21 June 2024 | 10:28 AM

Another Gupta wedding brings shadowy in-laws into the fold

Key Takeaways

The Gupta family last month held yet another wedding extravaganza, this time double nuptials reportedly costing in the region of R500-million. This is small change compared to a supposed $500-million (R7.1-billion) price tag on the Guptas and their new in-laws’ latest business venture: an improbable university complex in Uzbekistan.

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The wedding cements ties with the Jalan family of India with whom the Guptas have already embarked on at least one healthcare venture, which is associated with a mobile health clinics scandal locally.

Since December, members of the Gupta and Jalan families have registered at least three companies in short succession before now joining two of their offspring in wedlock.

Last month’s wedding in the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand hit a snag with a public interest court challenge to the Guptas and local authorities for flouting environmental rules at the venue at the foot of the Himalayas. A ruling setting restrictions on the event also reveals some details about what the judges called a “mega-event”.

It involved 150 guest and 150 workers, 30 tents, helicopters and hotel rooms. The local government even handed a closed state-owned hotel over for the event. According to the ruling it was really the authorities at fault for granting permission. An interdict to scrap the wedding would cause “irreparable damage to the families involved”.

More important than the grandeur is one of the brides. Shivangi Jalan married Atul and Chetali Gupta’s 21-year-old son, Shashank Singhala. The important connections here are Shivangi’s father Vishal Jalan, her uncle Murari Lal Jalan and cousin Ankit Jalan.

Especially Murari and Ankit are cropping up in recent Gupta deals in India, Dubai and, most recently, Uzbekistan.

AmaBhungane also has evidence that Murari paid for part of another recent Gupta mega-wedding, in Abu Dhabi. He contributed AED3-million, which comes to about R12-million. Jalan did not respond to emailed questions asking him to confirm this, but a cheque in his name was made out to the venue, the Emirates Palace, at the time of the wedding.

This was not the only time that large amounts of money flowed from the Jalans to persons or entities in the Gupta fold. Records show that Gupta in-law Aakash Garg (of Sun City wedding fame) was also counting on Murari Lal Jalan to send money to his 100%-owned company in Dubai, Agev Investments, in February 2018.

Murari personally provided a loan facility of AED20-million dirham (roughly R100-million). Neither Garg nor Jalan responded when asked what this loan was for.

It just so happens that Garg was at that point trying to “buy” two airplanes from the Guptas’ already-defunct Sahara in South Africa. A payment to Sahara of R20-million was intercepted by the South African Reserve Bank.

The Jalan and Gupta families have business ties at least as far back as 2015 related to the Jalans’ investment in the Indian private hospital group Medanta. This is the company behind the mobile clinic scandal in the North West and Free State.

The #GuptaLeaks previously revealed that it was Medanta and specifically its co-founder Sunil Sachdeva that feted South African bureaucrats in Dubai when the plan to supply the provinces with mobile clinics got underway. Reportedly, the plan was eventually to clinch contracts for the mobile clinics with all nine provinces in South Africa and to channel the super-profits to Dubai to build a spectacular “Health City”.

Around the same time the mobile clinic plan was taking off, the #GuptaLeaks show Medanta’s Sachdeva was forwarding contracts – showing the Jalans buying interests in a company called Global Health – to an intermediary who then immediately forwarded them to Tony Gupta.

Family ties. (Graphic: Susan Comrie)

Global Health was essentially Medanta’s outsourced provider of services and the two companies later merged. The merger was already anticipated in the contracts sent to Tony Gupta, making them essentially an investment in Medanta.

The contracts are dated 26 August 2015, around the time the Mediosa deal was sealed and involved a Jalan company, Agio Image, buying shares from Sachdeva directly.

In other words, Sachdeva was letting Gupta know he had sold shares to the Jalans.

The representative of Agio Image in the contract was Murari Lal Jalan. He did not respond when asked why his investment might be of interest to the Gupta family.

The ties between the Guptas and Jalans seem to be getting more direct and to be picking up steam.

The businesses of the Jalans largely involve building grand “parks” or “hubs” for various industries. Murari Lal Jalan owns Orion I.T. Parks, which encompasses a small empire of property developments in India which, according to company records, seem to all be personally funded by Murari though a set of subsidiary companies.

