Sleuthing season
THE WEEK|March 14, 2021
Weeks before the West Bengal elections, the CBI intensifies its focus on three cases with major political implications
RABI BANERJEE

On February 22, Central Bu-reau of Investigation officers called up Shantiniketan, the sprawling South Kolkata bungalow of Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee. The agency wanted to question his wife, Rujira. Abhishek, the Diamond Harbour MP, is seen as the political heir of his aunt, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

The CBI alleges that Trinamool Youth Congress general secretary Vinay Mishra, an accused in a multi-crore-rupee coal scam, had routed money to Rujira’s bank accounts in Bangkok. CBI sources said that Rujira used to hold a Thai passport. There is speculation on whether she was born in Bangkok. She had met Abhishek during her college days in Delhi.

As Rujira gave the CBI officers an appointment for the following day, they went to question her sister Menaka, who was also allegedly linked to Mishra. A leader with wide support, Mishra is known to be close to Abhishek.

The coal case is one of three major investigations that the CBI has sunk its teeth into weeks before the assembly elections in the state. Apparently, coal worth crores of rupees was illegally taken from mines managed by Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) in western parts of the state like Asansol, and sold in the open market. ECL is a subsidiary of Coal India.

THE COAL LOOT

The first information report in the case, a copy of which THE WEEK has, was filed last November. The CBI named five top ECL officials and one Anup Majhi, aka Lala, who used to buy coal from ECL. The FIR also mentioned some Central Industrial Security Force personnel, members of the mines’ security force.

The report also said that criminal elements were illegally excavating and stealing coal in “active connivance of the officials of ECL, CISF, Indian Railways and other departments concerned”. The CBI said illegal mining started in May 2020, soon after the Covid-19 lockdown began.

“During inspections, a large number of vehicles and equipment used in illegal coal mining, [along with] illegally excavated coal [were] seized,” said the CBI report. The agency has only raided Eastern Railway areas till now; it requires the state government’s permission to raid other regions.

“Public servants allowed Anup Majhi and other unknown private persons to misappropriate national property entrusted to them,” said the report.

Majhi is a director of Mark Enclave Private Limited, a company headquartered in Kolkata. “The company bought coal from various organisations, including ECL,” said the CBI report.

Said a CBI officer investigating the case: “Being a businessman, he came close to many Trinamool leaders… and allegedly paid bribes to ECL officials and the ruling party of Bengal. Vinay Mishra is key among them.”

In addition to the coal business, Majhi also owns hotels in Purulia and Durgapur, and a private hospital in Durgapur, said sources. “He has friends in all political parties. The Trinamool is the recent beneficiary,” said a senior state police officer who was posted in Asansol three years ago.

On February 12, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court had stayed a single-judge order of the same court, which had restricted the investigation to Railway areas. Majhi, who is absconding, then approached the Supreme Court, which is hearing the matter.

The Bengal government also raised jurisdictional issues saying that the CBI, being a Central agency, could not carry out probes in the state. The state had, in 2018, withdrawn consent for the CBI to investigate in Bengal.

The CBI is grilling the ECL officials and has also called three state police officers for questioning. One has appeared, two are yet to do so. “The police officers will have to pay a heavy price for doing illegal acts to [help] the Trinamool Congress,” said state BJP vice president Biswapriyo Roychowdhury.

The CBI has not accused Rujira, Menaka or Abhishek in the case, but more than 10 Trinamool leaders are said to be on the CBI’s radar. “We will evaluate everybody’s bank accounts,” said a CBI officer in Kolkata. “Rujira’s IT statement has been sought. She had a passport from Thailand.”

Interestingly, minutes before the CBI officers reached Abhishek’s house on February 23, Mamata had visited Shantiniketan and paraded Abhishek’s six-year-old daughter in front of the media before leaving.

Later, the CBI officers then questioned Rujira and, an hour later, reported to their seniors in Delhi. “She (Rujira) refused to give proper answers,” a CBI source told THE WEEK. “In fact, she avoided all the questions.”

Suvendu Adhikari, who recently left the Trinamool for the BJP, said that such investigations made him use words such as tolabaaz (extortionist) for Abhishek. “Not only is Mishra his close friend, Mishra used to look after the posting of all senior police officers of the state,” he said. “He wears costly clothes, ornaments and accessories. The money deposited into the Thai accounts of madam Naroola (Rujira’s maiden name) came from the proceeds of coal smuggling.”

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