministry to unravel the mystery of Nirav’s international travel itinerary despite him being a fugitive.

New Delhi: Want to understand how exactly billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi managed to travel around the world despite his passport being “cancelled”? Well, a Right to Information query to the Ministry of External affairs will not yield any answers.

Ever since he left India, Nirav Modi has reportedly been travelling through various countries, even as his passport was under suspension and eventually cancelled.

In June, an RTI query with multiple questions was submitted to the ministry to unravel the mystery of Nirav’s international travel itinerary despite him being a fugitive.

The questions were whether the MEA knew Nirav’s passport number, the date of its suspension, details of his multiple passport booklets, including issuing authority, if he held them. There were also queries about the route that Nirav Modi had travelled to flee India, whether Indian passport can be used to trace a person’s route and if the ministry had used this method. Lastly, MEA was asked whether it was aware of Nirav Modi’s location in June.

There was an answer only for the first of the eight questions – MEA agreed that it does know the passport number of Nirav’s passport.

But for all other queries about details of the passport, there was stonewalling. “The desired information in the above-mentioned points cannot be provided to applicant keeping it as an exemption under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act 2005,” said the MEA reply.

The mentioned clause in the RTI act says:

(j) information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has not relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: Provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.

The MEA was also probably taking the support of a Delhi high court judgement of 2014 which reversed an order of Central Information Commission. The high court had ruled on a MEA petition that passport details cannot be disclosed to a third party under the Right to Information as it violated privacy and could be misused.

However, out of the queries on the passport of Nirav Modi, only some of them asked for details of the travel document.

The RTI question had also sought information about whether Nirav had “multiple passports” as per media reports citing anonymous officials in investigative agencies.

The MEA’s reply dated July 18 had also used the RTI Act’s provision on protecting privacy to answer the query about whether Nirav owned ‘multiple passports’.

This is despite the fact that MEA had publicly announced 20 days earlier that Nirav did not have more than one passport.

“The first is that Nirav Modi was issued a fresh passport only after his previous passports were physically cancelled. When I say physically cancelled it means that you take the passport and you stamp it with “CANCELLED” remark. Number two, at no stage did he have more than one valid passport in his possession,” said MEA spokesperson Ravish Kumar at a weekly briefing on June 28.

On July 2, Interpol made public a Red Corner notice for Nirav Modi, his brother and an employee. According a PTI report, Interpol gave details to its 192 members of five passports issued to Modi between May 2008 and 2017, which had been cancelled but were still being used for travelling.

This is not the first time that a government organisation has been less than transparent in an RTI query about information related to Nirav Modi which was already in the public sphere.

Under the RTI act, the Enforcement Directorate had refused to disclose the total amount of seized assets of Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi. However, the investigating agency had earlier tweeted on March 24 that assets worth Rs 7,664 crore had been attached in cases related to the Punjab National Bank scam.

Nirav Modi, the founder of Nirav Modi Global Diamond Jewellery House, established in 2010, is currently a wanted fugitive who absconded in early 2018 when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) started investigating a $2 billion fraud case involving him and Indian banks.

The ED had registered two cases of money laundering against the duo based on two first information reports (FIR) filed by the CBI in January 2018.

The CBI had alleged that Nirav and his uncle Mehul Choksi allegedly cheated Punjab National Bank (PNB) in connivance with certain bank officials by fraudulently getting Letters of Undertaking (LOUs) issued to their three firms without any collateral and without following prescribed procedure, causing wrongful loss to PNB.

While Nirav’s location is not yet clear, it was confirmed that Choksi acquired citizenship in Antigua and Barbuda last year.

Last week, a PMLA court had summoned Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi to appear within six weeks on a plea moved by ED to confiscate their assets worth Rs 3,500 crore and declare them as fugitive offenders.