New Delhi: As ceilings of multiple apartments in Gurugram high-rise Chintels Paradiso came crashing down last week, leaving two dead and several injured, the murky past of Chintels India Ltd chairman Ashok Solomon — which includes several brushes with the law — reared its ugly head.
A 400 kg haul of hashish, money laundering, an 8-year stint in a US prison, cheque forging — Solomon has had a litany of cases to his name, and was even declared a proclaimed offender in 1977 by the Crime Branch of Delhi Police. He has been on the radar of most Indian law enforcement agencies — be it the local police, Crime Branch, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or the Enforcement Directorate (ED) — at some point or other.
However, he has been acquitted in every case except one lodged by the ED in 2019, which is still under investigation.
In a case registered on 10 November, 1973, by the Delhi Police Crime Branch, he was discharged because “the files of the case were destroyed”. In another case lodged by the CBI in 1977, he was acquitted by the additional sessions judge — after being convicted by the metropolitan magistrate — for “lack of evidence”. In a 1986 case lodged by Delhi Police under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, he was acquitted because the “witnesses turned hostile”, police sources said, adding that these instances find mention in court records.
According to a 1986 news report by Shekhar Gupta in India Today, Solomon had even served time under the now-repealed Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971, during the Emergency period. In this case too, he secured his release from the Delhi High Court.
The 75-year-old — a teetotaler and vegetarian — is out on bail in a money laundering case lodged by the ED, but is now “under probe” by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) in a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, in connection with the partial collapse of Paradiso. The SIT has also sought past details of Solomon from Delhi Police.
ThePrint dug out past records, FIRs, court orders and spoke to investigators to piece together Ashok Solomon’s journey from an alleged drug trafficker to a successful real estate developer.
‘Smooth talker, sharp mind’
Investigators who probed Solomon — a St. Stephen’s College dropout who started his career as a taxi driver — told ThePrint that he was a “smooth talker”, a “well-connected” man with a “sharp mind” who managed to “dodge all troubles, despite his name cropping up in so many cases”.
“We knew about his involvements but there was no evidence. I remember the investigation in the 1986 case, where over 100 kg of hashish was recovered from his car and over 300 kg of drugs were found at his instance. Even in that case, conviction could not be secured as the witnesses did not depose,” said a retired officer of the Delhi Police, who did not wish to be named.
“An aspect that I remember is the canard that Solomon is supposed to have spread about me. He had said that our rivalry dates back to the time when we were together in St. Stephen’s College and that it was just vendetta time for me to have implicated him in a false case. Unfortunately for him, I was totally a product of Saint Aloysius’ in Mangalore and Saint Joseph’s in Bangalore,” said Maxwell Pereiera, who was deputy commissioner of police, South Delhi, during his brush with Solomon.
Pereiera added: “It was routine in 1985-86, as it is now, to get inputs on notorious drug dealers, movers and international terrorists on the ‘wanted list’ from Interpol. And the special staff in every district used to work on such inputs to develop intelligence to its fruition. My own special staff, when I was DCP South, ably led by Lakhminder Brar, had a reputation then of busting this and other drug hauls (… among other sensational cases). At that point in time perhaps we were the highest awardees in the country for the drug seizures we effected.”
However, senior advocate Ramesh Gupta, who had represented Solomon in the 1986 case, told ThePrint that Soloman was acquitted as the entire case was “fabricated” by police.
“Solomon was arrested and the evidence in that case was totally fabricated. That case was fought on merit and that is how it led to an acquittal. What does the police mean when it says that he managed an acquittal? It was proved on record,” he added.
‘Drugs in handloom’— CBI case & USA conviction
Investigators who probed Solomon in the 1980s told ThePrint that he used to “make weed and hashish available to foreigner tourists, from which he earned good money”.
He gradually developed contacts overseas and started a syndicate of drug trafficking, police sources said, adding that with money made off drugs, he appears to have moved to real estate.
In May 1977, an FIR was lodged against Solomon by the CBI under charges of criminal conspiracy and sections of the colonial-era Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. An inspector B.N. Mishra of CBI went to the United States to conduct the investigation.
According to court records, this case was probed by the CBI and the customs department.
According to the prosecution, hashish hidden in a consignment of 42 bales of handloom fabric was detected by sniffer dogs at Los Angeles, USA, and information in this regard was relayed by America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) in India.
It was alleged that in 1976, Solomon, along with his brother Ramesh and others, conspired to illegally export hashish out of India to the USA.
