CHAUDHRY LETTER REVEALS HIDDEN DONATIONS

Commentary

By Victor Lal

SUVA, Fiji (FijiSUN, Feb. 25, 2008) – Two letters, the original in Hindi, written by one Harbhajan Lal of Haryana, and the English translation of it, both buried deep inside the 148-page thick file containing the tax records of the Finance Minister and leader of the Fiji Labour Party, Mahendra Chaudhry, finally settle the question which I had challenged him to answer on Saturday December 3, 2005 in one of my regular columns: Haryanagate is no silly matter - Where is the money, Mr Chaudhry?

As I pointed out last Saturday, Mr Chaudhry provided the hand-written letter, written in Hindi, through his chartered accountants in Suva to FIRCA. It was to convince the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority investigating officers that he could not be taxed on the Australian funds because the money came from donations abroad, and that he was holding it in trust for the Indo-Fijian community in Fiji. FIRCA refused to accept his explanation because he could not provide any trust deed to back up his claim.

[PIR editor’s note: According to a story yesterday in Fijilive, interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said he would not take any action on claims that Chaudhry evaded tax collections. Bainimarama said the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority (FIRCA) cleared Chaudhry of any breach of the Incomes Tax Act last year after he had called for an audit. ]

The so-called "Haryana Letter" also raises another question of more fundamental import, and that is whether on December 2, 2005, Mr Chaudhry had lied to Parliament, when he denied that he received a cent from Om Prakash Chautala, Haryana’s Chief Minister who had collected money in Mr Chaudhry’s name in August 2000, and had deposited into the Indo-Fiji Friendship Society (IFFS) or another committee had been formed to channel FJ$2 million [US$1.3 million] into Mr Chaudhry’s account, of which FJ$700,000 [US$465,000] was transacted through the Government of India’s Consulate-General of Sydney.

The letter was dated 9 September 2004, which Mr Chaudhry had tendered as evidence to support his claim that the FJ$2 million was donations from Haryana. The letter writer, Harbhajan Lal (no relation of mine, even remotely), gave his address as Karnal, Haryana. FIRCA officers believe that Harbhajan Lal is the same person who belonged to Mr Chautala’s rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a national political party in India of socialist leaning. He was among the BSP founders and the party’s first parliamentarian in the Lok Sabha.

An English translation of his letter in Mr Chaudhry’s tax file supplied to FIRCA reads as follows: "Respected Chaudhry Saheb, Nameste. We are hale and hearty here and please accept our good wishes. I received your letter. You have asked for details of the funds. You may recall that when you were here in the year 2000, we had formed a committee, which requested you to leave Fiji and stay in Australia since the situation in Fiji was not safe and you were not secure there. The committee also assured you that it would collect funds for your settlement in Australia."

Accordingly, the letter continued, "Lakhs of people from Haryana including traders, businessmen, landlords and non-resident Indians contributed heavily for the cause. The amount was pouring in for three years, which was sent to you from the year 2000 to 2002. The total amounting to nearly AUD fifteen laks was sent to you with the help of Government of India through its Consulate General in Sydney. We sent AUD 503,000/- as first instalment in the year 2000. In 2001, AUD $486,890/- was sent and then in 2002 AUD $514, 149/- was sent."

The parliamentarian asked about the state of the Fiji Labour Party and also sent his greetings to the Chaudhry family. He also assured Mr Chaudhry: "We are ready to help you in every manner. Whenever you plan to visit India, please keep us informed well before. We are eagerly awaiting you."

Mr Chaudhry’s Suva accountants, acting on his behalf with FIRCA, also confirmed the transaction linking the consulate to the movement of funds from India to Australia. They notified FIRCA on November 15, 2004 that, "The taxpayer (Mr Chaudhry) received funds amounting to A$514,148.50 on 15 April 2002 from Consulate General which was deposited in Cash Management Call Account maintained by him with Commonwealth Bank, Australia."

The statements provided by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and passed on by the chartered accountants to FIRCA, confirm that $503,000 was, indeed, deposited into Mr Chaudhry’s private bank account on November 1, 2000; $486,890 on February 22, 2001; and $514,148.50 by the Indian Consulate-General on April 15, 2002.

On October 5, 2004, at 3.30pm, FIRCA officials met with one of the accountants and according to FIRCA’s office memo they identified details of bank accounts, confirmation of the letter from the parliamentarian that the money was raised in India for Mr Chaudhry, and the half a million dollars that was transacted through the Indian Consulate-General in Sydney.

One FIRCA officer observed on the office memo: "Confirmation from India - raised in India for him - during the coup times. Transmitted to Australia - How?" and regarding the parliamentarian’s letter: "More substantive evidence to support the lettr."

