Inside Ali Baba's Cave

Vishwas Kumar


On November 4, 2013, Pernia Qureshi, a young and glamorous stylist, was detained by customs at the Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport upon her return from Bangkok. She embarked from a Thai Airways flight (TG 315) and walked through the green channel—this implied she had nothing to declare to the customs—but then began the embarrassment as her belongings were searched. In her hand baggage, the officials found 16 designer bags, made by Italian designer Corto Moltedo, worth 35 lakh.

Pernia, the owner of a fledging on-line designer outlet named Pernia’s Pop-up Shop, is a frequent flyer to fashion hot-spots such as Paris, London, and Milan. In the past, her hand baggage had never been searched. After all, she is the daughter of Moin Akhtar Qureshi, a meat exporter, who has close links with politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. But this time, unknown to Pernia, her father was under the finance ministry’s surveillance. For months, the income tax and customs departments had been taping Qureshi’s mobile conversations.

Customs had precise information about Pernia’s baggage through Qureshi’s phone-taps. It knew what to look for. According to official sources, the November 2013 search was meant to be a warning to Qureshi that he was under watch. One doesn’t know whether the meat exporter took the hint and cleaned up his act. Over four months later, on February 15, 2014, the tax authorities raided his houses and offices across the country.
Based on phone conversations, which ran into hundreds of hours, the officials felt that Qureshi had links with hawala dealers in Dubai, Singapore and London. They alleged that he was involved in shuttling illegal money earned by politicians and businessmen out of the country into foreign bank accounts. He was also close to former CBI head and current member of UPSC, Amar Pratap Singh, who was subsequently raided by the income tax authorities.

Singh’s proximity to the meat exporter can be gauged by several facts. For instance, the officials found that the former’s mother’s house in Delhi’s Defence Colony (D 318) was rented to the Doon School Old Boys Society (DSOBS) to run its office. DSOBS president was none other than Qureshi, who was part of the school’s 1975 batch and one of the most active members among alumni, who have a strong network among politicians, corporate world and bureaucrats.1

Political arithmetic?

Most political observers were surprised, and even shocked, by the raids, conducted just a few months before the national elections, as Qureshi has links with Congress ministers. Why would the former finance minister, P Chidambaram, wish to embarrass his own government? Wouldn’t the raids be used by the BJP to further attack UPA-II, which was saddled with dozens of scams like 2G spectrum and coal lock allocations? Was it part of a political game plan?

There are several conspiracy theories floating around to explain the raids. The first is that Chidambaram was angry with Singh, and wanted to expose his relationship with a hawala operator, Qureshi. It was during Singh’s tenure as CBI director that the former FM’s name cropped up in the 2G scam. Chidambaram felt that unlike in the case of PM Manmohan Singh, the CBI did not take enough initiatives to scotch the rumors and initiate aggressive legal action to save him.

A few political pundits feel that Chidambaram’s decision not to contest elections was a part of a larger plan. The former FM, like many others, expected a fragmented electoral result, which could pave the way for the formation of a Congress-led coalition or Fourth Front regime. In both cases, he expected to be among the frontrunners to become the PM. An indirect attack on other senior Congress ministers, via the raids on Qureshi, would enhance his chances.

However, the truth was possibly that British intelligence agencies had tracked several murky dealings, and found that illegal funds were being transferred from India to London, via Dubai. They alerted their intelligence counterparts in India, who were pressured to act on these tip offs. This was possibly why the income tax tapped Qureshi’s phones, which led to the raids.

Living beyond his means

The family’s meat business was started in the 1950s by Qureshi’s father, Abdul Majeed, in Rampur (western Uttar Pradesh). They catered to regional markets, including Delhi. The revenues shot up when the Qureshis obtained a license to export meat products. Today, they claim to be among the country’s largest meat exporters. For example, AMQ Agro India, the flagship firm of the group, says it is the largest exporter of buffalo meat, and its products are known globally.

UP is the largest exporter of buffalo meat, followed by Punjab and Maharashtra. Besides, UP has the highest number of abattoirs-cum-meat processing export units, including 317 registered slaughter houses, and 24 export-oriented units for buffalo meat. Almost 70 percent of the carabeef (buffalo) exports originates from UP. According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), India’s exports of animal products was `20,778 crore in 2012-13, including buffalo meat (`17,413 crore), sheep/goat meat (`426 crore), and poultry products (`495 crore). Buffalo meat dominated exports with a contribution of over 85 percent.

APEDA’s statistics reveal that the major meat exporters in UP include Hind Agro Industries, Al-Noor Exports, Al Nafees Frozen Food Exports, Frigerico Conserva Allana, Rustam Foods and Rayban Foods. Income Tax authorities found that the latest annual turnover of all the firms owned by Qureshi was `165 crore. In fact, the Federation of Indian Exports Organization, which maintains country-wise data on exporters, categorized Qureshi’s export firm as a “small scale” manufacturer. If the above is true, how did the Qureshis maintain their lavish lifestyle?

