The face-off between the Centre and the state in the wake of the election results deepened Monday with the CBI arresting two ministers in the West Bengal government and two other Trinamool Congress leaders in the five-year-old Narada sting operation case.
They were granted interim bail by the court of the Special CBI Judge (1) that was stayed by the Calcutta High Court which frowned on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s dharna at the CBI office earlier in the day.
Transport and Housing Minister Firhad Hakim; Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee; MLA and former minister Madan Mitra and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee were arrested by the CBI this morning. No sooner were they brought to the CBI office in Nizam Place than Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee arrived and sat in a dharna for over six hours demanding the unconditional release of those arrested.
With over 2,000 Trinamool supporters protesting outside, and citing the law and order situation, the CBI produced the four accused virtually before the court of the CBI Special Judge (1). The court granted them interim bail.
Saying there was pressure on the agency with the CM herself protesting and the Law Minister sitting through the city court proceedings, the CBI approached the Calcutta High Court. Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta pleaded for the transfer of the trial outside the state alleging there was undue pressure on the agency.
In its order, the High Court bench of Chief Justice (Acting) Rajesh Bindal and Justice Arijit Banerjee stayed the bail and fixed the next hearing on Wednesday.
Frowning upon the action of Banerjee and her colleagues, the High Court said: “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 the Court. Public trust and confidence in the judicial system is more important, it being the last resort. They may have a feeling that it is not rule of 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 CBI and by the Law Minister of the State in the Court Complex.”
The four accused will be shifted to Presidency Correctional Home. “We got no notice. We do not know what happened. There was an oral application for court transfer. None of us know what order was given. This is an unheard of procedure,” said Kalyan Banerjee, lawyer and TMC MP. “There was a bail order. Now suddenly this,” added Anindya Rout, TMC leader and lawyer.
The arrest comes days after West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar granted consent to CBI for filing a chargesheet against the four accused and sanctioned prosecution against them.
The four were picked up from their residences in Kolkata.
The Chief Minister arrived at the CBI office at 10.45 am, and finally left Nizam Palace only at 4.40 pm. “I will not say anything now. Court will decide,” said Mamata Banerjee while leaving Nizam Palace. A number of senior party leaders, MPs and lawyers visited the CBI office through the day.
“I heard Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tell CBI officers that without the Assembly Speaker’s and the state government’s consent, such arrests cannot be made. She said you have to arrest me if you have arrested them,” said TMC leader and lawyer Anindya Rout, who was present with Banerjee.
While being taken away from his residence, Hakim, who is the Transport and Housing Minister, said, “I have been arrested. We will fight it out in the court.” Subharup Mitra, TMC MLA Madan Mitra’s son, told The Indian Express, “Without any notice, the CBI came to our house around 8 am with Central forces and picked up my father from home. They did not give any clarification.”
In a press statement, CBI said it had arrested the four in a case related to Narada sting operation. “It is alleged that the public servants were caught on camera while receiving illegal gratification from the sting operator. After investigation, Prosecution Sanction was sought against the concerned public servants and the same has been received from Competent Authority on 07.05.2021. Sanction for one more accused, the then SP was received and he was earlier arrested… Presently he is on bail. Chargesheets against the five accused persons are being submitted. Investigation is continuing,” it said.
They were charged under IPC 120B (criminal conspiracy), Section 7 (public servant taking gratification other than legal remuneration in respect of an official act) and Section 13 (Criminal misconduct by a public servant) of the Prevention of Corruption Act. The four were made to sign arrest memos at the CBI office, TMC sources said.
The agency submitted the chargesheet against the four TMC leaders arrested on Monday and IPS officer (SMH Mirza) in the Narada case. It sought jail custody for the four arrested and pleaded that the accused were influential and could tamper evidence and threaten witnesses.
The lawyers representing the four arrested pleaded that the accused had always cooperated with the agency and they held respectable positions in the society and therefore they should be granted bail.
In the afternoon, at around 1.15 pm, Trinamool workers tried to forcefully enter the CBI premises, but were thwarted by the security personnel. The workers lobbed bricks, stones and water bottles at the jawans, and also ransacked the car of a media-person.
A group of TMC workers also protested against Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar outside Raj Bhawan. Expressing anger, the Governor said in a tweet: “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.”
“Message @MamataOfficial Total lawlessness & anarchy. Police and administration in silence mode. Hope you realize the repercussions of such lawlessness and failure of constitutional mechanism. Time to reflect and contain this explosive situation that is worsening minute by minute,” he said in another tweet.
Terming the arrests as “politically motivated”, Birman Bandopadhyay, Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, said, “The matter is with the Calcutta High Court. The High Court asked the CBI whether they took consent from the Speaker. Through the AG (Advocate General), we told the High Court that we have not received any request or papers for consent. As a lawyer, I can say that this is illegal. One needs to take consent from the Speaker of the state Assembly before arresting an MLA. The CBI only has consent from the Governor.”
The Narada tapes, released ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls in the state, allegedly showed several TMC ministers, MPs and MLAs were allegedly seen receiving money from representatives of a fictitious company in exchange of promised favours. The Calcutta High Court had ordered a CBI probe into the sting operation in March 2017.