On February 22, Central Bureau of Investigation officers called up Shantiniketan, the sprawling South Kolkata bungalow of Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee. The agency wanted to question his wife, Rujira. Abhishek, the Diamond Harbour MP, is seen as the political heir of his aunt, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The CBI alleges that Trinamool Youth Congress general secretary Vinay Mishra, an accused in a multi-crore-rupee coal scam, had routed money to Rujira’s bank accounts in Bangkok. CBI sources said that Rujira used to hold a Thai passport. There is speculation on whether she was born in Bangkok. She had met Abhishek during her college days in Delhi.
As Rujira gave the CBI officers an appointment for the following day, they went to question her sister Menaka, who was also allegedly linked to Mishra. A leader with wide support, Mishra is known to be close to Abhishek.
The coal case is one of three major investigations that the CBI has sunk its teeth into weeks before the assembly elections in the state. Apparently, coal worth crores of rupees was illegally taken from mines managed by Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) in western parts of the state like Asansol, and sold in the open market. ECL is a subsidiary of Coal India.
THE COAL LOOT
The first information report in the case, a copy of which THE WEEK has, was filed last November. The CBI named five top ECL officials and one Anup Majhi, aka Lala, who used to buy coal from ECL. The FIR also mentioned some Central Industrial Security Force personnel, members of the mines’ security force.
The report also said that criminal elements were illegally excavating and stealing coal in “active connivance of the officials of ECL, CISF, Indian Railways and other departments concerned”. The CBI said illegal mining started in May 2020, soon after the Covid-19 lockdown began.
“During inspections, a large number of vehicles and equipment used in illegal coal mining, [along with] illegally excavated coal [were] seized,” said the CBI report. The agency has only raided Eastern Railway areas till now; it requires the state government’s permission to raid other regions.
“Public servants allowed Anup Majhi and other unknown private persons to misappropriate national property entrusted to them,” said the report.
Majhi is a director of Mark Enclave Private Limited, a company headquartered in Kolkata. “The company bought coal from various organisations, including ECL,” said the CBI report.
Said a CBI officer investigating the case: “Being a businessman, he came close to many Trinamool leaders… and allegedly paid bribes to ECL officials and the ruling party of Bengal. Vinay Mishra is key among them.”
In addition to the coal business, Majhi also owns hotels in Purulia and Durgapur, and a private hospital in Durgapur, said sources. “He has friends in all political parties. The Trinamool is the recent beneficiary,” said a senior state police officer who was posted in Asansol three years ago.
On February 12, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court had stayed a single-judge order of the same court, which had restricted the investigation to Railway areas. Majhi, who is absconding, then approached the Supreme Court, which is hearing the matter.
The Bengal government also raised jurisdictional issues saying that the CBI, being a Central agency, could not carry out probes in the state. The state had, in 2018, withdrawn consent for the CBI to investigate in Bengal.
The CBI is grilling the ECL officials and has also called three state police officers for questioning. One has appeared, two are yet to do so. “The police officers will have to pay a heavy price for doing illegal acts to [help] the Trinamool Congress,” said state BJP vice president Biswapriyo Roychowdhury.
The CBI has not accused Rujira, Menaka or Abhishek in the case, but more than 10 Trinamool leaders are said to be on the CBI’s radar. “We will evaluate everybody’s bank accounts,” said a CBI officer in Kolkata. “Rujira’s IT statement has been sought. She had a passport from Thailand.”
Interestingly, minutes before the CBI officers reached Abhishek’s house on February 23, Mamata had visited Shantiniketan and paraded Abhishek’s six-year-old daughter in front of the media before leaving.
Later, the CBI officers then questioned Rujira and, an hour later, reported to their seniors in Delhi. “She (Rujira) refused to give proper answers,” a CBI source told THE WEEK. “In fact, she avoided all the questions.”
Suvendu Adhikari, who recently left the Trinamool for the BJP, said that such investigations made him use words such as tolabaaz (extortionist) for Abhishek. “Not only is Mishra his close friend, Mishra used to look after the posting of all senior police officers of the state,” he said. “He wears costly clothes, ornaments and accessories. The money deposited into the Thai accounts of madam Naroola (Rujira’s maiden name) came from the proceeds of coal smuggling.”
Neither Abhishek nor Rujira could be reached for comments.
The CBI is now looking for Mishra, who is also absconding. Mishra is known to be close to some senior IPS officers in the state, many of whom are allegedly involved in the coal theft case. In fact, one of Mishra’s brothers is a state police officer.
BENGAL’S COW BELT
The CBI, apparently under the strict supervision of the prime minister’s office, is investigating the allegation of cattle smuggling into Bangladesh. The trade is reportedly worth around 0500 crore a year, and allegedly involves international smugglers, and officers of the Border Security Force and the state police. Though cattle smuggling is also common in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, Bengal reportedly accounts for about 80 per cent of the trade.
Unlike in the coal case, the CBI’s target in cattle smuggling is not a political party, but the state police. As many as eight top officers are under the scanner, including two of the rank of additional director general and three of the rank of inspector general. The agency has issued notices to them, but they are yet to appear.
The CBI has raided the homes of several prominent businessmen in Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas and Kolkata; they were apparently in touch with the suspected IPS officers.
According to CBI sources, like in the coal case, the CBI first went after a Central body—the BSF—before booking people in the state. Interestingly, in both coal and cattle cases, the perpetrators were allegedly close to the Trinamool. CBI sources said both Majhi and Enamul Haque, the kingpin of the cow smuggling operations, have been close to the Bengal administration and also some Central agencies.
