Kolkata/Ahmedabad: Several businessmen at Shoppers Plaza in Ahmedabad’s Navrangpura neighbourhood ply their trade out of small rented spaces, paying rent to Arjun Nav Nirman Pvt. Ltd. They sensed nothing amiss until income tax department officials recently knocked on their doors as part of a nationwide probe into properties acquired through proxies, or shell companies by ‘Sant Sri Asaram Ji Ashram’ of discredited religious leader Asaram Bapu, who has been convicted of sexual assault and is lodged in a jail in Jodhpur.
The department has identified at least two such shell companies as fronts of the ashram. One is Arjun Nav Nirman, according to three key officials of the department, who asked not to be identified. Another is VRV Investment Pvt Ltd. Between them, the two own at least 49 properties, spread across the country, the officials said.
The department has sent notices to these two companies and some shareholders after a preliminary probe showed they were acting as fronts for Asaram Bapu’s ashram, officials said.
“We have been paying rent to Arjun Nav Nirman,” said Chetanbhai Modi, who sells sweets and snacks from Kantilal Manilal store at Shoppers Plaza. Modi, who is one of the store owners quizzed by the department, said it appears that at least half the stores in Shoppers Plaza are indirectly owned by the ashram. “We have shared everything with the tax officials,” he said.
The two companies have collectively invested at least ₹ 100 crore on behalf of the ashram, said the officials quoted above. A hunt is on for other companies through which the ashram may have channelled funds. The department has started investigation under the Benami Property Act.
Neelam Dubey, a spokesperson for the Asaram Bapu ashram, declined to comment on the investigation.
Officials of Arjun Nav Nirman and VRV Investment were untraceable at their registered addresses.
However, tenants of Arjun Nav Nirman in Ahmedabad said one Jignesh Patel used to collect rent from them. When contacted, Patel admitted that he was an inmate of the ashram till 2008 and that he used to collect rent. He, however, denied having any knowledge of the arrangement between the ashram and its fronts. He also claimed that he had distanced himself from the ashram 10 years ago.
The ashram aims to move court challenging the verdict of the trial court which sent Asaram Bapu to 20 years in jail, said Dubey. “Every time the ashram moves court, something or the other comes up in the media,” she said.
The ashram has had disputes with the department for the past few years, and has been under its scanner from 2015. From questioning inmates, it emerged that the ashram has been secretly investing in properties through fronts, said the tax officials cited above. An investigation was immediately launched, but it has not progressed much because the two companies to which notices were sent have asked for time.
Religious organisations receive donations, but some of them act as channels for people to invest their unreported wealth through a web of proxies. The source of income of the ashram based in Ahmedabad’s Motera will also be examined going forward, according to the tax officials.