External Affairs

Choksi Abduction Complaint Shines Light on Modi Government's Attitude to Global Passport Business

Fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi, alleged by his lawyers to be the victim of a botched kidnapping, had bought a Caribbean passport, just as another fugitive, Jatin Mehta of Winsome Diamonds, had done after fleeing India.

Note: We have received a legal complaint under English law from Mr Gurdip (‘Dev’) Bath in respect of this article.

New Delhi:  Late in 2013, as the Central Bank of India attempted to get back the Rs 710 crore it had loaned Winsome Diamonds, an auditor recorded this forlorn finding: “The promoter–director of the group is reported to have shifted abroad and not responding to bank calls”. Earlier that year, investigators now believe, the promoter in question, Jatin Mehta, bought himself citizenship of the Caribbean state of Saint Kitts and Nevis, and then disappeared with an estimated Rs 7,000 crore he owed several Indian banks.

A Saint Kitts passport is a luxury commodity, of the sort the world’s seriously well-heeled can buy off the shelf. Except that this item can only be bought today from the UK-based company which is the authorised government marketing agent, CS Global. After fleeing his creditors in India, Jatin Mehta likely turned either to CS Global for his St Kitts passport – here is an advertorial from 2013 where the company was marketing its services – or to Henley, another firm that shared the business at the time.

One of the promoters of CS Global is a London-based businessman, Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath, whose name now apparently figures in a criminal complaint filed with Scotland Yard by the lawyers of fugitive diamond dealer Mehul Choksi.

The complaint, reported in detail on Tuesday by journalist Ashis Ray in The Week, accuses Dev Bath of playing a key role in a botched plot to kidnap and bring Choksi to India. Bath holds a St Kitts diplomatic passport and is well connected with politicians across the Eastern Caribbean.

Choksi’s complaint, and the fact that Bath has flaunted his associations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the recent past, raise new questions about the role of India’s government and political establishment in the entire affair.

The Modi government was so confident of getting hold of Choksi that it sent a private charter jet all the way from Delhi to Dominica soon after his abduction to bring him back to India. But the jet had to fly off without its prize catch, suggesting a series of fatal slips between cup and bruised lip.

Durable relationship

CS Global holds sole rights to sell citizenships in Saint Kitts, as well as Dominica, the Caribbean island state where Choksi mysteriously appeared on May 25. In spite of Dev Bath’s possible role in selling Jatin Mehta—and other Indian fugitives—citizenship in the Eastern Caribbean, he is known to have a durable relationship with the Government of India, even meeting with Modi.

Lawyers for Choksi have submitted their allegations in a complaint to police in the United Kingdom, which claims international jurisdiction in matters involving torture and war crimes. In addition to Bath, the complaint also names British national Gurjit Singh Bhandal, Indian citizen Gurmit Singh and Hungarian Barbara Jarabik, all residents of the United Kingdom. Ms. Jarabik has denied the allegations.

Though the complaint is not in the public domain, Choksi’s lawyers held a press conference on Thursday where they alleged that the Indian government was behind the kidnapping. Sources close to Choksi’s legal team told The Wire their suspicion is that Delhi sought to harvest political points by short-circuiting the diamond-merchant’s long-running extradition proceedings in Antigua, as ultimate appeals against Antiguan court rulings rest with the Privy Council in the UK. The effort to do so, though, was bungled by his kidnappers, who failed to ensure Choksi’s speedy movement out of Dominica, and left behind damaging documentation of their operation.

Photographs of himself posted by Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath on Twitter.

The allegations raise troubling questions about whether Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath – if indeed he played the role Choksi says he did – might have been acting on behalf of the Indian state, through its intelligence services, or powerful individuals in its political establishment. But it also raises important questions about why New Delhi hasn’t acted to push the small island states of the Caribbean into stopping what are called citizenship-by-investment schemes – a key tool that helps fugitives evade justice.

Update 16 July 2021: Since publication of this article Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath has written to notify us that he has not played any role in the activities related to Mehul Choksi and in particular his kidnap. He has told us that he is not a director or shareholder of CS Global Partners Limited and has no relationship with any agents who provide citizenship and did not provide citizenship to Jatin Mehta. Gurdip Bath says he has no association with any Indian government – owned intelligence services. Gurdip Bath says he has no business association with Hardip ‘Peter’ Virdee. We are happy to make his position clear.

The strange world of cash-for-citizenship

Answers to this puzzle rest inside a plush office on Upper Grosvenor Street in London’s Mayfair, home to the United Kingdom’s oldest money, as well as a small army of newly-minted millionaires with stories they are not keen on advertising. For as little as $100,000, CS Global offers citizenship of several countries in the Eastern Caribbean—among them, Antigua, the country whose passport Choksi now holds, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, with some of the most expansive corporate and banking secrecy laws on the planet. In some cases, applicants don’t even have to trouble themselves with residing in their country; passports can be home-delivered.

Oligarchs from Russia, Iranians seeking to evade United States sanctions, élite Afghans seeking more secure homes than Karachi; Indians with bank scams: All have sought the escape hatch these Caribbean passports provide.

Early in the last decade, the government of Prime Minister Denzil Douglas began offering citizenships-by-investment in Saint Kitts and Nevis. In the international system, all nation-states enjoy sovereignty. In essence, Saint Kitts and Nevis was offering protection from extradition and taxation in return for cash.

For resource-strapped economies across the eastern Caribbean, the Saint Kitts story was to become a kind of template; nations that harboured pirates centuries ago, the journalist Praveen Swami has pointed out in a recent analysis, now made their living from a new kind of globalised criminal.

