Will the Bombay High Court Order a CBI Probe Into How the Ambanis Acquired Land For Antilia?

Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
24 May, 2016

On Altamount Road in South Mumbai, the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storied house, Antilia, a large, tetris block of a building, looms above the surrounding area. The building, whose construction began in 2006, is named after an island believed to have existed in the Atlantic Ocean during the fifteenth century. According to the storied legends, this island gave refuge to seven Christian bishops fleeing Muslim conquerors.

The Ambani house has acquired a legend-like quality of its own. It boasts of six levels of underground parking, and has three helicopter pads. It has a spa, a terrace gym, a ballroom and a service staff of 600 to look after it. A 2014 estimate by the American business magazine Forbes puts the construction cost of the building between Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 crore. A 2014 story in the British tabloid Daily Mail story ranked the building as the world’s most expensive privately-owned building—Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace in London is technically the most expensive, but did not qualify since it is considered a governmental property.

But for over a decade, the land on which Antilia stands has been mired in controversy. Situated in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, the land, even conservatively, was valued anywhere between Rs 200 crore in 2002 and Rs 500 crore in 2007, but the Ambanis, through their corporate entity Antilia Commercial Private Limited, acquired it for a little over Rs 20 crore—at most, a little over a tenth of the cost, but likely much lower considering the appreciation in real estate prices since then.

At the heart of this matter is a tussle between two laws. Although the original owners of the land, the Currimbhoy Ebrahimbhoy Khoja Orphanage, sold the land in 2002 as they were entitled to do under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950, the land actually fell under the Wakf Act of 1995—a law that governs properties set aside by philanthropists to be used for any objective considered pious, religious or charitable under Muslim law. This made the sale of the land without the permission of the respective state wakf board—which oversees the maintenance and administration of wakf property and land—illegal. In April 2004, the Maharashtra wakf board issued a notice to Antilia Commercial asking why the property should not be restored to the board. Though the trust eventually arrived at a settlement with the board, since then, many have claimed that their process was unscrupulous. The contest over the claim to the land has been ongoing since 2005, but neither the state nor the court has ordered any effective action. After the Bombay High Court admitted the social activist and businessman Shadaab Patel’s request for a public interest litigation (PIL) in the matter on earlier this month, it may once again be in a position to order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) enquiry into the dispute.

Set up in 1892, the Currimbhoy Ebrahimbhoy Khoja Orphanage trust was, according to its constitution, meant to “provide maintenance and education to the orphane/destitute boys of the Khoja community.” The constitution also stipulates that the managing committee of the trust shall appoint a religious instructor to “teach the Koran and the general and fundamental principles of the Mohammadan religion to pupils of the orphanage.” With a mandate to house young boys and educate them about Islam, the trust was eligible to be qualified a Wakf property.

The trust continued working till 2002, even as its management likely became increasingly aware of the escalating price of the land in its possession. On 21 November 2002, the trust sold the land to Antilia Commercial Private Limited—the Ambani-controlled corporate entity which purchased the property—for a sum that would later appear meager: Rs 21 crore.

To put it simply, the Currimbhoy Trust was expressly registered under the Bombay Public Trust Act in 1952 and had been working under that law since. After the Wakf Act was passed in 1995, the charity commissioner’s notice officially gave up control of properties that would qualify as a wakf. As a result, a few months before the trust sold the land, it had ceased to be answerable to the charity commissioner and was accountable to the Maharashtra Wakf Board instead.

In April 2004, two years after the land was sold, the board issued a notice to the trust and to Antilia Commercial asking why its permission had not been sought for the transaction. The trust chose to challenge the notice before the Wakf tribunal—a special court designated to deal with wakf disputes—in Aurangabad, and claimed that it was a trust and not a wakf property.

An year into the litigation before the Wakf tribunal, the trust proposed an amicable settlement to the board. In 2005, the board indicated its acceptance of the settlement. It issued a resolution stating that the sale of the property was necessary to achieve the purpose of the trust—effectively giving the Ambanis a green light to begin construction. It also accepted Rs 16 lakhs in lump sum from the trust and withdrew the suit. The same year, the Currimbhoy trust filed a petition before the Bombay High Court, challenging the circular issued by the charity commissioner putting the trust outside the ambit of the Bombay Public Trusts Act. The petition is still pending before the court.

The wakf board’s decision to settle was criticised by many ministers, especially from the then-opposition in Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as from the Congress. They did not believe that Rs 21 crore was a reasonable price for the land the Currimbhoy trust had sold, and refuted the argument Rs 16 lakh was an acceptable settlement amount. In 2007, the state government responded to the criticism it was facing for its inaction and ordered a one-man commission comprising the retired high court judge ATAK Sheikh to look into the legalities of several contested wakf properties.

Sheikh’s report, which was finally released last year, raised red flags against the two former CEOs and one former chairman of the Maharashtra wakf board involved in green-lighting the sale of the land that Antilia stands on today. Sheikh was of the opinion that the board members were guilty of misconduct for personal gain. He noted that he asked SS Ali Qadri, one of former CEOs of the Maharashtra wakf board named in Sheikh’s report, whether the provisions of Section 32 (2) (j) of the Wakf Act—which requires that two-thirds of the wakf board vote in favour of a sale of a wakf property for it to be sold—were followed before the sale of the property. Qadri told Sheikh that “the provisions of section 32 (2) (j of the Wakf Act “were not attracted in this matter.” Sheikh inferred that this meant that the property had not been treated as a wakf. Qadri, he added, “appears to have a ulterior motive, may be for his wrongful gain.” Sheikh believed that Qadri’s conduct, “by making such statement, was exposed to be hostile to the wakf, specially when the board of the wakf is consistently taking stand that it is a wakf property.”

Throughout these years, BJP MLAs continually raised the issue in the state assembly, asking the government to step in. In 2011, the BJP’s Eknath Khadse, the leader of the opposition, said that the Antilia property was worth Rs 500 crore. Khadse demanded a CBI probe into the matter. Muslim MLAs including Nawab Malik from the Congress supported his request.

Then, in mid-2011, perhaps responding to the attention the issue was receiving, the centre, too, suggested that the Maharashtra government institute a CBI inquiry into matter. With the pressure piling on it, the state government took the easy way out. It referred the central government’s suggestion to the state’s law and judiciary department for its opinion. Meanwhile, government officials took a stand that no CBI probe was warranted as Sheikh was conducting an inquiry under the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1952. This line of reasoning is specious at best; issues such as these are regularly investigated by multiple agencies simultaneously. In 2011, for instance, the Adarsh Society scam was being looked into by both the CBI and a judicial commission set up under the Inquiry act.

Earlier this month, Shadaab Patel filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court seeking a CBI probe into the sale of the property. In his PIL, Patel claimed that Rs 21 crore was only ten percent of the prevailing market rates at that time of the sale. He also alleged that the payment of Rs 16 lakh to settle a dispute over a property measuring 4532.39 square metres in a prime locality in Mumbai was akin to “purchasing peanuts.” According to Patel, the deal involved large-scale corruption, with the pockets of a select few bureaucrats being lined up at the cost of the welfare of the orphans for whom the property was set aside.

Coming now, Patel’s PIL could make a crucial difference to the case. In his PIL, he has asked for an inquiry by either a Special Investigative Team of the CBI. The Bombay High Court accepted his PIL, and on 4 May, sought replies from Antilia Commercial, the wakf board, the state government and others.