Courting trouble

CBI application in the SC could derail Mamata Banerjee’s quest to retain power

20-mamata State of bother: Mamata Banerjee on her dharna following the CBI raid on the Kolkata Police commissioner's residence in February 2019 | Salil Bera

On December 23, the Central Bureau of Investigation submitted a 271-page application in the Supreme Court, claiming that the constitutional machinery in West Bengal had collapsed and alleging that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was involved in the 2013 Saradha scam. The Supreme Court had asked the CBI to investigate the case; initially, a special investigation team headed by Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar had probed it.

The application also sought custodial interrogation of Kumar. The CBI accused him of not investigating the Saradha scam case and of even returning crucial documents and laptops to the prime accused.

Banerjee could have a troubling January as the apex court is also set to hear a handful of other cases related to the state administration. This includes a case the BJP filed regarding “rampant violence” during the 2019 elections.

The application, a copy of which THE WEEK has, details the alleged mistreatment CBI officials faced while investigating the multi-crore Saradha scam. In February 2019, the state police had stopped CBI officials from interrogating Kumar. “[This] clearly points [to] the concerted institutional connivance [in the state] and a complete breakdown of the rule of law and constitutional machinery,” read the application.

In an interview with THE WEEK (issue dated January 3, 2021), West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar had also claimed such a “breakdown of the constitutional machinery”. He said he had flagged it in a report to the Centre.

The CBI’s application comes weeks before a full bench of the Election Commission is scheduled to visit the state. Sudeep Jain, the deputy election commissioner who recently visited north and south Bengal, reportedly told his officers in the state: “The commission would not accept a single deviation from the rule.”

The state BJP, meanwhile, does not want the upcoming assembly elections to be held under the Trinamool’s administrative control. Said BJP national spokesperson Raju Bista: “The state administration should in no way control a single officer during the elections. If that means imposition of President’s rule, then so be it.”

As for the Saradha scam, the CBI said in the application: “[There is] a larger conspiracy between highly placed state authorities and companies under the investigation, which requires full and thorough investigation by the CBI; [the investigation] is being deliberately scuttled by the concrete efforts of the state authorities/contemners.”

The agency also brought up the 93-page letter Trinamool leader Kunal Ghosh, an accused in the case, had written to it in 2014; he had then called Banerjee the “biggest beneficiary” of the scam. The CBI also cited the interrogation of Ghosh by the Enforcement Directorate in 2013, which seemed to have revealed more information. Importantly, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, confessions or statements made before an ED official are admissible in court; this is not the case with other agencies.

The CBI also claimed that, despite the gravity of Ghosh’s allegations, the state police made him withdraw his application for recording his statement, under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Push comes to shove: Kolkata Police detain CBI officers who came to question the Kolkata Police commissioner, in February 2019 | Salil Bera Push comes to shove: Kolkata Police detain CBI officers who came to question the Kolkata Police commissioner, in February 2019 | Salil Bera

Asked about this, Arindam Das, senior advocate at the Calcutta High Court, said: “Of course, the state police is liable to answer why Ghosh’s statement was not taken when he wanted it to be taken during his long stay in police custody.”

Quoting the ED’s interrogation, the CBI said in the application: “[The] West Bengal chief minister and the promoter of Saradha Group Sudipta Sen had [a] very good relationship. [She] used to talk to Sen using [Ghosh’s] phone. It is submitted that call detail records of two numbers of Sen, spanning one year, revealed that Ghosh and [he] had contacted 298 times on one number and 9 times on the other number.”

The CBI said that the ED investigation revealed that Sudipta Sen and Alchemist Group chief K.D. Singh—who was accused in a money laundering case and later became a Rajya Sabha member (with Trinamool’s support)—funded the 2011 state elections “to the tune of crores of rupees”. “Kunal Ghosh said that Rajat Mazumdar (former Bengal IPS officer) and Mukul Roy (currently BJP national vice president) were the key players in this election funding by Saradha group Ponzi companies,” said the application. “[A] minimum of 205 candidates were given Rs25 lakh each in cash, other than the overall expenditure.”

In the application, the CBI also cited the ED interrogation of another witness—Safiqur Rehman, a senior employee of Saradha Group, had reportedly told the ED: “When [the] chief minister contested [the assembly election], Sudipta Sen was forced to sponsor all the (Durga) pujas of Bhawanipur, Kolkata.”

The CBI also claimed: “More than Rs6.21 crore has been paid [from] the chief minister’s relief fund (for disasters) to Tara TV, which was a media company under the Saradha Group.” The agency said it had sent letters to the state chief secretary in this regard, but the responses were “evasive”.

In another startling accusation, the CBI said that, apart from the Saradha Group, several other companies such as Rose Valley Group, Tower Group, Pailan Group and Angel Agro Group had paid lakhs of rupees for Banerjee’s paintings, “steered by certain persons linked to the highest state authorities”.

Ghosh said that the CBI submitting the application was a judicial matter that should not be discussed now. “I want Mukul Roy to be arrested,” he said.

Roy was not available for comment, but the state BJP said in a statement: “The law would be same for everyone. The CBI would have every right to interrogate Mukul Roy again if the need arises.”

The application also detailed how the Bengal police “harassed and tortured” CBI officers on February 3, 2019. On February 4, the CBI had filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court against top state officials, but had not given details of the “harassment”.

CBI officer Tathagat Vardan and CBI (East) Joint Director Pankaj Srivastava have attached letters describing their experience, along with the CBI’s application.

Said a CBI source: “Our prime intention was not to focus on the assault. Our intention was to bring the issue of custodial interrogation of Kumar to the apex court. Once the court accepted that prayer, we are highlighting our harassment issue so that hindrances can be eradicated.”

Interestingly, Srivastava was moved out of Kolkata to Delhi earlier this year; he is overseeing the investigation from there. When asked why such a step was taken, a home ministry official told THE WEEK that the state police had attacked Srivastava’s family, including his wife and young child. “They cannot live there without fear,” said the source. “The child has had psychological problems since that evening.”

The application also described in detail how CBI officers were detained by the state police. When Vardan and other CBI officials reached Kumar’s home, a security personnel asked them to accompany him to a state police vehicle parked across the road. There, the CBI officers were whisked away in the vehicle.

The CBI alleged that Kolkata Police officers held senior CBI officer V.P. Singh “by the throat”. The CBI apparently asked K. Jayaraman, additional commissioner of Kolkata Police, for protection, but it was not granted. The Central Reserve Police Force was then deployed to control the situation.

In another allegation, the CBI said that the Intelligence Bureau had, in 2009, written to the Bengal chief secretary, warning him of several Ponzi companies. The CBI later asked the chief secretary about this, but apparently got no reply. “Saradha chit fund [operated] from 2008 to 2013,” said the application.

The CBI also alleged that Banerjee defended the Kolkata Police’s actions. “[Shortly after the violence,] the chief minister visited the residence of Kumar [and] described him as one of the best police officers in the world,” said the application. “She delivered a provocative public speech terming the CBI action illegal. Thereafter, she staged a dharna at Metro Channel, Kolkata, which was attended by top police officers in uniform.”

Banerjee has been in a fight with the Centre for long. Now, she could be looking at another battle. All eyes are on the Supreme Court.