In an unprecedented move by the West Bengal government, Kolkata Police detained a group of CBI officials Sunday evening, upon their reaching the residence of city’s top cop Rajeev Kumar, to question him in connection with ponzi scams being probed by the nodal investigative agency since 2014.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee immediately condemned the unwarranted move, accusing the centre of sowing discordance in the state before the Lok Sabha polls by jeopardising the autonomy of the CBI, which has come under scrutiny for continuous rank shuffle since October.
Amidst mounting support from several senior leaders and parties in the opposition, Banerjee launched a sit-in protest Sunday night, which she dubbed as “Save the Constitution” dharna against the tyranny of the Narendra Modi government.
Her resolute resistance against the CBI and all-out support for the city’s police commissioner, who has been accused of non-cooperation and tampering with crucial evidence, even resulted in the Supreme Court’s involvement the following morning. Meanwhile, Banerjee is expected to keep vigil against this “political coup” till February 8 at the very least.
What has been the source of high drama among political circles, has also given rise to questions regarding the legal ramifications of Banerjee’s unprecedented response and the suspect timing and constitutional propriety of CBI’s actions.
Qrius explores some of these questions central to the unfolding tussle in Bengal, which has set the stage for the cut-throat no-holds-barred competition that is to follow during the polls later this year.
First, what happened when CBI landed on Kumar’s doorstep?
Around 6:30 PM on Sunday, a team of CBI officials, led by its deputy superintendent Tathagata Bardhan, landed in front of the Police Commissioner’s residence to raid it and question him over allegations of his involvement in tampering with key evidence in the Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams.
CBI joint director Pankaj Srivastava said the agency’s officials “would have rounded him up if he hadn’t cooperated with us”.
But in a dramatic turn of events, team was caught off guard when their entrance was blocked by police personnel guarding the residence of their chief. The confrontation escalated to a scuffle between the state police force and the CBI team after the latter failed to produce a warrant. Banerjee rushed to the spot, taking stock of the situation and lambasting the for this attack on the federal structure of law and enforcement in the country.
At least 5 members of the CBI investigation team were herded off to Shakespeare Sarani Police Station, where they were detained for a couple of hours and subsequently released. State authorities also cordoned off the agency’s office at the CGO complex in Salt Lake, following which the ordered the deployment of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) units at CBI’s regional office on Sunday night.
How Bengal government
Banerjee slammed the BJP for using the country’s apex investigative agency to target the opposition and obtain political vendetta, calling it the centre’s newly acquired ally.
“The highest levels of the BJP leadership are doing the worst kind of political vendetta. Not only are political parties their targets, to take control of the police and destroy all institutions. We condemn this,” tweeted Banerjee, later adding, “The Kolkata Police Commissioner is among the best in the world. His integrity, bravery honesty are unquestioned. He is working and was on leave for only one day recently. When you spread lies, the lies will always remain lies.”
She particularly attacked the duo of PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, aided by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for spearheading this smear campaign against Kumar and for attacking democracy.
Around 9 PM, she reached Hare Street Police Station, where she announced the indefinite dharna to the mass of reporters gathered in front of the Metro Channel trol Post, while urging her supporters not to cause large-scale disturbance across the city in protest.
Lok Sabha proceedings were disrupted the following morning after TMC leader Saugata Roy brought up the CM vs CBI imbroglio, and was joined by members of the opposition who protested the usage of institutional machinery to target political rivals.
What elicited this strong response from Didi?
The stakes are sky-rocketing in the build-up to the ensuing Lok Sabha polls, and Banerjee perceives attack on the state’s police as a personal jab from the saffron party which is keen on making a political mark in the state.
As a leading face of the Mahagathbandhan, Banerjee also wants to portray herself at the fore of this collective fight against BJP’s encroaching hegemony over institutional autonomy. Taking to the streets once again, her actions are of similar protests she led against then political rivals, the left. She also made history giving the State Assembly a miss and becoming the first CM to hold a cabinet meeting in the traffic police outpost on to pass the state budget on Monday.
That said, the scams have left a nasty blot on her party’s eight-year rule and caused several defections of at least two MLAs involved in the scams to the BJP. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) she instituted in 2013 with officers drawn from the state’s CID and Kolkata Police, led by Kumar, yielded unsatisfactory results, and let many political figures off the hook.
