A television journalist, whose sting camera videos almost threw the BJP-led NDA government out of power two decades ago, is back in eye-catching headlines, this time his videos triggering a veritable constitutional crisis in politically sensitive West Bengal.
On Monday, May 17, 2021, the CBI arrested Bengal Transport and Housing Minister Firhad Hakim, Bengal Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee, legislator and former minister Madan Mitra and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee.
Interestingly, the CBI action took place on a day when BJP West Bengal president Dilip Ghosh filed an FIR against CM Mamata Banerjee in a police station in Medinipur. Ghosh blamed Banerjee for instigating communal violence in the state post the recent assembly elections. This reporter has seen a copy of the FIR.
The CBI arrests triggered violence throughout the city, raising two important questions. First, should the country’s premier investigating agency make some arrests in the middle of a pandemic in a case which is almost five years old?
And secondly, and probably more importantly, the arrests brought into limelight the issue of open defiance by a state government of a Central agency. This is not the first time the Bengal CM had rushed in to protest arrests by the CBI, she did it earlier when former Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar was to be questioned in the Saradha Chit Fund scam.
The dustup aside, political cognoscenti felt the arrests could actually be counter productive, both politically and economically, worsening the already frayed political relationship between West Bengal and the Centre. Worse, many felt the timing of the arrests were wrong, especially because India is faced with a pandemic and political parties need to work with each other with both trust and belief. It needs to be mentioned here that Hakim was in charge of the Covid-19 operations in the state.
Secondly, the incidents that followed the arrests raised serious issues of law and order in the state where Banerjee demanded immediate release of those arrested. Worse, her riotous supporters turned brutal outside the Nizam Palace and the Raj Bhawan. Bengal law minister Moloy Ghatak and his supporters staged another brute show of force at the CBI court, where the bail petitions of the four arrested Trinamool leaders were heard.
This was not all.
Chandrima Bhattacharya, president of the West Bengal Trinamool Mahila Congress asked the Kolkata Police commissioner to take action against the CBI officers and prevent them from arresting the TMC leaders. “I firmly believe PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are behind the entire show,” Bhattacharya wrote in a letter, a copy of which is with this reporter.
Amidst increasing Kolkata-New Delhi tensions, a High Court bench headed by acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal and comprising Justice Arijit Banerjee cancelled the bail of the four arrested and sent them to judicial custody solely because of the unlawful actions of Mamata Banerjee and her law minister.
The High Court, in its order cancelling the bail granted to the four, noted the submissions made by Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, that while inside the CBI office, Banerjee demanded the ‘unconditional release’ of the four arrested. The court also took exception to the fact that the law minister, along with TMC supporters and functionaries, mobbed the lower court where the four arrested were to have been produced. The law minister, the High Court, noted, was present in the court till the arguments by the counsels on behalf of the CBI and the arrested were heard.
The Calcutta HC bench, in its order issued late Monday night, noted: “Confidence of the people in the justice system will be eroded in case such types of incidents are allowed to happen in the matters where political leaders are arrested and are to be produced in Court. Public trust and confidence in the judicial system is more important, it being the last resort. They (the public) may have a feeling that it is not the rule of the law which prevails but it is a mob which has an upper hand and especially in a case where it is led by the Chief Minister of the State in the office of the CBI and by the Law Minister of the State in the Court Complex. If the parties to a litigation believe in the rule of law, such a system is not followed.” The High Court also stated in its order that there are sufficient grounds to consider the request of the Solicitor General of India for transferring the trial of the case out of Bengal.
So what triggered the Narada scandal?
It was in 2014 Mathew Samuel, former editor of Tehelka, posed as a businessman keen to invest in West Bengal and offered cash to a handful of Trinamool Congress leaders, some ministers and MPs. He recorded the meetings in his specially-fitted camera. The tapes were released just before West Bengal went for its assembly elections in 2016.
Strangely, nothing worthwhile happened after the TMC swept to power. Samuel worked with a Rs 81 lakh budget from Tehelka publisher KD Singh, then a TMC Rajya Sabha MP. Samuel told News Intervention he did the assignment to boost Tehelka’s circulation but had to publish the tapes in a newly created portal, Narada News, because Singh backed out at the last moment. Singh, who was questioned by both CBI and the ED for his alleged involvement in funding the Narada sting operation, had denied he funded the same.