In 2004, FIRCA found that Mr Chaudhry had not submitted his tax returns for the years 2001, 2002, and 2003. He was later assessed and slapped with a $120,000 tax bill. He was also found not to have disclosed the interest of $A25,233 that he had earned on his Australian bank balance.

In the course of its investigation, FIRCA’s Income Matching Unit (IMU) became aware of his bank accounts in Australia and New Zealand and, on May 11, 2004, wrote to him advising him that they had received information from surveys and banks and financial institutions that he was in receipt of income, which had either not been declared or under declared. FIRCA confronted him about the $2million in his Australian bank accounts.

On May 18, 2004 Mr Chaudhry asked for more time, and stated that, "In so far as interest from money held in accounts abroad are concerned, please be advised that these have not been brought to Fiji but remain re-invested in the accounts there". He finally produced the "Haryana Letter" to claim that the moneys were donations from India.It is strange that FIRCA did not question Mr Chaudhry as to why was he inquiring from Harbhajan Lal about the details of the funds in 2004. We do not have the contents of the letter that Mr Chaudhry wrote to Harbhajan Lal but it does not take a feverish mind to point out that when Harbhajan Lal wrote that letter in September 2004, Mr Chaudhry had already received the three separate instalments of money from Haryana in 2000 ($503,000), 2001($486,890) and 2002 ($514,148.50). The deposit of $486,890 on February 22, 2001 had swelled Mr Chaudhry’s bank accounts to over F$2 million.

There is also evidence that the next day, on 23 February, Mr Chaudhry or someone with power of attorney on his behalf, made two withdrawals of $400,000 on the same day.

Then, on 23 November 2005, the deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase brazenly taunted Mahendra Chaudhry, then Leader of the Opposition, in Parliament about the whereabouts of the Haryana funds and what they were used for.

Mr Qarase said: "Tell the truth. Mr Speaker, Sir, I also want to put to rest the misleading and mischievous statements by the honourable Leader of the Opposition following his various visits to India. I challenge him to tell us the complete truth about the funds that were raised there for him in Haryana State. Where are those funds now, and what are they used for? How much money is held in bank accounts and who are the signatories?"

On Friday, December 2, Mr Chaudhry told Parliament he never received a cent from Haryana and branded the allegations as baseless. He did not disclose to Parliament that between 2000 and 2002, one Harbhajan Lal had transferred $2million into his Australian bank account. Below is Mr Chaudhry’s reply to Mr Qarase:

Now, Sir, on 30th November, there was a news item from India from Chandicach the capital of Haryana State, which says and I quote: "Indian National Lok Dal Secretary-General, Ajay Singh Chautala today welcomes any probe into the controversial money collection for deposed Fiji Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry by the previous INLD Government in Haryana headed by his father, Om Prakash Chautala.

"We will welcome any probe by the State Government of the Senator in this regard," Mr. Chautala said when his attention was drawn to the reports that the State Government had ordered a vigilance bureau probe into the episode. Over one crore rupees was collected from the people of the State about five years ago to help the deposed Fijian premier but the money was not handed over to him. Mr. Ajay Chautala said that his father Om Prakash Chautala had appealed to the people to give contributions for the financial support of Mr. Mahendra Chaudhry when he had visited Haryana. The money collected there was deposited in the Oriental Bank of Commerce in the account of the Indo-Fiji Friendship Society. He said due to some problems related to the international law, this amount could not be transferred to Fiji.

"Former INLD State President, Sher Singh Panshami who was the President of the Indo-Fiji Friendship Society, said they would have no objection if the present Government arranged to transfer this money to Fiji."

Sir, this news item was faxed to me by TV One and they also ran this document in a very distorted form. The Fiji National One News on 30th November says and I quote from the news item extracted from the website of TV One: "New information coming out of India suggests over $F38,000 was collected in the State of Haryana in the name of Opposition and Labour Leader, Mahendra Chaudhry in 20001. This as the Government that was there ordered an investigation into the episode. This is not the first time this information has been brought into the public domain. The latest is the media report in Haryana today which confirms the Indian National Lok Dal a political party collected over $1 million crore or $F38,000 for Mahendra Chaudhry after he visited Haryana in 2001.

The report quoting INLD Secretary, Ajay Singh Chautala as saying that the money collected was deposited into the Oriental Bank of Commerce in the account of Indo-Fiji Friendship Society."

Last week the matter was raised in Parliament by the honourable Prime Minister. After the allegation was made, Mr. Chaudhry neither confirmed nor denied that money raised in his name was kept in India. The report also says due to problems in international law, this money could not be transferred to Fiji. The President of the then Indo-Fiji Friendship Society now says that they have no objection if the current Government arranged the transfer of this money to Fiji. Mr. Chaudhry could not be contacted for comments."

This is completely untrue because no one tried to contact me for comments, the House was sitting and I was here. Most certainly, I would have been available and answer to such malicious and false allegations.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, there is no denying the fact that Mr. Om Prakash Chautala was in 2000, the Chief Minister in the Haryana State collected funds using my name and this was done in August 2000. When I visited India again in February or January 2001, the media in India asked me whether I had received this money and also the media in Fiji at that time, particularly pushed by my detractors who were spreading an impression that I have received and used the money. I said to both the media in India and Fiji that I have not received this money. I took this matter up with Mr. Chautala who was still the Chief Minister then and said; "Look I am being questioned by the media and I have told them that I have not received the money and would you kindly tell the media what is the story".

Anyway, I left it to him to deal with that because this was just six months after I had visited India in August, 2000. This has continued every time I visited India, the same question was put to me.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, because it will cast doubts about my honesty and integrity, I took the trouble to write to the Minister for External Affairs of the Government of India on 24th February, 2003 about this matter. This is the letter to Mr. Yashwant Sinha the then Minister for External Affairs of India. With your permission, I shall read the relevant part of that letter and I quote:

"One last thing which I raised with the Deputy Prime Minister, Shri L.K. Advani and was advised by him to draw to your attention, concerns the moneys collected in Haryana by Chief Minister, Shri Om Prakash Chautala.

As you may be aware, he raised the money in my name and under the guise that it was to assist with the struggle of the people of Indian origin here. However, no account has been given of this money by Shri Chautala."

I would hasten to add that at no time did I ask Shri Chautala to launch such an appeal which he did at a public meeting in Haryana in the course of my visit to India following my release from captivity. The visit was undertaken in August 2000. The Haryana meeting organised by Shri Chautala was held on 17th August, 2000.

I was surprised at his initiative to raise money and asked him afterwards as to how he proposed to deal with the matter. He informed me that the money collected would be deposited in a bank account and handed over to me to assist with our struggle for the farmers and ordinary people who are suffering here.

On my visit to New Delhi in February 2001, I was asked by the media whether Shri Chautala had handed over the money, I responded by saying that I had not the occasion to discuss the matter with him but would do so in the course of my visit.

I met Shri Chautala at the Haryana Bhavan and among other issues, the subject to the money collection came out. He and his son, who was also present, assured that the money (some 2 crores) had been banked and would be handed over after certain formalities were completed. I left Delhi without discussing the subject further. However, when I subsequently inquired about it from Fiji, I was unable to get through to Shri Chautala. My e-mails to him were not responded to and phone calls were not returned. I then decided that I would take it up during my visit to New Delhi for Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Again Mr. Chautala remained inaccessible despite several phone calls made to his office, requesting him to get in touch with me, he did not respond".

In the meantime, the media both here and New Delhi had been giving the story their own twist. My detractors here are engaged in a propaganda that I have received the money and used it for my own purposes. I was informed during my last visit to Delhi that Shri Chautala has a bad record when it comes to matters of money. This information was given to me by highly respected citizens and politicians. My concern is not so much that this substantial sum of money collected by Shri Chautala has not been handed over to me, my anger about the whole episode that Shri Chautala should exploit the feelings of the ordinary and poor folks of Haryana who would emotionally die to leave and to the people of Indian origin to Fiji and play on them the game of deceit for self enrichment.

"Minister, I now make a formal request for the Government of India inquiry into this whole matter so that this rather sordid affair is put to rest once and for all. I will not condone an act of dishonesty perpetrated under my name, particularly when its victims are the poor and disadvantaged in society. I have given Shri Chautalah sufficient latitude but he has chosen to play a game of hide and seek. My conscience is clear. I would like to see the issue settled amicably either through Shri Chautalah’s co-operation or through a public inquiry. I hope he will co-operate and render inquiry unnecessary.

Minister, I thank you for your kind consideration of the matters raised above and anticipate an early reply."

Mr. Speaker, Sir, this letter is dated 24th February, 2003. I hope that this matter is put to rest, now that I have provided evidence of what actually happened."

Did Mr Chaudhry mislead the nation, the Government of India, the people of Haryana, and the citizens of Fiji when he categorically denied ever receiving any money from Haryana?

Why didn’t he disclose that he had received $2million from one Harbhajan Lal, who had been a part of a committee which channelled the money into his private Sydney bank account?

Victor Lal is a member of the Movement For Democracy In Fiji and has written and commented on constitutional issues in Fiji. He is the author of "Fiji: Coups in Paradise-Race, Politics and Military Intervention" (1990).

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