An entrance of the Hindi-language Dainik Bhaskar daily newspaper which was raided by Indian tax authorities, is pictured in Bhopal on July 22, 2021. (AFP)
NEW DELHI/BHOPAL/JAIPUR: In a major action, income tax (I-T) officials on Thursday conducted searches on 30 premises across several cities, including Indore, Bhopal, Jaipur, Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Korba and Ahmedabad, against the Bhaskar media group and its promoters in the Panama paper leak case. The action sparked protests from the opposition and media bodies, which called it an attack on press freedom.
The Bhaskar Group dubbed the action as a retaliation against its aggressive coverage of the pandemic. Government sources, however, refuted the charge, and said the searches were part of a probe into the alleged round-tripping by the Bhaskar Group, which has interests in other sectors, besides media. I-T officials also conducted searches on a UP-based media group, Bharat Samachar, and its promoters in a different tax evasion case
T he three Agarwal brothers — Sudhir, Pawan and Girish — are promoters of the Bhaskar Group and control media conglomerate DB Corp Ltd, which has diverse investments in power, textile and real estate with a turnover of around Rs 6,000 crore. The flagship DB Corp controls at least 100 companies where the I-T department has alleged large-scale tax evasion and round-tripping of investments through the Mauritius route.
Several shell companies controlled by the group allegedly have employees of the company as shareholders and directors. Government sources claimed that the DB Group has figured in the 2016 Panama paper disclosure case, which is being probed by a multi-agency group (MAG) consisting of the I-T department, Enforcement Directorate, Financial Intelligence Unit and the RBI. Astatement released by the Bhaskar Group said I-T raids were conducted on its premises in MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra for its aggressive journalism.
Laptops and mobile phones of its editorial and digital staff were seized despite these persons having nothing to do with financial transactions of the company, and they were detained illegally. News updates suffered for several hours, it said. The opposition also linked the I-T action to the media group’s reporting on alleged under-counting of Covid deaths and the matter was raised on Thursday in the Rajya Sabha by former MP CM Digvijaya Singh. Thereafter, several opposition politicians and parties condemned the action against Dainik Bhaskar.
Answering a question as to whether the IT action was an attack on journalism, information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur said the agencies were working without any interference of the government and added it would be a folly to reach conclusions on the basis of incomplete information.
The Panama paper leaks had mention of over 400 Indian entities but the multi-agency inquiries later found only 146 cases were “actionable” in which the government has so far unearthed undisclosed income of more than Rs 20,000 crore. While no official statements have been made by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, the apex cadre controlling I-T authority, on the searches on the two groups, government sources alleged that people from the Bhaskar Group were involved in alleged round-tripping of investments. Round-tripping is a concept generally used in money laundering contexts where fictitious or shell companies registered in tax havens receive deposits of undisclosed income and route them back to the beneficiary in the host country as legitimate foreign direct investments.
Sources said that the Bhaskar Group has been on the radar of the tax authorities since 2016 and is being investigated along with other entities under the Black Money Act. “Many had their accounts in Singapore while their entities were registered in the British Virgin Island,” according to the I-T department. The department has already filed several chargesheets in courts and served notices to many under the Black Money Act. Residences of Dainik Bhaskar promoters and the bungalow of its chief finance officer were among those searched, said sources.
Members of the editorial team on the night shift at the Bhopal HQ office — which moves out by 6am — were asked to remain inside till 1pm, said sources. It was the same in other editorial offices as well. The searches lasted well into the evening, and could stretch into the night. There were 20-25 officials in the DB office in the Press Complex in Bhopal around 7.30pm. In Jaipur, I-T teams arrived at the daily’s JLN Marg office. CM Ashok Gehlot decried the I-T action against the newspaper and called it an attempt to muzzle the press. He tweeted that the government’s inability to tolerate any criticism indicates BJP’s “fascist mentality."