After serious allegations of international money laundering, severe regulatory failures political nexus surfaced with respect to cams, the Supreme Court decided to transfer the onus of the probe to CBI. That is when certain puzzle pieces including electronic evidence were reportedly found to be missing, but even after repeated Rajeev Kumar refused to present himself before the agency for questioning.
Were the actions she ordered justified?
This is the interesting part; although very rarely has a chief minister thrown full support in shielding a police commissioner the way Banerjee has, she did nothing wrong in asking the KP to intervene and turn the CBI away Sunday night.
As a national agency with police powers, the CBI’s primary jurisdiction is confined to Delhi and the Union Territories. As policing (detecting crime and maintaining law and order) is a State subject, the constitutions the agency to function outside only if the state consents to it. As relations between several states like Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and the became strained, they withdrew their general consent to the CBI to operate in their territories.
In Banerjee’s case, she simply exercised her right as provided by
Section 6 of the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act which limits the CBI’s powers and jurisdiction in states that do not consent to being probed by the agency.
What are the charges against Kolkata’s top cop?
The main allegation against police commissioner Rajeev Kumar is his refusal to respond to the CBI’s subpoenas for interrogation, with regard to the possible withholding or destruction of seminal evidence in the ponzi scams.
In the Supreme Court on Monday, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta held him in contempt of court while the CBI alleged, “Kolkata Police shared incomplete details with the investigation team. It did not share call records of Saradha CMD with the CBI.”
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Monday, “The Kolkata Police Commissioner was summoned many times but he did not appear,” although Banerjee’s spokespersons later clarified false claims made against Kumar’s recent disappearance from the public eye.
Far from absconding, he has presented himself at work everyday, home secretary Atri Bhattacharya assured, except for one day of leave that he took on January 31, 2019.
Who else is named in the Saradha and Rose Valley cases?
The Saradha and Rose Valley scams rocked Bengal and adjoining states in east India in 2013. Both involve cases of major financial fraud which lured lakhs of investors to deposit money in its lucrative schemes, promising abnormally high returns.
The Saradha scam alone is believed to have mopped up about Rs. 1200 crore through its chit funds. What’s worse, its chairman Sudipta Sen, currently in jail, reportedly had close ties with the TMC government; TMC MPs Kunal Ghosh headed Saradha’s media division while Shatabdi Roy endorsed their schemes. The company invested heavily in football clubs, Durga Puja events, film production et. al to maintain a clean public image.
The perceived closeness with the ruling party allegedly helped the firm get investors and agents on board. Several TMC leaders also received financial support from the group.
After the Saradha scam broke, another firm Rose Valley used its media division and television channels to tell its investors to panic, which is how their schemes also came to light. Millions of people had invested their life savings with hopes of high returns lost all that they had accumulated to the scam.
The Enforcement Directorate is probing Rose Valley for collecting more than Rs. 15,000 crore from depositors across India mainly from West Bengal, Assam Bihar. According to ED, a portion of the money was also used to bribe politicians so that the scam can run smoothly.
Its chairman Gautam Kundu was arrested in 2015. In recent developments, renowned film producer Shrikant Mohta was arrested for defrauding Rose Valley on January 25, and subsequently taken to Bhubaneshwar for further questioning.
How has the responded to the high drama?
Amidst din in the Lok Sabha, Rajnath Singh termed as “unprecedented” the move to stop the probe agency from performing its duty. He accused Banerjee of protecting the tainted police chief, and justified the CBI’s actions, saying the apex court had directed it to investigate the scams fairly.
To apprehend a constitutional breakdown in West Bengal in the wake of the Kolkata Police-CBI face-off, Singh further asserted that the centre has power to take action, dangling the declaration of President’s Rule as a threat.
A BJP delegation including Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and TMC defector Mukul Roy visited the Election Commission of India to appraise the poll regulator of the unfolding crisis, discuss the course of action against what it sees as unconstitutional resistance, and possibly ratchet up security arrangements in the “critical and vulnerable state” during the upcoming elections.
It is worth noting that a clipping of conversation between BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya and Mukul Roy, himself an accused in the chit fund cases, had surfaced in October, where they allegedly discuss getting two central government officials transferred to Bengal to act against four IPS officers. This could point to a direct attempt by the BJP to influence the CBI.