Now the Jalans have joined forces with the Guptas in a plan to build an entire new university town in the Uzbek capital city Tashkent which seemingly again involves Medanta.

World of Knowledge

In January this year Gupta in-law Garg punted a grandiose plan to the Uzbekh government:  In return for “at least” 100ha of land he and a partner would build the “World of Knowledge” from scratch.

Garg’s 50% partner in the new venture is Murari Lal Jalan, uncle of last month’s bride and Garg’s benefactor early last year.

The outlay would be a staggering $500-million (R7.3-billion) spread over either seven or 15 years (as the various pitch documents to the government differ). The plan seems far-fetched, not least because Tashkent already houses several higher education institutions including the University of Uzbekistan.

The plan seems to have come together in a rush.

On December 2018 an initial proposal was sent to the minister of higher education in Uzbekistan.

On 10 January this year, letters punting the scheme were addressed to the governor of Tashkent and the prime minister of Uzbekistan. On the same day Murari and Garg registered an Uzbek company called Minerva World of Knowledge which is supposed to manage the project.

This escalation from the education minister to the prime minister and city governor suggests the proposal may have been met with favour.

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Minerva opened an Uzbek bank account, again on the same day, suggesting it expected a need to move money to the country before actually getting any business there.

The Jalan signing off on the proposal alongside Garg is however not Murari, but cousin-of-the-bride Ankit Jalan who heads up many Jalan companies.

These proposal letters contain a phone number and an address that provide further clues as to who is behind the mega-venture.

The phone number belongs to Vishal Jalan in Dubai. He is the father the bride, and the uncle of Ankit. He did not respond to detailed questions.

The address however belongs to a private hospital in Tashkent called Orion Medicity. This hospital is a venture of the Medanta group while also bearing the “Orion” brand name used by the Jalans. Medanta director and co-founder Sachdeva also failed to reply to questions.

The university town proposal seems like a very grand version of the Jalan projects in India where they appear to have made plans for a number of enormous parks, usually for the IT or financial services industries. A massive “Techcity” was also planned for Mauritius at some point.

There is little evidence of these parks materialising though, casting doubt on the huge Uzbek venture’s prospects as anything other than a way to move money into the country. Indian company records show that dedicated Orion companies set up to build the parks have in a number of instances done little but receive intercompany loans to buy land that remains undeveloped.

Neither Murari Lal Jalan nor Ankit Jalan responded when asked if any of their parks have ever materialised or whether the Uzbek proposal was getting off the ground.

As the Uzbek university plan goes through the paces, other Jalan-Gupta enterprises are being set up.

On 10 December last year a company called Patanjali International was registered in India. Shashank Singhala, the Gupta son that married the Jalan daughter last month, owns 49.4% while Ankit Jalan owns 33% and Achla Gupta (the mother of Vega Gupta, who married Aakash Garg at Sun City) owns 17%.

Then, on 15 January this year Patanjali India Distribution got registered. Anil Gupta, Achla’s husband, owns 99.4%. Singhala, Murari Lal Jalan and others own nominal shares.

Murari and Ankit Jalan, Aakash Garg as well as Achla and Anil Gupta failed to answer questions about these companies.

The name Patanjali refers to a tenth century Indian sage, but also to a group of Indian companies in the consumer goods industry. These include Patanjali Ayurved and Patanjali Biscuits.

As an interesting aside, back in 2014 two Gupta companies in India, LCR Investments and Gateway Infrastructure, negotiated distribution agreements with these companies that got forwarded, along with financial projections, to Tony Gupta in an email contained in the #GuptaLeaks. It would appear the Guptas were making inroads into the cookie and health food sectors.

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It is not clear if these Patanjali companies are related to the new Patanjali companies the Guptas have shares in. The new companies’ names however suggest that they are in fact meant to distribute something as was envisaged in the earlier deals.

A “Market Concept” presentation contained in the #GuptaLeaks shows an international distribution value chain with Sahara, evidently the Guptas’ flagship company by the same name, on the top of a whole global value chain for health supplements.

It remains to be seen what the newly extended Gupta and Jalan families get up to next, but experience shows it will probably involve opening up new ways to move money around the world through both property development and consumer goods. Judged by the Uzbek venture their future business also promises to dwarf most of what was relieved from South African taxpayers by the Guptas.

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Dewald van Rensburg and Sam Sole

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