Designer existence

2To give an example, the Chhattarpur farmhouse, with its French-styled chateau and sprawling over five acres, cost over `200 crore, including the plot and flamboyant and fancy interiors. The family owns three other houses in Delhi, all of them in posh colonies. The  interiors of the farm house and other houses were designed by a French designer, Jean-Louis Deniot, a global interiors’ star.

A UK-based leading home magazine, Ellee Decor, wrote extensively about the palatial farm house in an article, On a grand scale: A home in India, which was written by the designer, Deniot. Published in 2013, it talked about the house and how he was hired by the Qureshis in 2002 to build the dream home. Initially, Qureshi was reluctant to hire the French designer but his wife, Nasreen, who met Deniot at a party in Paris, insisted on it. Nasreen is a woman of style and known for a large collection of products from designers such as Giorgio Armani and Dior.
The final design of the farm house was inspired by a photograph of Picasso’s famous 19th-century Villa California in Cannes. “I wanted a house that looked 100 years old,” Nasreen was quoted in the piece, and she added that she wanted to step out of the front door and see the pool and gardens. The sofa in the drawing room was inspired by Jean-Charles Moreux, a French architect, the cocktail table was from the 1940s, and the cabinets were clad in black mother-of-pearl.

The urns (vase) were carved in Jaipur from a block of alabaster, and styled along 17th-century Italian vases, and railing was inspired by an 18th-century French design. Qureshi’s bedroom suite on the second floor was Art Deco in spirit. The design of the walls was triggered by a fragment of a Süe et Mare cornice that the decorator found in a Paris flea market. The black-and-white marble bathroom was along the lines of the legendary palace that the Maharajah of Indore constructed in the 1930s.

The farm house’s highlights included the double-height central staircase foyer, with its 38-foot-high ceiling, sweeping balustrade, and geometrically patterned floors and walls, which were created with locally-available marble. The headboard, mahogany canopy, and hanging fixture were custom designed, the mirror was in the style of Line Vautrin (French designer), and the daybed and rug were inspired by André Arbus (French furniture designer). The library’s sofa was covered in a Pierre Frey cotton velvet trimmed with Mokuba ribbons, and the chandelier had 19th century impression.

Nasreen told Deniot that “in the summers, I think I’m the only person who stays in Delhi. I love my trees, I love my house. I don’t go out unless I have to. Darling, tell me: Who would?” So, she prefers to entertain her guests at home; these include shoe maestro Christian Louboutin, singer Katy Perry, and artist Subodh Gupta. One stunned visitor, who attended the house-warming party in 2009, recalled that it had a provision for a 24-hour beauty salon!

Style is in genes

Nasreen’s taste in fashion and culture was picked up by daughter Pernia. After gradu-ating from the George Washington Univer-sity, Washington, and majoring in criminal justice (with dance and English literature as minor subjects) in 2006-2007, she worked with Cosmopolitan, a global fashion magazine, in New York. In 2008, she came back to India and worked with top designers like Tarun Tahiliani and JJ Valaya. Later, she styled the 2010 Bollywood movie Aisha, which was produced by her friend and actor, Sonam Kapoor, the daughter of film-star Anil Kapoor. In 2012, she set up her
own online retail store that houses top designer labels.

Pernia has expensive tastes. In 2011, when she got married to a London-based entrepreneur Arjun Prasad, her wedding dress from designer John Galliano cost over `80 lakh. Pakistani’s popular sufi singer, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who is related to the famous maestro late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sang at her wedding reception. Unfortunately, when he flew back, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence detained him at the airport when it found `56 lakh in his baggage.

Pernia and Ajay lived temporarily at Delhi’s costliest penthouse in a five-star hotel, Aman Hotel. At this “residence”, Deniot was hired to do the interiors. The designer managed a beautiful walk-in ward-robe for Pernia. “I know of Pernia’s shopping addiction, as I have already designed three other dressing rooms for her at her parents’ homes,” said Deniot in an interview, adding that “at the manor (Chhattarpur house), she has two walk-in wardrobes, one for the summer and one for the winter.”

The daughter has told magazines that she had unique ways to unwind at weekends. “What I like to do on a weekend is to fly to Jaipur, which takes 40 minutes, and check into Rambagh Palace and not leave for two days. It’s the former home of the Jaipur royal family and is now operated by the Taj hotel chain. It’s lovely there; they have a great pool, a fantastic spa and excellent food. I always stay in the same suite, Hawa Mahal,” she told an interviewer. That’s `30,000 a night!

In the near future, Pernia, and her parents, may have to change their lifestyle. The only advantage they have is that while income tax and customs may go after them, the new BJP-led NDA government can derail the investigations. After all, the Qureshis are close to both Congress and BJP politicians and this is the reason why the BJP rarely raised the issue during its election campaign. If all goes well, Pernia may still be able to catch the flight to Jaipur and spend her weekends at Hawa Mahal suite.

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