An extravagant marriage caught the attention of ED sleuths, who were perplexed by the meteoric rise of Chandrakar from his humble origins as a juice vendor in Chattisgarh’s Bhilai
As the probe unfolded, the ED found that Sourabh Chandrakar and Ravi Uppal of Bhilai were the promoters of Mahadev Online Betting app, an ‘umbrella syndicate’, which promoted users to gamble
Ranbir Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Huma Qureshi, Hina Khan and 10 other actors are under the ED scanner for endorsing the betting platform for monetary gains
It was a lavish wedding in the United Arab Emirates’ Ras Al-Khaimah in February 2023. The groom was an Indian native by the name of Sourabh Chandrakar, and it was not a small affair.
The grand ceremony, allegedly costing north of INR 200 Cr, saw performances by the likes of Vishal Dadlani, Tiger Shroff, Sunny Leone, Neha Kakkar, Nushrratt Bharuccha, and many others. Not just this, the family members of Chandrakar were ferried on private jets from Nagpur to the UAE.
Thousands of kilometres away in India, the extravagant marriage caught the attention of enforcement agencies who were perplexed by the meteoric rise of Chandrakar from his humble origins as a juice vendor in Chattisgarh’s Bhilai.
Seven months later, the Enforcement Directorate began its crackdown and announced that it unearthed the Mahadev app online betting scam and frozen assets and proceeds to the tune of INR 417 Cr.
But, how was the Indian wedding in the UAE linked to a mega online betting scam in India?
While at the centre of the crackdown was Mahadev Online Betting app, running the show were its promoters Chandrakar and Ravi Uppal, both of whom hail from Bhilai.
As the probe unfolded, the ED said that the entire INR 200 Cr spent on the wedding was paid entirely in cash. As per the agency, wedding planners, dancers and decorators were hired from Mumbai and payments were made in cash through hawala channels.
During the investigation, the directorate conducted searches across 39 Indian cities, and in the process arrested four persons, including the chief liaison of the ‘betting syndicate’.
Later, Ranbir Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Huma Qureshi and Hina Khan were also summoned by the agency as they were believed to have endorsed the betting platform. The celebrities are said to have been paid with the proceeds of the scam. Besides, as many as 10 other known names, are under the ED radar.
The ED also discovered the link to senior government officials, mainly police officials, who received money in lieu of ‘protection’ from the hawala operators of the app. Meanwhile, many more grizzly details were about to emerge.
The Modus Operandi
As per the enforcement directorate, Mahadev betting app was an ‘umbrella syndicate’ that allowed users to gamble on various games such as card games, chance games, tennis, football, and cricket.
The company would allegedly first lure users to enrol on its platform by creating new IDs and then launder the money of onboarded users through a convoluted web of Benami bank accounts.
The duo of Chandrakar and Uppal are the masterminds of the alleged scam, as per ED. With a central head office in the UAE, the company purportedly operates by franchising its ‘branches/ panels’ to their known associates on a 70:30 profit ratio. However, it could not be ascertained who gets the lion’s share of profits.
Once accumulated, the funds were used to bankroll ‘large’ marketing and advertising expenditures to attract new users and franchisee applicants. In addition, large-scale hawala operations would also be undertaken to syphon off the proceeds of betting to offshore accounts.
However, users would always end up being the losers as games on the app would be reportedly manipulated in a way to benefit the company. As per reports, the platform has so far accumulated proceeds to the tune of INR 5,000 Cr through the app.
Agency Cracks Its Whip
The digital evidence collected by agencies during the pan-India raids revealed that INR 112 Cr was paid via hawala channels to an events management company for organising the wedding, while an additional INR 42 Cr was paid for hotel booking in AEDs (United Arab Emirates Dirhams).
Raids were conducted on the premises linked to the event management, leading the ED to the promoters of the app. Afterwards, the trail led the ED sleuths to several angadias, resulting in the seizure of unaccounted cash of INR 2.37 Cr. Angadias facilitate the inter-state transfer of diamonds, gold ornaments and cash.
The enforcement agency then conducted raids at the premises linked to a travel agency, Rapid Travels, which was responsible for arranging the travel plans of the app’s promoters, their relatives, business associates and celebs to the UAE for the wedding.
