The Supreme Court’s Tuesday order asking the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to question Trinamool Congress (TMC) national general secretary and MP Abhishek Banerjee and his wife Rujira Banerjee in connection with a coal scam case in its Kolkata office rather than in Delhi has clearly come as a relief to Abhishek, the 34-year-old nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The apex court bench stayed the Delhi High Court’s order, which had refused to quash the central agency’s summons to get them appear before it in the national capital.
The top court, however, also said that the state shall provide adequate police protection to the ED officials who would interrogate the Banerjee couple in Kolkata, adding that it would not tolerate any kind of “interference or hooliganism” in this regard.
In February 2021, Rujira was questioned by the CBI at their residence in Kolkata for the first time. Following the Bengal Assembly election results, which saw the Mamata-led TMC’s resounding victory for the third consecutive time, Abhishek was quizzed by the ED in Delhi. Recently, when Banerjee was leaving for Delhi in response to one such summons, he had said that he “wouldn’t bow down” before the BJP-led central dispensation.
Based on a November 2020 FIR registered by the CBI over a multi-crore coal pilferage scam related to Eastern Coalfields Limited mines in Kunustoria and Kajora areas in and around Asansol in Bengal, the ED had lodged a case under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002. A local coal operative Anup Majhi alias Lala is alleged to be the prime suspect in this scam. The ED has charged that that Abhishek was an alleged beneficiary of funds obtained from it. He has however denied all such charges.
The controversy surrounding the ED’s bid to issue summons to the Banerjee couple asking them to appear for interrogation in its Delhi office has been raging for more than a year now. They moved the top court, pleading to be quizzed by the ED in Kolkata while questioning how could the agency summon people from anywhere to Delhi.
While justifying its summons to the Banerjee couple, the ED has maintained that it is “very difficult” to interrogate the Banerjee couple in Kolkata, given the influence the TMC supremo’s nephew has over the state machinery, which might undermine its probe. The agency has also alleged “hooliganism” by the TMC workers, charging that they have even heckled its officials while doing their job.
In recent years, the officials of various central agencies have faced massive protests by the TMC supporters in Bengal while making their bids to question or arrest the TMC leaders, including ministers or MLAs and MPs.
In 2019, the TMC government and the BJP-ruled Centre were also locked in an unprecedented stand-off after a team of CBI officials had reached the residence of former Kolkata Police commissioner Rajeev Kumar to hand over a notice to him in connection with their Saradha Ponzi scam probe. The CBI officials were detained by the local police station over their move. Kumar was considered close to CM Banerjee, who even held a dharna against the CBI’s action against him.
Reacting to the apex court’s order, BJP national vice-president Dilip Ghosh said both Abhishek and his wife must face the investigation. “The court has given some directions and the investigation will now take place accordingly. But they must face the probe. Why are they running away from it? Abhishek is an MP. He visits Delhi regularly. Then what was his issue in facing the questioning in Delhi?” Ghosh asked.
However, the TMC, which has always raised an accusing finger at the central agencies while calling them the BJP’s “tool for unleashing vendetta against political rivals”, termed today’s development as the Banerjee couple’s “moral victory”.
TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh told The Indian Express, “This is a moral victory for Abhishek Banerjee and his wife. Both are residents of Kolkata, the case was filed in Kolkata – so what is the logic in summoning them to Delhi? We believe that these are baseless allegations against them. Still they are cooperating with the central agency. There was an attempt to cause unnecessary harassment to both of them. Abhishek fought it legally and got a positive order.”
In September 2021, the Banerjee couple had moved the Delhi High Court challenging the ED’s summons to them to appear before it in Delhi, pleading that the case was lodged in Kolkata. On March 11 this year, the high court dismissed their plea. On March 21-22, both Abhishek and Rujira were summoned by the agency again. Before leaving for Delhi, Abhishek had said that he will not surrender to the Narendra Modi-led BJP government and will continue to fight till the end.
“People against whom there is evidence, those who have been seen taking money wrapped in papers never get summoned or questioned by ED or CBI. Central agencies can’t see anything when it involves them (BJP leaders). That is why the probes done by these agencies are often questioned by people. They (BJP) are angry, because they have lost ground in Bengal. The people of Bengal have driven out outsiders,” Abhishek had then charged. In Delhi, on March 21, he was grilled by the ED for more than eight hours.
The TMC leaders have regularly trained their guns on the central agencies such as the CBI and the ED, calling them “compromised” and questioning their neutrality. In her budget speech in the Assembly recently, the CM said, “Kesto and Molay (TMC leaders, Anubrata Mondal and Malay Ghatak) are being called by CBI. Abhishek and his wife were told to go to Delhi, not Kolkata. The central agencies are being used shamelessly. They are doing whatever they are being asked to do by the central government. TMC cannot be stopped by such threats.”