India hands over 627 'black money' names to court

India's government on Wednesday handed a top court a secret list of 627 people suspected of stashing black money in foreign banks beyond the reach of tax authorities. -- PHOTO: AFP
India's government on Wednesday handed a top court a secret list of 627 people suspected of stashing black money in foreign banks beyond the reach of tax authorities. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's government on Wednesday handed a top court a secret list of 627 people suspected of stashing "black money" in foreign banks beyond the reach of tax authorities.

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi complied with a Supreme Court order to submit the names of those being scrutinised for allegedly hiding funds in Swiss bank accounts.

"The government of India gave the entire list of HSBC accounts. There are about 627 accounts. We gave it in a sealed cover to the court," Rohatgi told reporters outside the court.

Since coming to power in May, the right-wing government has been under pressure to reveal the names, after pledging during the election campaign to "bring back black money within 100 days" of being elected.

The ruling party had accused the previous Congress government of failing to crack down on Indians parking billions of untaxed dollars abroad, an issue that has become a political lightning rod.

Rohatgi Wednesday urged the court not to make the names public, saying this would place India in danger of breaching tax treaties with various countries.

The court ruled that the documents would remain secret, and would instead be handed over to a court-appointed special investigating team.

The court took up the issue following petitions from anti-corruption activists who have waged an aggressive campaign to prosecute wealthy people with undeclared funds offshore.

The government on Monday handed the court the names of seven business people and one mining company facing possible prosecution for tax evasion as a result of its investigations.

But the government had argued against revealing the rest of the names until after its investigations found firm evidence that their accounts held black money.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Wednesday insisted that the government had nothing to hide, amid criticism that it was seeking to shield powerful people.

India's rumour mills have been in overdrive about who may be on the so-called "black money list".

Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based group that tracks money transfers, said Indians surreptitiously shifted US$344 billion (S$430 billion) overseas between 2002 and 2011, depriving India of vital tax revenues.

But that money abroad is a fraction of illicit funds and assets concealed in India, experts say.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi set up a team of regulators and ex-judges to identify illicit fund-holders and repatriate money after taking power.

But it has encountered difficulty obtaining details of account-holders from foreign nations due to financial confidentiality issues.

The government said Monday that Swiss authorities had agreed to provide information to help India investigate leaked accounts, after earlier saying such assistance would break Swiss law.