Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Samar Vishal seems to have his hands full with high-profile defamation cases. After already having presided this month over multiple cross-examinations of witnesses in the MJ Akbar versus Priya Ramani defamation case, his Courtroom Number 203 at the Rouse Avenue District Court House complex on Monday played host to the cross-examination of Vivek Doval—the son of National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval—in a defamation case filed by him against The Caravan magazine and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.
On January 16, 2019, The Caravan magazine had reported, on the basis of documents sourced from the US, UK, Singapore and the Cayman Islands, that Doval was running a hedge fund—GNY Asia—in the Cayman Islands, which is a well-established tax haven. According to the report, the hedge fund was registered just 13 days after the demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes that took place in 2016.
On January 21, Doval filed a defamation case against Caravan’s reporter Kaushal Shroff, as well as the magazine’s editor-in-chief Paresh Nath and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh. Doval believes that they caused “irreparable damage” to his reputation “through calculated insinuations and innuendos“.
A sharply dressed Doval, wearing a grey suit with a pink shirt and a dotted blue tie, took his place in the witness stand at 10 am. He was to be first cross-examined by senior advocate Salman Khurshid, the counsel for Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh himself was present in the courtroom as well, which was surprising considering he’d been given bail in this case in May 2019. Ramesh was wearing a white kurta-pyjama with a grey sleeveless jacket and brown leather shoes and was seated behind Khurshid.
The opening questions from Khurshid probed deep into Doval’s understanding of the word “kaand”, which Ramesh had used during a press conference earlier this year while talking about Doval’s role in the Caravan report.
“I put it to you whether the word ‘kaand’ used in the press conference by Mr Jairam Ramesh is found to be offensive to you?” asked Khurshid.
“In contemporary parlance, the word ‘kaand’ is not considered to be a dignified word and is considered to be insulting and refers to scandal,” said Doval.
Khurshid said the word “kaand” is used in the Ramcharitmanas as a reference to various episodes and chapters and that its dictionary meaning gives it no deregatory implications. “I put it to you that in Ramcharitramanas, various chapters have been named as ‘Ayodhya Kaand,’ ‘Lanka Kaand’, etc…”
Doval paused and replied: “A word can have several meanings and the meaning of a word has to be understood in the context of a situation. The context in which the press conference was undertaken wasn’t in reference to the Ramcharitmanas.”
“It is incorrect to suggest that Mr Jairam Ramesh has not made any statement in the press conference which attributes any criminal intent on my part,” suggested Khurshid.
Khurshid then placed the transcript of Ramesh’s press conference in front of Doval and asked him to point towards where Ramesh had said that there was criminal conduct on Doval’s part. Doval said he had already previously done so in his chief statement earlier this year.
Referring to a specific part of the transcript, Khurshid asked Doval whether “this portion contains any imputation against you or is it of a general nature?”
Doval replied: “I believe that these paragraphs are being insinuated to me, by reference of the last four lines of the third paragraph which says that ‘these could be the bulk of these funds have come from GNY Asia. We do not know how much of it have come from GNY Asia but it is highly suspicious that 30 days after demonetisation GNY Asia is set up and the result of that is the huge increase in FDI from the Cayman Islands.’”
“Have you had any past contact or association with Mr Jairam Ramesh?” asked Khurshid.
“To the best of my knowledge, I do not have any past contact or connection to…” replied Doval. He added: “I do not follow the cobbles of Mr Jairam Ramesh.”
“When there is no past history of any relationship between you and Mr Jairam Ramesh, then how can you say that this press conference was done seemingly ‘to settle scores’ with your father?” asked Khurshid.
Doval stared intently at the screen on which the stenographer was typing out the question, paused, and replied: “I, Vivek Doval, am a political no one (shrugs). No one knows me. Settling scores here should be seen in the political context of an impending general elections at that time and my father was the NSA.”
“Mr Doval, would you therefore agree that in the political landscape, things are said in the heat of politics that does not construe as defamatory?”
“I believe that in many charged situations, emotions run high. (But) even in those situations, defamatory comments and insinuations should not be made against the professionals because it impairs their careers forever.”
Khurshid said: “I put it to you that people in public office have a right to ask questions related to public importance and those in public office have a duty to answer those questions.”
“Facts should be the basis of any discussion and deliberation or issues—including in a heated political environment,” came Doval’s swift response.
“According to you, Mr Doval, do you think that Mr Jairam Ramesh made that press conference in his private/personal capacity or in his official capacity as a public figure ?” asked Khurshid.
“I don’t know,” replied Doval.
Khurshid pressed on. “Do you personally feel aggrieved with the press conference or you are aggrieved on behalf of your family?”
“I am here on my own behalf,” said Doval.
At this point, Salman Khurshid excused himself from the cross-examination since he had a Supreme Court matter to attend to. He handed the floor over to another member of his team. Jairam Ramesh exited along with him. While bowing out, he informed ACMM Samar Vishal that “I’ll be in and out”.
Khurshid’s colleague took over. “Mr Doval, you’ve said in your statement that there is no question of any investment of ₹8,300 crore in your fund or being routed through your fund? Can you show that Mr Jairam Ramesh has accused you of investing ₹8,300 crore in your fund, or such money being routed through your fund?
Doval replied saying that the accusation “was made via an insinuation” during the press conference and that he already shared these details earlier.
“I put to you, Mr Doval, that you claim that the fund was conceived in 2012 and you took steps to realise the same. What is the evidence you have annexed to show these facts?”
Doval replied: “I have given oral evidence in this regard.” He also said that the documentary evidence was an email, which had already been exhibited.
“I put it to you that if you were desirous of opening a fund, then why did you take a job from 2012 to 2016 in the British Airways Pension Fund?” asked the lawyer.
“I needed an independent track record to launch a fund.”
The lawyer asked Doval whether he had annexed any documents to show that he had been asked to step down from his post at GNY Asia fund in the aftermath of Ramesh’s press conference. “I was asked to step down orally by my partner Mr Amit Sharma after having had calls from all our investors,” said Doval.
“Do you still, as of this date, continue to be associated with GNY fund?”
Doval replied in the positive.
“In what capacity?” asked the lawyer.
Doval replied: “The GNY Asia fund is currently in the process of liquidation. I still am a director of GNY as the process of liquidation is being undertaken.” He added: “I am not a fund manager but a director.”
“When were these liquidation proceedings initiated?”
“The proceedings commenced since the end of April 2019,” replied Doval.
The lawyer probed: “Have you annexed any documents to demonstrate this liquidation process?”
“I have not filed any documents related to liquidation proceedings,” came the response.
“In your statement, you have conceded that business ‘has been impacted by the US-China trade war of 2018’. Having made this confession, we put it to you that your fund’s lack of success cannot be attributed to Mr Ramesh. Do you disagree?”
Doval replied: “I disagree. Every fund, or rather every business, faces challenges, and we had performance challenges in 2018. I believe that the major factor was a weakness of appetite from current and prospective investors, which was then on account of the allegations levelled by The Caravan magazine and Mr Jairam Ramesh’s press conference and the subsequent media and social media reporting of these.”
“You stated in your statement that ‘during the period of January to June 2017, we were unable to add even more investors and consequently the GNY Asia fund had to seize investments in India.’ What was the reason for this?”
Doval replied, while animatedly moving his hands: “We were a very young fund and young funds take considerable time to raise initial funds. We were a very small business.”
“Would you describe your fund as thriving or doing well before the press conference took place?”
“The fund was doing fine. We had an ‘up’ year in 2017 and we declined in 2018. We were a startup fund and we were trying very hard,” said Doval.
“Why were you unable to convert your provisional FPI license into a full license?”
“We were unable to broad base our investors. As per the provisional license regulations by SEBI, the fund after a provisional period should have 20 or more investors,” replied Doval.
The lawyer further inquired whether the (FPI) event took place before or after the press conference held by Ramesh.
“The provisional license expired before the press conference of Mr Jairam Ramesh…” said Doval.
“I put it to you that your fund was facing considerable financial and/or other difficulties before the press conference itself.”
Doval explained: “We as a fund were facing no financial difficulties—we were facing operational difficulties, like most global funds in 2018 due to the US-China trade war.”
The lawyer asked Doval how many investors “had left or expressed a desire” or had given in writing in that they wanted to withdraw. “How many left?”
“Post the press conference in February, we had Nick Allan redeeming … from the fund. We had conversations with our other investors who were feeling uneasy.”
After an hour-and-a-half of going at it, ACMM Vishal asked everyone to take a short five-minute break. As everyone exited the courtroom, Vivek Doval and his lawyers stood at the far end of the hallway, discussing the proceedings and sipping on some water. There seemed to be no nerves about either of them. In fact, Doval’s lawyers seldom had to help him out during the cross-examination. A lot of what Doval was answering was also “voluntary” in nature—his answers offered up more than what the questions demanded.
Proceedings resumed. Doval took his place in the witness box. ACMM Samar Vishal entered, and the cross-examination picked up from where it was left off.
“I put it to you that you have claimed that the complaint has been filed to seek redressal against allegations which have sought to destroy your and your family’s hard-earned reputation,” said the lawyer. He also asked why Doval had not presented any family member as a witness in the case. “You said you have filed the suit on your own behalf. My question is why have you not made them parties in your complaint?”
“It is my personal choice as to which witness I bring to prove my case,” replied Doval.
“I put it to you that Mr Jairam Ramesh held the press conference only after the Caravan story was in the public domain. His act was preceded by the act of publication of the article. You have you made Mr Ramesh accused number 1. I put it to you, Mr Doval, that you have done so to give this matter a political colour and to enjoy wider coverage in the press. Do you disagree?”
Doval replied: “I completely disagree.”
With this, the cross-examination of Vivek Doval by Jairam Ramesh’s council came to an end.
Advocate Bhavook Chauhan, the counsel for Caravan’s Kaushal Shroff, took over the cross-examination next. He showed Doval the magazine’s January 16 article that had Shroff’s byline. “Mr Doval, please see the first page of the article. The last paragraph, the first line reads ‘Vivek Doval … is the director of the hedge fund GNY Asia…’—is this factually correct?”
Doval replied: “It is correct that the statement is factually correct.”
Chauhan asked Doval a couple of other questions about the directors of the hedge fund, which Doval said were correct as well. Chauhan then asked him whether he knew or was aware that the Cayman Islands does or does not levy a heavy corporate tax.
“I do not really know if the Cayman Islands does or doesn’t levy a corporate tax,” said Doval.
At this stage, Doval was shown a document—a printout from the official website of Price Waterhouse Cooper wherein a narration of taxation policy in the Cayman Islands has been published. “Have you ever come across this document earlier?,” Chauhan asked Doval.
“I’ve never come across this document earlier,” he replied.
Chauhan went on to make a suggestion (on behalf of Doval). “It is wrong to suggest that I am feigning ignorance with respect to both these documents and that the Cayman Islands does not levy a corporate tax.” He asked Doval whether GNY Asia registered in the Cayman Islands on November 21, 2016.”
“To the best of my knowledge, it is factually correct,” came the response.
Chauhan’s next question was whether Amit Sharma held the post of portfolio manager at GNY Asia.
“It is factually incorrect,” replied Doval. “Amit Sharma worked as GNY Asia Funds’ head of research and head of marketing but not as a portfolio manager.”
“Would it be correct to say that having referred to Mr Amit Sharma as portfolio manager of the fund is not defamatory per se?”
Doval replied: “I think it is defamatory in the sense that this (Caravan) article has a number of misfacts in it which put together … misstating of facts, including the mention of Mr Amit Sharma as a portfolio manager, builds a false narrative which when collated together gives a strong defamatory picture.”
Chauhan continued his questioning. “How was Mr Nicholas Allan associated with GNY Asia Fund?”
“He was an investor in the fund. He had previously been my boss at Boyer Allan.”
Chauhan showed Doval an article from Bloomberg, wherein Amit Sharma had been referred to as portfolio manager of GNY Asia fund. “Are you aware of this publication?”
“Yes, but it is wrongly mentioned in the article that … Mr Amit Sharma was portfolio manager of GNY Asia Fund.”
Chauhan pointed out: “No defamation proceedings had been initiated against Bloomberg.com by Mr Amit Sharma or GNY Asia Fund for the said incorrect mention of Mr Amit Sharma being the portfolio manager of the fund.”
Doval said: “On account on that if one reads the article as a whole, the mention above appears to be a factual error, and the overall article doesn’t appear to be defamatory.”
Chauhan then drew Doval’s attention towards an on-the-record document Doval himself had filed. “It is correct that this document describes you and Mr Amit Sharma as portfolio managers of GNY Asia Fund?” he asked.
Doval replied: “The document was an initial agreement between me and Mr Amit Sharma, and Gordian Capital. Given the fact that the fund hadn’t been formed (it was formed on November 21, 2016) we could not have been portfolio managers.”
Pointing out that the fund was not registered till November 21, 2016, Chauhan asked: “That being so, did you make a false representation to Gordian Capital in the document, that Mr Amit Sharma and you were portfolio managers of the fund?”
“No,” replied Doval. “It was originally envisaged that Amit Sharma and I would join Gordian Capital. However, due to family reasons, Amit having grown-up children going to school in London, it was decided that Amit would not join Gordian Capital.”
“With respect to the same document, would it be correct to say that in recital C it was agreed that Gordian Capital shall be paid a share of the management fees arising from the GNY Asia Fund?” asked Chauhan.
“As mentioned before, the MoU was an initial document and not the final terms of the arrangement with Gordian Capital. Gordian Capital did not receive a percentage share of fees arising from the fund—but a dollar amount per month. We can provide full documentary evidence for that.”
At this stage, another document was shown to Doval by Chauhan.
“Would this document show the amended terms of conditions agreed to between Gordian Capital and GNY Asia Fund in January 2018?
Doval replied: “It appears so in the title of the report but I am not current if there had been a previous version. I am not up to date with previous versions.”
At 1.05 pm—a little over three hours since Vivek Doval’s cross-examination had begun—the court broke for lunch. Proceedings resumed at 2.10 pm.
“Would it be correct to say that paragraph 3.1 (of said document) mentions that Mr Amit Sharma and you shall be appointed as portfolio managers of GNY Asia Fund?” Chauhan asked Doval.
“As stated, it was originally expected that Amit Sharma and myself would be portfolio managers of GNY Asia Fund. However, due to family commitments, Amit continued to be in London and never joined as a portfolio manager at GNY Asia Fund. Para 3.1 is ambiguous and was not the final allocation of responsibilities within the GNY Asia Fund. Additionally, an agreement was signed between the GNY Asia Fund and GNY Capital Limited in London which specified Amit Shah’s role specifically.”
Upon being asked by Chauhan, Doval said: “It is correct that the MoU exhibit bears my signatures at point A.”
“Did you read the MoU before signing it?” continued Chauhan.
“I had read the contents of the MoU before signing it.”
“Did you raise any objection to Gordian Capital that the contents of para 3.1 of the amended agreement are ambiguous?”
Doval replied: “No. There was no need to raise an objection with Gordian Capital because they suggested that given Amit could not move to Singapore, he could not be a portfolio manager at the GNY Asia Fund. New agreements were drafted whereby Amit would manage the Marketing and Research functions of GNY Asia Fund in London via GNY Capital Limited.”
“Please see para 8.1 and 8.2 of the amended MoU,” said Chauhan. “Would it be correct to say that it is mentioned in para 8.1 and 8.2 of the agreement that Gordian Capital would receive a percentage of the net value of the fund, depending upon the different classes of shares, and that Gordian Capital would also receive a percentage performance fee … depending upon the class of shares?”
Doval firmly replied: “Gordian Capital was a service provider to the GNY Asia Fund. It received a management fee which was a percentage of assets under management—but what it finally received was the fee after deducting the portfolio manager’s salary. So, in effect, Gordian Capital’s compensation as a service provider was a fixed amount per month.”
“Mr Doval, you haven’t answered my question. Kindly first answer it,” pointed out Chauhan.
Doval reread the entire document under his breath. He then replied: “So whilst optically it may seem that Gordian Capital was receiving a percentage of the assets under management and a performance fee, it was in fact only receiving a fixed service fee. So the answer is ‘no’.”
Bhavook posed his next question to Doval. “Is it factually correct that a London based company acts as an adviser to GNY Capital Fund?”
“A document filed with…shows that the net worth of GNY Capital was close to £5,400 in October 2016. Is that correct?” asked Chauhan.
“Approximately, the number sounds correct,” replied Doval.
Chauhan then asked him whether, in February 2018, Edelweiss had held an investor conference.
“It is true,” replied Doval.
“GNY Asia fund attended this conference. Is it correct?”
Chauhan continued: “A little over two months after it was registered in the Cayman Islands, GNY was at several meetings and conferences … GNY Asia also attended two other meetings in June 2017.”
Doval replied: “Yes, it is correct. I, Vivek Doval, attended the conference and all those meetings. I was escorted/was with some young analysts whom I was providing real-time training of attending major conferences.”
Clearly, Chauhan was trying to drive home a point. “GNY Asia stood out at these meetings … shared tables with Goldman Sachs and the likes of ICICI, Kotak Mahindra Asset management … is it factually correct?”
In one long breath, Doval replied: “Yes, that is correct. I was till, October 16, a fund manager of close to 14,000-crore fund myself at British Airways Pensions, and Edelweiss Securities knew me for at least the last 10 years. It is very normal in the industry that when new fund managers start their funds based on their professional backgrounds, they are provided access by their brokers to corporates. Also to be noted that none of my interactions was one-on-one meetings and there must have been over ten investors in each of these meetings. Also to be noted that Edelweiss Securities was GNY Asia Fund’s custodial broker.”
Chauhan asked: “Would it be correct to say that ‘LEI’ is Legal Identify—a 20-character code that acts as a unique identifier for a firm, company, or any business that seeks to enter into a financial transaction?”
Doval replied: “Yes. I am not sure whether it is a 20- or 19-digit code but definitely it is a unique identity for a fund.”
“GNY Asia fund was given LEI in September 2018?” asked Chauhan.
“It would appear correct. Custodian bank undertakes rigorous KYC on every fund that it ‘onboards.’ The LEI would not have been a mandatory requirement at the time when we got the FPI license— otherwise Edelweiss would have not allowed us to trade in India without LEI, as per regulations.”
At 3.10 pm, the proceedings for the day came to an end. Doval’s cross-examination will continue today as well.