Which opposition leaders are rallying behind Mamata?
Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Sunday late night tweeted, “I spoke with Mamata Di tonight and told her we stand shoulder to shoulder with her. The happenings in Bengal are a part of the unrelenting attack on India’s institutions by Mr Modi & the BJP. The entire opposition will stand together & defeat these fascist forces.”
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo, Mayawati, who sent an emissary to Mamata’s “United India” rally last month, had called the TMC supremo and extended her support. Supporting the West Bengal Chief Minister, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief, Akhilesh Yadav, told media, “BJP can’t win in West Bengal so they are trying to use CBI.”
Accusing BJP of “destroying the institutions”, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, tweeted, “We strongly condemn the incidents happening in Kolkata, a glaring example of how Modi-Shah duo are destroying the institutions. Attacking political opponents in different States, few days before the Parliament elections commence, will have disastrous consequences in the country.”
Just spoke to @MamataOfficial didi to convey the support of @JKNC_ as she sits in dharna. The use of the CBI as a political tool has crossed all limits as has the Modi government’s misuse of institutions. A former CM having such little regard for India’s federalism is shocking— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) February 3, 2019
Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief was inflamed by the events and reminisced having faced similar treatment in a televised interview with News18. “What the central government has done in West Bengal is and against constitution and democracy,” said Kejriwal, further asserting that the shouldn’t have let Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallya flee the coup if it really wanted to fight corruption. The ruling party seems to be interested in only ordering IT raids and deploying the CBI and the ED against opposition leaders, he mused.
Reportedly, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief, Sharad Pawar, DMK chief MK Stalin have also supported Mamata, while DMK Kanimozhi and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav visited the Bengal leader at the protest site on Monday. Even NDA ally and Odisha CM, Naveen Patnaik of BJD, questioned the CBI’s move.
Senior Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi represented the West Bengal government at the apex court Monday morning.
What has the Supreme Court said on the matter?
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta representing the centre’s interests sought an urgent hearing on Monday in view of the “extraordinary” situation in the state, expressing fears that evidence related to the scams will be destroyed.
Finding no evidence of these charges in the applications, a three-judge Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, noted, “Lay the material if Kolkata police commissioner is trying to destroy evidence, and we will come down so heavily that he will regret.” Taking note of his submissions, the bench further noted, “If at all the evidence is destroyed, it is in electronic form and can be retrieved,” before posting the matter for hearing on Tuesday.
CBI’s application to the SC on Monday held that it has more than enough evidence to arrest Kumar without any warrant, to which the bench responded by saying it still need the state government’s consent. The CBI presented its exclusive report on the Saradha chit fund scam cases to the Supreme Court this morning.
Earlier in the day, News18 spoke to legal editor Utkarsh Anand who pointed out the CBI’s sloppy escalation of the matter, despite the Calcutta High Court deeming all its summons invalid and putting all its notices in abeyance.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court directed Kumar to cooperate with the agency in the probe into the chit fund scams, but restrained the CBI from arresting the Kolkata Police Chief, which Banerjee called a huge victory not only for the TMC government but for democracy and all of opposition.
Impact on poll performance
Many critics and well-wishers are of Banerjee’s move, anticipating the wrath of the , via the ECI, which could affect TMC’s performance in the coming polls. Regardless of whether this is an impassioned decision or a foolhardy move, Banerjee has never beeen one to cower or back down.
Only days ago, she denied Yogi Adityanath’s chopper the permission to land or the Uttar Pradesh CM his right to address a communally-coloured rally in her state. Last year, Amit Shah’s rath met with the same fate due to her resolute interventions. To add fuel to the ire, Banerjee also helmed a rather successful Mahagathbandhan rally in January, to forge a united front against the BJP, attended by over 20 senior opposition leaders.
Social media is agog with praise for the Bengal leader overnight, with publications calling this an own goal for the BJP. The entire fiasco also charts how the CBI’s dirty turf war with the Kolkata Police into a political slugfest between the and the West Bengal government.
How the drama will pan out next depends on the Supreme Court’s impartial perusal of the evidence at hand. But what is not up for debate is the ulterior motive behind these eleventh-hour raids 5 years later, or the force and legality of Banerjee’s defiant actions in intercepting the CBI.
This article has been updated to reflect the outcome of Supreme Court’s urgent hearing on Tuesday.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius