New Delhi: The Supreme Court bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Hemant Gupta on Monday granted an adjournment while hearing the petition seeking the deportation of absconding diamond merchant Nirav Modi. The adjournment was sought by PIL petitioner Vineet Dhanda, on grounds of personal difficulty.
Modi is a prime accused in the Punjab National Bank scam amounting to Rs 13,645 crore.
The hearing of Dhanda’s petition, to be listed again next week, assumes significance in the wake of reports in the media that the income tax department had prepared a report documenting suspicious business practices of fugitive diamond merchants Modi and Mehul Choksi, running into about 10,000 pages, in June 2017, but did not share it with other agencies like the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), CBI, Enforcement Directorate and the Directorate of Revenue until February 2018, when the scam became public. The news report also claimed that the IT department did not share its findings through the Regional Economic Intelligence Council, a mechanism for sharing of information between various law enforcement agencies. This delay in sharing information apparently helped the fugitives to leave the country in time, undetected, in January 2018.
Dhanda, in his petition, is also seeking directions to the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank of India to frame fresh guidelines on the grant of big loans of Rs 10 crore and above by banks, to ensure that they are recovered within a specified time frame. If not, the properties of such defaulters should be liable to be attached and auctioned, the PIL has submitted.
The petition seeks that bank employees should be made liable for sanctioning bad loans on the basis of incomplete documents. The attachment of properties of bank officials guilty of sanctioning bad loans, even after they retire, is another plea in the petition. The disclosure of names of the borrowers of loan of more than Rs 500 crore is also a plea, as is issuing look-out notices at exit points like airports against defaulters of high value bank loans and impounding their passports immediately.
Curiously, Dhanda’s plea for adjournment was opposed by the Centre, which had during the previous hearings questioned the maintainability of his petition. The Centre, through Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, opposed the adjournment because Dhanda was seeking it for the third time on the same grounds.
The bench said in its order:
“In the circumstances by way of indulgence, we defer the hearing for one week as a last opportunity. No further request by the petitioner for adjournment on any account on future dates will be entertained.”
The hearing of the case earlier by the previous bench presided by then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, and comprising Justices Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud, had seen some interesting moments. On February 21, Justice Chandrachud had observed that the petition should not have been filed on the basis of newspaper reports, but should contain legal issues. The bench also asked how it could intervene when the probe initiated by the Central Bureau of Investigation was already on.
The bench recorded in its order that the AG had serious objections to the petition, especially its maintainability, with regard to monitoring the investigation in a case of this nature. During the hearing on April 9, the bench noted that the AG had submitted the steps that had been taken in the meantime.
The AG had submitted that 41 properties pertaining to the case had been attached, while the CBI court has issued non-bailable warrants against Modi and Choksi. He opposed the Supreme Court’s monitoring of the probe, because it would mean a “parallel enquiry”. When Dhanda told the bench that the AG did not read his petition, and that his petition did not seek the court’s monitoring of the probe, the bench was annoyed and insisted that the AG deserved to be heard, even if he did not read his petition.
A few officials of the Punjab National Bank had allegedly issued fraudulent Letters of Undertaking to Modi’s companies. LoUs help a customer seek and obtain large loans from other banks, because the issuing bank guarantees to meet the borrower’s liabilities.
On April 23, the petitioner obtained his first adjournment from the previous bench. On November 16, his plea for a second adjournment was granted by the present bench. Monday’s adjournment is the third sought by the petitioner.
Another petition filed by advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, which sought an independent probe into the scam, was dismissed by the Supreme Court on July 4.
It remains to be seen whether the delayed discovery of the IT department’s report by the investigative agencies has any impact on the Supreme Court’s hearing of Dhanda’s petition.