Uproar in S. Africa as UP ministers land at air base to attend wedding

The guests have gone to attend the wedding of the niece of the billionaire Gupta brothers

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Published:May 2, 2013 3:25 am

A chartered plane carrying more than 200 Indian wedding guests,including two Uttar Pradesh ministers,has flown into a major controversy in South Africa as it landed at an air force base in the capital Pretoria,with critics branding it as an abuse of government assets in that country.

The guests have gone to attend the wedding of the niece of the billionaire Gupta brothers — Ajay,Atul and Rajesh — who migrated from Saharanpur in UP in the early 1990s and are said to be the largest independent information technology distributors in South Africa.

The passengers who arrived at the Waterkloof Air Force Base on Tuesday included controversial Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Azam Khan,Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother and minister Shivpal Singh Yadav and UP assembly Speaker Mata Prasad Pandey.

Critics,including from the ruling African National Congress party to which the Gupta brothers are close,have asked why the plane flew into the air force base. The only non-military passengers who land there are normally dignitaries,heads of state or top diplomats.

“The African National Congress,driven by the concern for the safety and sovereignty of South Africa,shall never allow a situation where our ports of entry and national key points are penetrated with impunity,” the ANC said in a statement.

“We demand that those who are responsible for granting access to land aircraft in our country also explain the basis upon which such permission was granted,particularly to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

Those who cannot account must be brought to book,” it said.

Harnath Ghosh,a spokesman for the Gupta family,however,said that the aircraft had not violated any rules.

“The Gupta family reiterates that permission for aircraft,carrying foreign ministers and other dignitaries,was obtained from the SANDF (South African National Defence Force) beforehand. No aircraft is able to land anywhere in the world without obtaining prior permission,” he said in an email statement.

But SANDF spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini has said the military is “not aware of any permission granted for the Gupta family to use the Waterkloof Air Force Base. As far as I know,no permission has been granted to a private citizen to use the base. It is a military base and a national key point used by government and its guests.”

Ghosh rebutted Dlamini’s statement and said the permissions were applied for and granted to the Indian High Commission and not the Gupta family. “These rights can be applied for by any foreign embassy,” he said.

“Waterkloof Air Force Base was used with full permission of the authorities to receive foreign dignitaries including some ministers. It is a conventional and common practice between countries in receiving officials from another state. Waterkloof was used as Lanseria airport could not accommodate the size of the jet chartered by the family,” Ghosh said.

Lanseria airport is a private airport near Pretoria.

The Indian High Commission in South Africa has confirmed to the local media that it had asked for and received permission from South African authorities for the chartered aircraft to land at the air force base as some Indian government ministers were on board.

The Gupta family,which owns The New Age newspaper and Sahara Computers,is hosting the wedding of Vega Gupta,23,to Indian-born Akash Jahajgarhia,a Delhi-based builder,between May 1 and 4. The extended family of the Guptas still lives in Saharanpur.

The wedding is taking place in Sun City,a resort-cum-casino in northwest South Africa. Sources in Lucknow said that the wedding guests also included Congress and BJP politicians from Uttar Pradesh. – with inputs from Faisal Fareed in Lucknow

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