The business was – as expert Ann Marlow has shown in an exhaustive investigation of Eastern Caribbean citizenship-by-investment programmes – initially monopolised by Henley, a London law firm with organic links to the now-notorious political-influence firm Cambridge Analytica. From 2014 on, though, Henley bet on the wrong politicians in Saint Kitts and Nevis, as well as Dominica.  The business of selling citizenships, on a commission basis, then went to CS Global, a firm Bath invested in and for a time led as director.

Flamboyant, even brash – he once painted over his luxury car with the slogan “Range Rover cheats & lies” and parked it outside the firm’s Mayfair dealership – Bath cut a swathe through London society. Armed with a Saint Kitts and Nevis diplomatic passport, Bath’s contacts, his social media posts show, included businessmen close to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as several Caribbean political leaders.

Tweets by Dev Bath, one from 2019, of the speech by the Pakistani prime minister [Imran Khan], and the other, of an undated meeting with former Pak PM Nawaz Sharif

Marlow records that Bath even hired Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington lobbyist and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, to help promote Saint Kitts and Dominica passports.

German intelligence wiretaps revealed in the England and Wales High Court in 2017 show the world Bath inhabited was one where cash was king. The wiretaps record Bath’s long-standing business associate, Hardip ‘Peter’ Virdee, asking to be “ready for a big bill” as he was entertaining the Prime Minister of Saint Kitts in London that evening. In another conversation, Virdee, who also holds an Antiguan passport, claimed the Prime Minister had asked for a watch and a pair of shoes.

Timothy Harris, the Prime Minister of Saint Kitts denied any impropriety, and blamed his predecessor, Denzil Douglas. Douglas, who is now leader of the opposition, in turn called for Harris to resign. There was no criminal investigation of the charges, though, in Saint Kitts itself.

According to three Indian diplomats who served in London, Bath was also in regular contact with several high-ranking officials at the Indian High Commission, including Samant Goel, now chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, who is an Indian Police Service officer from Punjab. There is nothing to suggest that such contacts were improper or illegal. Intelligence officials must, by the nature of their job, meet with a wide spectrum of contacts. In the light of the new kidnapping allegations, however, their interactions raise interesting questions.

Our man in Saint Kitts

Even as the sleaze surrounding the citizenship-by-investment programme was becoming apparent, Bath’s influence in India was – mysteriously – growing.

Local media reports give some insight into this story.  In March, the Government of India – controversially – shipped supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to the eastern Caribbean region. “The timely delivery of vaccines”, the Florida, USA-based Associate Times reported, “is credited to the chairman of OECS [Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States], P[rime] M[inister] Roosevelt Skerrit, who managed to convince the Indian administration to make another contribution to the Caribbean”.

“Indian government sources revealed”, the newspaper wrote, “that the successful acquisition and delivery of the Covishield vaccine is made possible by Gurdip (Dev) Bath, Special representative of St Kitts and Nevis, who played a bridge within the government of India & OECS countries”.

This isn’t the only evidence of a relationship between Bath and the Government of India. In 2019, a photograph posted on Bath’s now-private Twitter feed reveals, the businessman met Prime Minister Modi at a meeting of the Caribbean Community, an organisation of 15 states and dependencies throughout the Caribbean.

Issues of propriety now swirl around that meeting. Fugitive diamond dealer Jatin Mehta, wanted by the Central Bureau of Investigation for allegedly defrauding Rs 6,500 crore from Indian banks, is reported to have acquired a Saint Kitts passport in 2013, and evaded arrest by fleeing to the islands.  The Central Bureau of Investigation has since been seeking his return, without success.

Given that Bath played a key role in Saint Kitts and Nevis’ citizenship-by-investment programme – and thus would have been suspected of having some responsibility for arranging Mehta’s citizenship – it remains unclear why the prime minister would have agreed to meet with him.

Earlier, in 2016, Bath also played a key role in organising Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s visit to India.  Prime Minister Skerrit was the chief guest at the sixth convocation of the Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, Bath’s home town, and was given an honorary degree. Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh hosted a lunch for Skerrit in Delhi.

Dominica President Roosevelt Skerrit at the convocation ceremony of Lovely Professional University, February 2016. Photo: LPU

In 2012, Bath played a central role in organising a private visit to India by Saint Kitts Prime Minister Douglas. Among other things, Prime Minister Douglas is reported to have spent time at Bath Castle in Ludhiana, one of three themed wedding venues the businessman operates in Punjab.

There is nothing on the record to show that the prime minister or other government officials used these contacts to press either the political leadership of the eastern Caribbean states, or Bath or CS Global, to bar Indian nationals from citizenship-by-investment schemes, or to press for disclosure on those to whom passports had been issued.

Wider malaise

India is far from the only country to show a curious reluctance to crack down on the citizenship-for-cash safe-havens now on offer. Journalist Oliver Bullough has shown that the United Kingdom has been unprepared even to make similar enclaves in London and the Channel Islands transparent. The United States and the European Union have all flagged the issue—but stopped short of serious action to sanction errant regimes.

Absent a credible criminal investigation, it is impossible to say whether the allegations Choksi has now filed in London are true or not. The questions, though, are piling up. None of the governments involved – Antigua, Dominica and India – have offered a coherent explanation for why the diamantaire might have chosen to abandon his safe-harbour in Antigua, whose laws make extradition difficult, for Dominica. Nor has there been any official explanation of how Choksi was transported from Antigua to Dominica, or the injuries he sustained along the way.

The allegation that Bath helped organise Choksi’s kidnapping – perhaps recruiting the other individuals named to execute the plot – deserve a transparent investigation, as much for upholding the rule of law as for shining a light on the political or official backing that this attempted ‘rendition’ might have enjoyed.

Note: This article has been updated to incorporate information received from Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath