Trinamool Congress heavyweight Anubrata Mondal, who was arrested on August 11, has been remanded in the CBI’s custody until August 20. Mondal was brought to the CBI office in Kolkata’s Nizam Palace from Asansol on August 11 night, and is being questioned.
Mondal is counted among the most trusted aides of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and he makes all decisions regarding the TMC’s activities in Birbhum. The arrest of the TMC strongman has refocussed the spotlight on the ongoing cross-border cattle smuggling case, which allegedly involves a nexus of BSF, Customs, and police officials with racketeers and politicians.
CBI recently filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case naming three people: Saigal Hossain, a bodyguard of Anubrata Mondal; Vikash Mishra, the brother of Vinay Kumar Mishra of the Trinamool Youth Congress; and an individual named Abdul Latif.
CBI registered a case on September 21, 2020 against four accused including Satish Kumar, who was the Commandant of the BSF’s 36 Battalion in Malda during the period December 19, 2015 to April 22, 2017. The FIR alleges that during Kumar’s tenure, the BSF seized more than 20,000 heads of cattle before they could be transported across the border, but the vehicles carrying these animals were not seized, and the persons involved in the illegal trade were not apprehended.
Others named in the FIR were alleged cattle smugglers Md Enamul Haque, the alleged kingpin of the racket, Anarul Sheikh, and Md Golam Mustafa. The accused were charged under IPC Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 409 (criminal breach of trust), and 420 (cheating), and various sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. Searches were conducted at premises linked to the accused. It was alleged that the accused had shown fictitious business activities to explain the proceeds of the illegal trade of cattle across the border with Bangladesh.
Subsequently, other arrests were made, including those of Vikash Mishra and Saigal Hossain. Investigators have summoned and questioned at least six officials of the West Bengal Police, sources in the CBI said. Some businessmen said to be linked with influential persons in the state are under the agency’s scanner, the sources said.
According to the CBI, Mondal is directly involved in the case, and had been in touch with the main accused, Enamul Haque, through his bodyguard Saigal Hossain.
Mondal had been repeatedly dodging summonses issued by the CBI, and he has been “non-cooperating”, according to the agency. The CBI has alleged that Saigal Hossain had been collecting money that was part of the proceeds of crime, in the name of Anubrata Mondal.
How did this alleged cattle smuggling racket work?
While this case is only two years old, allegations of cattle smuggling across the border with Bangladesh are much older. Every year, tens of thousands of cattle are estimated to be smuggled from West Bengal to Bangladesh across the 2,216-km border.
Each head of cattle of breeds from North India is thought to be priced at Rs 80,000-90,000, while cattle of breeds from Bengal, which are smaller in size, are thought to fetch Rs 40,000-50,000 in Bangladesh. Prices shoot up during Eid, when there is high demand for packaged meat exported by Bangladesh. At such times, smuggled cattle are said to fetch double the prices at which they are procured in India, according to investigators.
According to sources in the CBI, this is how the racket worked:
The BSF routinely seizes batches of cattle as they are being transported across the border. After such a seizure was made, the BSF in its seizure memo would show these cattle to be of a size smaller than what they actually were. The purpose would be to reduce the value of the animals at the auctions that the BSF and Customs would subsequently conduct.
When the seized cattle were auctioned, only a few selected cattle traders who were in cahoots with the BSF and Customs officials, would be allowed to participate, according to CBI officials. These traders would buy the seized cattle at low prices at the auction. Those same cattle would then be smuggled into Bangladesh by the same traders, CBI officials allege.
According to sources close to the investigation, Enamul Haque would pay Rs 2,000 to BSF officials and Rs 500 to Customs officials for each head of cattle involved in these transactions. It is alleged that Customs officials also took a “cut” amounting to 10% of the price paid by the successful bidders at the auctions.
How has the investigation progressed so far?
Investigations have found evidence of illegal cross-border selling of cattle, and related movements, delivery, and use of ill-gotten money. It is alleged that the accused persons were “organizing and patronizing large scale illegal cattle smuggling to neighbouring countries and collecting huge money from other persons”.
According to the CBI, investigations have revealed that Anubrata Mondal procured a large number of cattle from the Ilambazar Pashuhat (animal market in Ilambazar in Bolpur subdivision of Birbhum district) and allegedly ensured their safe passage to the border with Bangladesh.
CBI has so far filed a chargesheet and three supplementary chargesheets in the case.
What can be the political fallout of Mondal’s arrest for the TMC?
The CBI is probing a larger conspiracy possibly involving political leaders. Anubrata Mondal’s arrest has come soon after former state minister Partha Chatterjee was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in the SSC scam. Both are ruling party heavyweights, and their arrests are a major setback for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Central law enforcement agencies like the CBI and ED had earlier stepped up investigations into Ponzi schemes in Bengal ahead of the 2013 rural polls, the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and the 2016 Assembly elections, and arrested and interrogated several TMC leaders.
As the Lok Sabha elections of 2024 approach, the cattle smuggling investigation is likely to widen and pick up pace, and possibly move closer to the Chief Minister personally. The 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal are a major prize — potentially critical to the BJP, and essential to Mamata’s national ambitions.