Kolkata: Within two weeks of obtaining West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s “sanction for prosecution” of four former Trinamul Congress ministers, accused in the Narada sting operation, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested and chargesheeted the quartet after detaining them from their residences in Kolkata during a raid with the help of the Central paramilitary forces on Monday morning.
A furious TMC supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee immediately stormed the CBI’s anti-corruption branch office on the 14th floor of Nizam Palace on AJC Bose Road in south Kolkata and laid a six-hour-long siege there from around 11 am. TMC councillor and lawyer Anindya Raut, who accompanied her, said: “The CM demanded that the CBI officers arrest her too like they did to Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra and Sovan Chatterjee.”
In the evening the Bankshall court, in a virtual hearing, granted bail to the accused after rejecting the CBI’s plea for 14-day judicial custody on the grounds of their influential status and role in the case. Dissatisfied, the CBI later moved the Calcutta high court, which had actually ordered the probe, and asked the division bench of acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal for an immediate stay order on the day’s proceedings in the case alleging the CM herself was present at CBI office and tried to influence the proceedings. It also sought the transfer of the case under Section 407 CrPC. On Monday night, the high court stayed the lower court’s grant of bail to the four accused and scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, May 19, till when the four would be kept in judicial custody at Presidency Jail. TMC MP and defence counsel Kalyan Banerjee said: “This procedure is unheard of. We did not get any notice or order from the high court. I also have no idea about it except hearing that an oral submission was made.”
Mr Hakim is now state transport minister, Mr Mukherjee is panchayat minister. Mr Mitra is TMC MLA from Kamarhati. Mr Chatterjee, who defected to the BJP from the TMC earlier, quit the saffron party ahead of this year’s Assembly elections.
The four heavyweight accused were Cabinet colleagues of Ms Banerjee when they, along with seven more TMC leaders, including many MPs, and IPS officer S.M.H. Meerza were allegedly caught accepting around Rs 5 lakhs in cash each in a sting operation by journalist Mathew Samuel ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections.
While Mr Hakim was then the municipal affairs and urban development minister, Mr Mukherjee held the panchayat portfolio. Mr Mitra was state transport minister and Mr Chatterjee was state housing minister, apart from being Kolkata’s mayor.
The arrest of these four by the CBI, close on the heels of the TMC coming to power for the third consecutive time in the state, triggered a volcano of protests in Kolkata and beyond. Violating the Covid-19 lockdown that got underway from May 16, ruling party workers came out on the roads and burst into anger. Some of them thronged to Nizam Palace and pelted stones at the Central forces deployed to guard the CBI personnel, while others demonstrated outside Raj Bhavan with their party flags.
A worried governor, in the eye of the storm now, tweeted: “Invited attention @MamataOfficial: On channels and in public domain I notice arson and pelting of stones at CBI office. Pathetic that Kolkata Police @KolkataPolice and West Bengal Police @WBPolice are just onlookers.
Appeal to you to act and restore law and order.”
He alleged: “Message @MamataOfficial: Total lawlessness & anarchy. Police and administration in silence mode. Hope you realise repercussions of such lawlessness and failure of constitutional mechanism. Time to reflect and contain this explosive situation that is worsening minute by minute. Concerned at alarming situation. Call upon @MamataOfficial to follow constitutional norms & rule of law. Police @WBPolice @KolkataPolice @HomeBengal must take all steps to maintain law & order. Sad -- situation is being allowed to drift with no tangible action by authorities.”
Questioning why no CBI action was taken against two other accused in the case -- Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari -- who are now in the BJP, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh claimed: “Protests are spontaneous because the arrests of the four are illegal and undemocratic. The BJP is misusing the governor and CBI to fulfil its grudge of poll debacle at the hands of our party and create a situation of unrest which will push the state towards President’s Rule.”
Mr Samuel also wondered why Mr Adhikari, who was seen accepting cash from him, had been spared. The CPI(M) and Congress too criticised the arrests amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but BJP spokesman Sayantan Basu said: “The CBI acted according to the law.”
Later, TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee tweeted: “I urge everyone to abide by the law & refrain from any activity that violates lockdown norms for the sake of the larger interest of Bengal and its people. We have utmost faith in the judiciary & the battle will be fought legally.”
Meanwhile, the entrance of Nizam Palace was closed. The protesters then blocked AJC Bose Road, which forced the CBI to cancel its plan to produce the four accused physically at the Bankshall court. It moved for their production and submitted its chargesheet against them under the Prevention of Corruption Act and IPC charges in a virtual hearing.
Earlier, the CBI had reportedly sought permission from Parliament for the prosecution of five accused TMC MPs in the case. The list included Mr Adhikari and Mr Roy as they were members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively then. But the CBI did not get any response.