As per the ED, the unaccounted cash proceeds from the app’s franchisees were used by Rapid Travels’ owners (Dheeraj Ahuja and Vishal Ahuja) to pay the main ticket providers and the wallet balance was used to book domestic and international tickets.
Among others persons involved in the money laundering operations of the Mahadev app included Kolkata-based Vikash Chhaparia, who handled the hawala operations for the betting platform. After raids were conducted at premises linked to Chhaparia and his associates, the agency gathered leads that he was investing heavily through his entities in the Indian stock markets via the Foreign Portfolio Investment route.
Accordingly, cash derivatives and other security holdings to the tune of INR 236.3 Cr were frozen by the ED under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.
In addition, assets worth INR 160 Cr, sitting in the demat holdings of Chhaparia’s associate Govind Kumar Kedia, were also seized. Raids at the premises of Kedia also led to the seizure of INR 18 Lakh in currency notes as well as gold and other jewellery valued at INR 13 Cr.
Meanwhile, further investigation is under process. Amid all this, both Chandrakar and Uppal have denied all such claims and have put the onus on a new person altogether.
A Third Culprit?
The duo have single-handedly denied all charges levelled by the enforcement directorate and any association with the alleged betting racket. In a statement sent to Inc42, the duo asserted that the claims were ‘entirely baseless’ and represented an ‘attempt to tarnish their reputation’.
In another statement, Chandrakar also contended that the entire wedding ceremony cost around AED 10 Mn, which comes out to be around INR 22 Cr.
“Contrary to the reports, Sourabh Chandrakar vehemently asserts that the entire wedding ceremony, costing around AED 10 million, was entirely financed through his internal accruals and savings, with well-documented records substantiating the sources of his income,” the statement said.
In a major twist, the two have claimed that a person by the name of Subham Soni is the major orchestrator of the Mahadev betting app. Chandrakar and Uppal appear to be in possession of ‘substantial evidence supporting their claims of innocence’, which the duo are prepared to present when necessary.
When Inc42 pressed the company about the nature of this evidence, a spokesperson refused to divulge any details.
“In the wake of significant reputational damage and unwarranted harassment, Mr. Uppal and Mr. Chandrakar have diligently conducted their investigation into the matter. Their findings, sourced meticulously from reliable channels, unequivocally point to Mr. Subham Soni as the orchestrator behind the Mahadev Book betting application,” a joint statement by Uppal and Chandrakar read.
As per the duo, Soni is said to operate through an entity named Mahadevbook Markets Limited, which is registered in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As per them, Soni is the director on Mahadevbook Markets’ board and is the ‘principal architect’ of the betting operation.
Both Chandrakar and Uppal claim that the ED investigation is inadequate and has been focussed on ‘scapegoating’ rather than revealing the truth.
Chandrakar also claimed that the celebrities, in question, were paid through an event management company, which facilitated their attendance at the wedding. He also claimed that there were no direct financial dealings between him and the celebrities and that the payments were processed entirely through the event management company.
Meanwhile, there seems to be no clarity on what this substantial evidence is and how this new person named Subham Soni fits in the larger scheme of things.
It has come to the fore that Uppal is engaged in construction projects of a ‘multifaceted nature of strategic importance and complexity’ in Chhattisgarh and the Middle East, catering to both public and private entities. On the other hand, Saurabh Chandrakar’s business ‘Juice Factory’ appears to have 25 branches across Bhilai and has been running ‘various FMCG, construction, sub-contracting and development related businesses’ in the Middle East.
Together Uppal and Chandrakar operate ‘Empire One Global’, a company where both serve as managing directors.
Meanwhile, the case has cast the spotlight on the growing menace of hawala networks and online betting scams. With many looking to make a quick buck, scamster apps trap users with the allure of high returns and then decamp with their money.
In the past few months, the ED has unearthed many such platforms, which use local hawala networks to syphon off proceeds and send them overseas.
As the saga continues to pan out, it remains to be seen how authorities crack the whip on such platforms.
Update: This story has been edited to include additional details from a statement sent by Saurabh Chandrakar to Inc42 after its publishing.