According to the prosecution, to execute the conspiracy, a portion of an apartment at Delhi’s Tolstoy Marg was hired, and invoice forms and letter heads were printed in the name of a fictitious firm which was floated for the illegal export of hashish. A building in South Extension was also hired to pack the hashish.
The consignment was then shipped to the USA by Japan Airlines flights, but was detected at the Los Angeles International Airport, case files show.
Solomon was convicted and sentenced by a US court on 20 May, 1977, for possessing and importing hashish.
According to a court document accessed by ThePrint, the drugs had been imported from India through Los Angeles, California, and shipped as domestic air freight to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At that time, Solomon was allegedly traveling on a forged passport under the name ‘Dcy Dass’. According to the court document, Solomon pleaded guilty and was convicted to 10 years’ imprisonment. During his stay in the US prison, he even acquired a degree, a police source said. He was repatriated to India in 1983. A USD 5,30,000 fine and time ban of entry to the US was also imposed on him.
However, during trial in connection with the case lodged by the CBI back in India, Solomon maintained he did not know any of the other accused in this case as he had been living in Canada since 1972. Although he was convicted in the CBI case by the Delhi metropolitan magistrate in 1992, he was acquitted in the same case by an additional sessions judge and special judge (NDPS) in 2013 on grounds that the “prosecution has failed to establish that Ashok Solomon was the ‘kingpin’ of the conspiracy or had any ‘nexus’ with conspiracy of Indian part”.
In a nutshell, he was convicted for import of hashish in the US, but acquitted in India for its export.
“It was a complex case. The prosecution could not convince the court of the offence here in India. A big role was of Solomon, who was very convincing,” a former police officer told ThePrint.
However, Ramesh Gupta, who was Solomon’s lawyer in the case, said there was “no evidence of Solomon having exported any contraband, there was no recovery, and hence it ended up in acquittal.”
“There was not even an iota of evidence against the involvement of Solomon in the CBI case, and that is the reason he was discharged,” he added.
The court had also noted in its order, a copy of which is with ThePrint, that Solomon was “indisputably not present in India at the relevant time at the time or before the alleged offence, which took place in India”.
‘A prospering racket in India’
According to investigators, it was after Solomon’s return to India from the US that he started smuggling activities — a claim disputed by his lawyers — regarding which a case was registered in 1986.
“The drug trafficking business prospered and he earned a good fortune during the 70s, 80s and 90s. That drug money was used to invest in land purchases,” a source in one of the enforcement agencies said.
According to the source, Solomon revived the drug syndicate after his deportation to India: “He was arrested several times, but every time, he somehow managed his release and even acquittals, the Delhi Police NDPS case included.”
On 21 July, 1986, the Delhi Police received an input at around 6.30 am that “an international drug smuggler” was going to export narcotics under the cover of some trade firms.
The tip was pursued and a police contingent was placed in position near Delhi’s Vikram Hotel. Investigators tailed a car (DBD-2577) as it left the hotel, intercepted it near the service road after a high-speed chase, and recovered 96 kg of charas (hashish).
“He (Solomon) himself was driving the car. During interrogation, he led the police party to a cache of 331 kg of charas which was kept in Okhla to be packed for export purposes. A case was registered. We thought we got him this time. But ultimately, it ended up in acquittal,” said a second retired police officer who was then associated with the case.
However, Solomon’s lawyer Ramesh Gupta said the evidence shown during a press conference post Solomon’s arrest was “fabricated”.
“According to police, the recovery of over 230 kg hashish was made from Okhla at 3 pm, but it was shown to the press in a conference at 2 pm? How did that happen? How did they get to know at 2 pm that they will be recovering x amount of hashish from Okhla at 3 pm? It was all fabricated,” he added.
‘Made a fortune from shift to real estate’
Solomon’s shift to real estate came after the drugs case acquittal.
“There were many gamblers, or people involved in drug trafficking, who shifted to real estate to form a clean image and invest the money they had made. Solomon is a wise man. At that time, he knew it was time to shift to a clean business. He had made enough to invest and start a real estate company,” a source in another enforcement agency said.
Solomon is the managing director and promoter of the Chintels group of companies, which is engaged in real estate development and has land bank in and around NCR. According to police sources, the land bank was purchased during the 80s and 90s.