The case began in 2018, when the agency arrested BSF commandant Jibu Mathew from Kerala. They recovered 047 lakh from him and tracked down commandant Satish Kumar in Kolkata in November 2020. The CBI then tracked down a number of BSF officers who had been allegedly conniving with state police officers to smuggle cattle across the border for years. Apparently, both Kumar and Mathew were used by Haque, a Delhi-based businessman who allegedly supplied cattle to Bangladesh using his BSF sources. According to the CBI, Haque, who has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, had his people in different local cattle markets, from where he would buy the animals.
Apparently, Amit Shah zeroed in on the cattle smuggling when he took charge as Union home minister in 2019. He soon deployed senior IPS officer Pankaj Kumar Singh as the chief of the BSF eastern command. More than a year later, Singh, as special director general, seems to have not only curbed the smuggling, but also helped the CBI’s probe.
Haque has allegedly been involved in the trade for 16 years, and is rumoured to have connections with insurgent groups in Bangladesh. CBI sources said cattle smuggling was related to fake currency rackets, which in turn were linked to insurgents; the National Investigation Agency has already proven this. The Enforcement Directorate is also running a parallel investigation to look into the money laundering aspect.
Haque’s alleged connections with top IPS officers—and the CBI summoning them—has caused a furore in the state. The state administration, which has been in a battle with the CBI for a few years, is also feeling the heat.
The state BJP said that the police had no option but to fall in line. “They are worried,” said Roychowdhury. “They will have to pay a heavy price because they trafficked cows to an Islamic country, which slaughtered our holy animal. The Central agency would not spare them.”
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also brought up the issue during his rally in Malda on March 2. “People’s sentiments are being hurt through cow smuggling, but the state government remains silent,” he said.
Adhikari, meanwhile, claimed that Haque, too, had links with the Trinamool. “It will be revealed soon, just wait,” he said.
The CBI first arrested Haque in 2019, but he got bail. He was arrested again in January 2021, after the Calcutta High Court withdrew his interim bail.
Though a couple of the IPS officers have gone to court to contest the CBI summons, the agency is hoping that, given the magnitude of the case, the court would allow it to book the perpetrators. Also, the fact that the agency first went after the BSF might help remove any political colour from the investigation.
The Enforcement Directorate arrested former Alchemist Group chief K.D. Singh in a Ponzi scheme case from his house in Delhi on January 14. The agency said it suspected that the former Trinamool Rajya Sabha member had transferred more than $15 million out of India and was in the process of moving his business to another country. Apparently, he was planning to flee India.
Singh had been on the radar of various investigating agencies, including the CBI and ED, for years. His company was part of the several Ponzi companies, including Saradha, which the CBI has been investigating since 2014. He had stepped down as the chairman of the Alchemist Group in 2013, and is now its emeritus chairman.
According to a 2018 inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), based on market audits, the company had collected money on the promise of better returns from around 25 lakh people in various states. “More than five lakh people went to court,” said lawyer Arindam Das, who is representing investors at the Calcutta High Court. “Now imagine the (number of those who have) not come to court yet. They are scattered all over India, including in states like Jharkhand, Odisha and Kerala, and even in the northeast.”
SEBI had, in 2018, first noticed the Alchemist Group’s ploy of misusing the money and attempting to park it abroad. Singh was a Rajya Sabha member then. Soon after the money laundering case blew up, Mamata Banerjee contacted him; he has been dormant since.
The political connection between Singh and Mamata has armed the opposition. They alleged that, in 2011, Singh had funded the helicopter charters of senior Trinamool leaders during the election campaign. “It is alleged that the then opposition leader, now chief minister, rode the helicopter which was arranged by Singh,” said a CBI officer.
However, Singh’s relationship with the party soured after the Narada sting operation on several Trinamool leaders in 2014. It was allegedly done at Singh’s behest.
The SEBI report of 2018, a copy of which THE WEEK has, said, “K.D. Singh is allegedly in the process of siphoning off around $100 million, earned by duping innocent public in the guise of a fake deposit scheme, in buying companies abroad via tax havens in association with the business head of a Mumbai-based, family-owned group with international presence.”
The report was submitted in a sealed envelope to the court in 2018. Another report was filed in 2019; the court recently sent both reports to the CBI for investigation. “Perhaps they have mentioned this (Mumbai company) to the higher officers of the agency,” said a CBI officer. “But it has not been made public yet. When the matter is revealed to us we would investigate their roles.”
In its report, SEBI also said that Singh was involved in many other activities. “He has entered into a deal with a Greek business owner, whereby a new entity is being created in Cyprus, for which €10 million have been kept in an escrow account till the Greek company ownership is transferred to Cyprus. Subsequently, the aforementioned business head (Singh) would acquire the company and apply for EU (European Union) residency and passport,” said the report.
SEBI also said that Singh was in the process of buying real estate in Mykonos island, Greece, to “construct safe vacation homes and to acquire pubs, restaurants and strip clubs in Athens, which he is planning to combine with his vacation homes to create a private party club worth €5 million.”
The Kolkata Police had formed a special investigation team in 2017 to probe Singh and the group. But there has been no headway. The CBI, according to the Calcutta High Court, will also look into why no investigation was conducted. As alleged in the Saradha case, it would ascertain whether there was pressure from the state government to drop the case.
With just weeks left for the assembly elections, Mamata’s opponents, especially the BJP, would be hoping that the various cases will damage her chances of being re-elected.
However, the BJP would not want Mamata to be portrayed as a martyr. She had recently reminded the BJP: “Remember, a wounded tiger is more ferocious than a fit tiger. I am a Bengal tigress.”