On Thursday morning, officers of the Income Tax department accompanied by police personnel arrived at the Delhi home of businessman Raghav Bahl, as well as the Noida offices of the Quint, the news website that he founded just over three years ago. Soon after, officers turned up at Bangalore premises of The News Minute, a news website in which Bahl has made an investment, as well as the Mumbai office of Quintype, a technology company that he founded.
Much later in the day, the Income Tax department said that the raids were part of an investigation into a case of alleged tax evasion. But the conduct of the officials, particularly in visiting the newsrooms of publications that have been critical of the government, prompted statements of concern from Bahl, as well as a number of others, including the Editors Guild of India, Amnesty and the Committee for Protection of Journalists.
“While I was in Mumbai this morning, dozens of IT officials descended on my residence and The Quint’s office for a ‘survey’,” Bahl wrote in a letter to the Editors Guild on Thursday. “We are a fully tax compliant entity, and will provide all access to all appropriate financial documents. However, I have just spoken to the officer on my premises, one Mr Yadav, and requested him, strongly, to not try and pick up or see any other mail/document which is likely to contain very serious/sensitive journalistic material.”
Delhi and Noida
At the Noida offices of the Quint, three or four Toyota Innovas with more than a dozen officers – both from the Income Tax department as well as local police – turned up around 8 am and said they were there to “survey” the premises, according to a person present at the scene who asked not to be identified. About an hour after being asked, the officers said that they had a warrant under section 132 of the Income Tax Act, which permits authorities to search the premises and seize the account books and other documents of parties that are being investigated.
After arriving, the officers began asking editorial staff, who were the majority of those present at the time, about the size of the company, what it does, how work is conducted and whether they knew about its investments. According to the person present at the scene, the officers even said they would seize the phones of editorial staff to check them, but eventually backed off after being asked why that was necessary. The authorities then waited for the accounts manager, and spent much of the day examining accounts, and even a couple of computers that also had editorial content.
The Quint itself published a story saying that the the officials changed their story during their visit to the office – they first said the visit was a survey, but later called it a survey on one floor and a search on another. A search gave them more authority to impound documents.
Meanwhile, the income tax authorities and police personnel also visited Bahl’s residence, where Quint Chief Executive Officer Ritu Kapoor, who is also Bahl’s wife, was present.
In Bangalore, around 10 am, five Income Tax officials as well as three policemen arrived at the offices of The News Minute, a website in which Quintillion Media – the holding company that owns the Quint – has a stake. “They came and they said that there is a survey on the Quint, and since they have invested in us, they’ll check the investments [as well as] our audits and accounts,” said Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute.
She said that the officers showed co-founder Vignesh Vellore a notice under Section 133 (a) of the Income Tax Act, which, unlike the warrant for the Quint’s office in Noida, gives authorities limited powers to impound documents. “In the morning, they told us not to go online, but then we asked and they said we could,” said Rajendran. “They didn’t take any editorial phones or emails.”
The income tax raids, and Bahl’s letter to the Editors Guild, prompted quick responses from a number of individuals and organisations. Shekhar Gupta, founder of the Print and president of the Editors Guild, said that the raids “looked like intimidation” and said that the government must explain quickly why this was happening. Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan said that there was “no doubt” that the raids were because Bahl and his companies have been critical of the government, adding that this was an attempt to intimidate the media.
The raids even earned a response from the Congress, with president Rahul Gandhi telling the Quint, “They [BJP] will raid, harass, attack and suppress. That’s their agenda... The government is trying to suppress the media.”
By Thursday afternoon, the Editors Guild of India had put out a statement saying, “While the tax administration is within its rights to make inquiries in compliance with the relevant laws, it should not exercise those powers in a way that could be seen as an intimidation of the government’s critics.” The Committee for Protection of Journalists called the raids a “direct attack on press freedom” and said it was concerned about claims that the officials were attempting to clone Kapur’s phone data, which may contain sensitive journalistic data.
It was around this time that the Hindu reported with comments from a spokesperson of the Income Tax department saying that it had conducted searches at the residences and offices of four businessmen, including Bahl, for alleged tax evasion on the proceeds of the sale of shares in a company.
“Today, the Income Tax Department conducted searches on the premises of businessmen Raghav Bahl, Kamal Lalwani, Anup Jain and Abhimanyu Chaturvedi,” the spokesperson told the Hindu. “We are looking at a possible tax evasion of more than Rs 100 crore in the case of Mr. Bahl himself on account of some long-term capital gains that have accrued to him through the sale of shares of a particular company... The other three have also been beneficiaries of the sale of shares of the same company, which is why all four of them have been covered together.” It is as yet unclear which company the spokesperson is referring to.
The authorities left the premises of The News Minute around 8.30 pm. They were still on the premises of the Quint as of 10 pm, with indications that the operations might continue for several more days.
“Raghav Bahl, Ritu Kapur and the Quint are cooperating fully as required by law to provide information relevant to the I-T authorities but at the same time will not compromise journalistic freedom and privilege,” the website said, in its article on the raids. “The apparent flip-flop of the I-T officers [about whether it is a survey or a search] certainly does not inspire confidence and creates genuine doubts whether the operation is for collateral purposes besides being part of overall messaging to muzzle dissent.”
Update: Some employees of the Quint attempted to hand over a document to Income Tax officials asking them not to clone data from Bahl’s desktop computer after 10 pm on Thursday night.
The Income Tax officials eventually left the Quint’s offices at around 6 am on Friday morning, a full 22 hours after they first turned up on the premises. Poonam Agarwal, a journalist who works for the news organisation, tweeted out saying they had not cloned information from Bahl’s computer.