A land bank is a governmental or non-governmental, non-profit entity established, at least in part, to assemble, temporarily manage, and dispose of vacant land for the purpose of stabilising neighbourhoods and encouraging re-use or redevelopment of urban property.
Chintels has come up with several housing and commercial projects in Gurugram, Haryana, either through in-house or collaboration development. Some of these projects include Chintels Paradiso, Chintels Serenity, International City and Sobha City.
According to the source in the first enforcement agency quoted above, Solomon made a “huge fortune from the drug business and in order to legalise his ill-gotten money, started investing cash in lands in and around NCR”.
“In the late 1990s and 2000s, he distanced himself from the drug business and became a real estate developer,” they added.
Several licenses were issued to Chintels by the director (town and country planning), Haryana, for various projects in Gurugram, the sources said, adding that Chintels also collaborated with other big builders for development of various projects.
On allegations made by officers that Solomon using drug money in his real estate business, Gupta said, “If all his contraband was seized and he was in jail in the USA, how did he make money? In fact, the inspector who arrested him in the 1986 case himself was arrested later in a case.”
Gupta said Solomon had made money by investing in land, adding that there is no case against him wherein any agency has accused him of “investing ill gotten-wealth in his real estate business”.
“In fact I also have information that during an income tax raid, he had come out clean and all his records were in order. He comes from an affluent family. He was in college when his father had built the Golf Links house, the value of which must be in hundreds of crores,” he added.
‘Violated norms of license’ — brush with ED
According to sources in the ED, in a residential project called ‘International City’ in Gurugram, Chintels had violated terms of license of selling 25 per cent plots at “no profit no loss (NPNL), sold the NPNL plots at market price and earned huge illegal profits”.
On 31 March 2007, Chintels India Limited, which owned 149 acres of land in Gurugram, had applied to Haryana’s Town and Country Planning Department (DTCP) for grant of a license for developing a residential colony, according to the prosecution.
A year later, Chintels and QVC Realty Company Limited (QVC), the assignors of the said land, entered into an agreement with Sobha Limited for developing it on a saleable area sharing basis. In support of the application, an agreement was filed before the DTCP for grant of license.
According to the agreement, Chintels was required to reserve 25 per cent of the developed residential plots for sale on an NPNL basis. It was further agreed between the parties that 75 per cent of the NPNL plots would be allotted to registered applicants through a draw of lots (if so required) and the remaining 25 per cent would be allotted to specific entities.
However, on 10 December, 2018, the DTCP wrote to the Gurugram Police alleging that the agreement had been violated.
“By allotting the NPNL plots to virtually itself, Sobha, Chintels and QVC had conspired to commit fraud as also had violated the terms of the license/agreement,” the source in the first enforcement agency explained.
“Chintels was supposed to give land to specific entities, in accordance with the agreement. But instead it first allotted land to its own companies or partner companies, routing them back to themselves. This was in violation of the agreement and hence fraudulent,” the officer said.
Therefore, the police was requested to take penal action against Chintels, Sobha, QVC and the LLPs , under sections of cheating and breach of trust.
The ED also initiated a money laundering probe in January 2019 since the agency suspected that an offense of money laundering had also been committed. Solomon and his collaboration partner Prakash Gurbaxani were arrested in connection with this probe on 15 February, 2021.
“This was a fraud meted out to the general public. After registration of the case, Chintels and its counterparts approached various courts seeking anticipatory bail which was denied, but they obtained a ‘no coercive action’ order from the Supreme Court,” a police source said.
Solomon and Prakash Gurbaxani were produced before a special court in Gurugram on 16 February, 2021, but the court denied them anticipatory bail.
The ED had then argued that Solomon needed to be confronted with the seized documents, but his police custody was denied.
Following this, Solomon and Gurbaxani remained lodged in Bhondsi jail for 106 days, and their bail application was rejected by the PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act) Court.
In June 2021, both were granted bail by the Punjab and Haryana High Court on grounds of old age and health-related issues. The HC had also noted that the accused had joined the investigation on 13 occasions.
Although ED challenged the bail, the Supreme Court upheld the same.
ThePrint sought a comment from advocate Manav Gupta, who represented Chintel and Solomon in the ED case, via text messages and calls, but did not get a response. The report will be updated once he responds.
According to sources in the ED, assets worth Rs 50 crore belonging to Chintels have till now been attached by the agency, and investigation in connection with the case of illegal proceeds and profits made by selling NPNL plots as ‘open category’ plots, is ongoing.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)