This was not all. Around the time the sting operation hit the headlines, there was a widespread feeling within the TMC that someone from within the party had asked Samuel to do the investigation so that some leaders could be named and shamed. Singh’s proximity with Abhishek is widely known within the TMC. Dinesh Trivedi, then an influential leader of TMC, had urged the CM to investigate the case and put those seen in the tapes named in the tapes away from party work. But the CM did not oblige.
But many in Bengal felt TMC’s morality plank was over with the Narada sting, the sheen lost. Everyone was saying the TMC was just like the one before, the Left Front. Like Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams, people remembered the Narada sting. Thousands watched the show on television, wondering there must be more money later and that the first money must be token money. As it was in the Tehelka tapes.
Interestingly, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful think tank of the BJP, has an annual award for journalists titled Narada Samman. The awards are named after Narad, a mythical, god-sage character popular in Hindu traditions as a wandering storyteller who carried news.
Samuel said he did this to highlight corruption and expose corrupt politicians. “I have done my job and have moved on. Kolkata Police interrogated me (in 2017) for long hours, asked the same set of questions and caused mental harassment. Now I cannot say why the CBI is doing selective arrests.”
Kolkata Police, for the records, had lodged a case against Samuel for allegedly asking a former Bihar MP to pay Rs 5 crore as bribe. The extortion call, claimed Kolkata Police, was made from a hotel in South Kolkata’s Muchipara neighbourhood.
Samuel said a number of cases were filed against him by Kolkata Police, allegedly at the behest of those people who featured in the sting operation. Samuel was summoned by the CBI more than 40 times to answer questions about the sting and he said he had cooperated with the agency. “Many officers told me it was a politically sensitive case.”
Samuel said he met Suvendu Adhikari in his office and gave him Rs. 5 lakh. Adhikari, who defeated Mamata Banerjee from Nandigram, is the leader of the opposition in the assembly. Samuel said he met Mukul Roy — now with the BJP — who did not accept cash directly but told him to give the cash to Mirza (a suspended IPS officer arrested in the Narada case in 2019). He gave Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Madan Mitra Rs 5 lakh each.
A total of 52 hours of footage was submitted by Samuel to the CBI. Others who featured in the tape included Saugata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Prasun Banerjee, Iqbal Ahmad and Sultan Ahmad. Another person, Sujay Bhadra, nicknamed Shantu, the then personal assistant of Abhishek Banerjee, MP, and nephew of Mamata Banerjee, was seen in the video with Karan Sharma, a close aide of Abhishek Banerjee and secretary general of TMC Yuva.
What was strange was that the names of Roy and Adhikari did not appear in the chargesheet or the list of sanctions for prosecution given by the Governor. Roy, who was among the first to switch over from TMC in 2017, and is Accused No.1 in the agency’s FIR.
Left Front leader and seasoned lawyer Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya said the dustup was totally unnecessary because the CBI had taken permission from the state governor and that there was no need to seek a second permission from the Speaker of the assembly. “It was a totally, unwarranted panic reaction, expectedly the mobs emerged from nowhere.”
Bhattacharya, former Kolkata mayor, said he went to the courts to push for the hearings to take place in the Narada sting. He said convictions in corruption cases have rarely diminished the popularity of politicians in India. “I have my doubts if Mamata Banerjee’s image will be dented because of Narada tapes but there has been a considerable delay in the case.”
Crowds, meanwhile, are swelling outside the Presidency Jail, which once housed Subhas Chandra Bose, India’s most enigmatic nationalist hero, and is now home for the politicians arrested by the CBI. Among the crowds is Baishaki Banerjee, Sovon’s long time partner and friend. Every now and then, she is breaking down into a paroxysm of sobbing. Sometimes, she gets up and touches the walls of the imposing prison.
Probably she wants to send good vibes to her friend, Kolkata’s former mayor Sovon Chatterjee, who is lodged in a cell inside the 18th century prison.
The Narada sting case is going to be a long drawn affair.