The Delhi High Court has granted bail to Preeti Chandra, wife of Sanjay Chandra, former Director of M/s. Unitech Group in a money laundering case holding that the classification of women bereft of intelligible differentia would be an anathema to Article 14 of the Constitution i.e., Right to Equality.

The Court noted that she has been investigated on more than 13 occasions and is in custody for more than 20 months.

A Single Bench of Justice Jasmeet Singh held, “I am of the view that beneficial legislation in favour of a class of persons, which is reflective of constitutional spirit, should not be considered narrowly, and must be given a liberal interpretation. … to argue what kind of woman is entitled to fall within the proviso to section 45(1) PMLA by creating an ad-hoc illusionary sub-classification of educated women, business women, women belonging to high social strata, within the broader classification of “woman”, as sought to be done by the respondent, is misconceived. … There is no intelligible differentia in classifying women based on their education, occupation or social stature. Classifying women bereft of any intelligible differentia would be an anathema to the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.”

The Bench granted bail to the accused subject to furnishing a personal bond with a surety in the sum of Rs. 1 lakh and also directed her to give up her citizenship of the Dominican Republic within one week.

“Today, the Applicant is in custody from 04.10.2021, charges are yet to be framed, and the trial is to commence. … The twin conditions of Section 45 of the PMLA will not be applicable to the applicant. The applicant has to satisfy the triple test which can be taken care of by imposing stringent conditions. The applicant has already been investigated for more than 13 occasions and has been in custody for more than 20 months. … the application is allowed and the applicant is granted bail”, said the Court.

Senior Advocate Siddharth Aggarwal with Advocate Adit S. Pujari appeared for the accused/petitioner while Advocate Zoheb Hossain with SPP Arun Khatri appeared for the Enforcement Directorate (ED)/respondent.

Brief Facts -

The petitioner was a fashion designer by profession and a philanthropist and was the director of M/s. Prakausali Investments (India) Pvt. Ltd. and M/s. Mayfair Investments Pvt. Ltd. Between 2006 to 2022, 74 FIRs were registered by Delhi Police and CBI, against the promoters of Unitech Group and their associates under Sections 34, 201, 406, 409, 120B, 420, etc. of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) and under Sections 7, 7(A), 8,9,10,12, and 13 of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PC Act).

Most of the said FIRs were recorded based on complaints made by homebuyers who were cheated by the accused persons who were promised to get their dream homes and the investors would get handsome returns on their investment. Induced by such a promise, the homebuyers and investors invested huge amounts in the Unitech group and the same were misutilised and laundered. Based on numerous FIRs, an investigation was taken up t under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) by ED and it was alleged that the proceeds of crime were to the tune of Rs. 380.08 Crores. It was further alleged that the petitioner was present during the passing of the resolution regarding the authorization of some transactions of around Rs. 107 crores.

The High Court in view of the above facts noted, “Once the Hon’ble Supreme Court has granted liberty to the applicant to move appropriate bail application before the appropriate Court, the appropriate Court has to adjudicate the application on its own merits and the reliance of the respondent on an earlier order prior to the order of 10.08.2022 passed by the Hon‟ble Supreme Court may not be of much relevance. In addition, the respondents have interrogated the Applicant on numerous occasions and lastly on 15.09.2022. Thereafter the respondents have not felt the need to interrogate the Applicant for a period of more than 7-8 months.”

The senior counsel for the petitioner submitted before the court that she is willing to renounce the citizenship of the Dominican Republic as a bail condition and is already in the process of taking Indian citizenship.

“Based upon Article 15(3), the State has carved out an exception for „woman‟ from the rigours of twin condition of Section 45 of the PMLA. … PMLA does not define a „woman‟. It is neither the intention of the Constitution of India nor the intention of PMLA to classify women on the basis of their education and occupation, social standing, exposure to society, etc. … It is also settled principle of interpretation that while interpreting a statute and/or a Section, the Courts are not to substitute or add or subtract words from the Section. The same would be amounting to supplanting the intention of the Legislature”, noted the Court.

The Court observed that once the word ‘woman’ has been used in the Proviso to Section 45(1) of PMLA, the court is not to further sub-classify women into different categories and apply the twin conditions of Section 45 to some categories of women and to exclude some categories of women from the twin condition of Section 45 as doing the same would not only be violative of Article 14 but also be a great injustice to the intention of the legislature.

“The order of 10.08.2022 passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court assuages the concern of the Applicant being a flight risk. Additionally, the Sessions court on 07.11.2022 has stated that the Applicant is not a flight risk. … It cannot be lost sight that the applicant is the wife of Mr. Sanjay Chandra who is in Police custody. The applicant is allowed meetings and regular jail visits. All these messages could very well have been put by her to Mr. Sanjay Chandra during these jail visits. There is nothing incriminating in the messages except the fact that Mr. Sanjay Chandra should not and could not have a telephone while in jail, for which, an FIR has already been registered”, said the Court.

The Court further observed that there are no messages which have been brought to its notice showing handling of money, monetary transactions, business decisions, siphoning off funds, etc, and that as far as tampering with evidence is concerned, all the documents are in the custody of the ED.

“… therefore, the allegation of the Applicant tampering with the evidence or influencing the witnesses is not made out”, held the Court.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the bail plea.

Cause Title- Preeti Chandra v. Directorate of Enforcement (Neutral Citation: 2023:DHC:4177)

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