Kolkata: West Bengal minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Partha Chatterjee will be flown to AIIMS Bhubaneswar Monday, following a Calcutta High Court order.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) moved HC Sunday seeking transfer of West Bengal’s senior most cabinet minister from the state-run SSKM Hospital, where he was admitted after his arrest Saturday in connection with the ongoing probe into the alleged School Service Commission (SSC) recruitment scam.
Chatterjee will appear before the Special MP MLA Court via video conferencing at 4PM Monday.
The ED will be seeking 14 days’ custody.
Chatterjee was arrested by the ED from his residence Saturday morning, after 27 hours of questioning. He was produced before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrates Court in Kolkata later that same day.
Taking cognizance of allegations of illegal appointments of clerks, staff and teachers in state-run schools, the ED filed an FIR in this regard on 24 June to investigate the money trail under sections 3 and 4 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.
Section 3 of the PMLA says whoever directly or indirectly attempts to indulge or knowingly assists or is actually involved in any process or activity connected with proceeds of crime and projecting it as untainted property shall be guilty of money laundering.
Section 4 of the PMLA, meanwhile, says the offence of money laundering shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend up to seven years and no less than three years.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was directed to probe the allegations by the Calcutta HC on 7 April, has filed five FIRs in connection with the alleged scam. The ED, on the other hand, launched a separate probe last month to trace the money trail in the case.
Timeline of events
Around 6 am Friday morning, teams of ED officials raided 14 locations across West Bengal linked to the alleged recruitment scam. West Bengal’s Commerce, I-T and Parliamentary Affairs minister Partha Chatterjee was among those on the agency’s radar in connection with the case.
It was at the residence of Arpita Mukherjee, a “close associate” of Chatterjee, that the ED recovered currency notes amounting to Rs 21 crore stuffed in envelopes with the seal of the West Bengal Education Department.
ED is carrying out search operations at various premises linked to recruitment scam in the West Bengal School Service Commission and West Bengal Primary Education Board. pic.twitter.com/i4dP2SAeGG
— ED (@dir_ed) July 22, 2022
She was also found to be in possession of at least 20 mobile phones.
During the operation, the ED also raided premises linked to Chatterjee’s Officer on Special Duty (OSD) P.K. Bandhopadhyay and his personal secretary Sukanta Acharjee.
Apart from premises linked to Chatterjee and his associates, teams of ED officials also raided the homes of West Bengal Minister of State (MoS) for Education, Paresh Adhikary, and TMC MLA Manik Bhattacharya, who is a former president of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education.
Simultaneous search operations were conducted at premises linked to S.P. Sinha, Advisor to West Bengal Central School Service Commission, Kalyanmoy Ganguly, former president of West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, Saumitra Sarkar, former president of West Bengal Central School Service Commission, Alok Kumar Sarkar, Deputy Director of School Education Department and three others including one Chandan Mondal, who allegedly ‘sold’ teaching posts in state-run schools.
A day after the raids, the ED formally arrested Chatterjee’s “close associate” Arpita Mukherjee and detained his personal secretary Sukanta Acharjee in connection with the probe. In a press statement issued Friday, the agency said it has seized documents and valuables which it believes are “proceeds of crime linked to the SSC scam”.
Grounds for Partha Chatterjee’s arrest
The counsel for the ED, while presenting the agency’s case before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court Saturday, said of the 14 locations raided, the agency found two “suspicious locations” — the residences of Partha Chatterjee and his close associate Arpita Mukherjee.
A source in the ED told ThePrint that the agency recovered two pen drives and several land deeds from the TMC leader’s residence during the searches. Chatterjee was also found in possession of admit cards dating back to 2016 and SSC documents, the source added.
“Why would a minister who is no longer associated with the Education Department of the State have these key documents in his house,” said the ED official. The official, however, declined to comment on what the agency found on the seized pen drives.
In May this year, ThePrint had reported the findings of the Bag Committee constituted by the Calcutta High Court to probe the alleged SSC scam. The committee had, in its report, claimed that the names of recipients of these “illegal” posts were sent to the office of the School Service Commission either via mails, CDs or pen drives.
What got the ED cracking on the case, however, were photocopies of deeds of conveyance found at Chatterjee’s residence in the name of his “close associate” Arpita Mukherjee who was sent to one day’s ED remand Sunday.
ThePrint has also learnt from ED sources that these deeds of conveyance were inked between Partha Chatterjee and Arpita Mukherjee. The agency has found that Mukherjee is either associated with or listed as director of as many as 14 companies. The central agency is looking at monetary transactions between the minister and these companies.
Sources also revealed that when questioned about the documents recovered from his residence, Partha Chatterjee claimed that he did not know anything about them. “The person under suspicion is at the helm of affairs in the state and was the then education minister of the state and thus it is required to interrogate him in custody,” the ED official said.
Arguments made in court
Following his arrest, Partha Chatterjee was produced before a packed courtroom of Metropolitan Magistrate Neelam Shashi Kujur Saturday afternoon. The judge, before hearing the arguments, excused Chatterjee from appearing on the stand owing to his age and health.
Advocate Anindya Routh, appearing on behalf of Chatterjee, argued that the TMC leader had been wrongfully detained as the ED found no money in his possession during the raids and was only able to recover photocopies of documents.
Routh submitted that the CBI was probing the alleged SSC scam. He then asked what led to the ED getting “excited” about the case.
Chatterjee, said his lawyer, appeared before the CBI twice and is cooperating with the probe. A 70-year-old man who was raided at 6 am in the morning will not run away, his lawyer argued while seeking his bail.
Arguing for the ED, Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) Bhashkar Prosad Banerjee said Chatterjee’s arrest has nothing to do with the CBI probe, adding that the ED is probing the money trail in the case.
“Mr Chatterjee is a minister and took oath of office. At the time of search, he declined to give any submission on how the money had been poured into properties and banks. There is a connection established between Mr Chatterjee and Arpita Mukherjee. Is the ED not allowed to investigate it?
“A financial crime cannot be equated with the ordinary crime as per the Supreme Court, so we have nothing to do with the CBI probe,” Banerjee submitted.
The Magistrate, after hearing the arguments, ruled that the matter did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan court and asked both parties to approach the special MP/MLA court Monday morning. The judge, however, granted the request by his lawyers to allow Partha Chatterjee to be hospitalised at state-run SSKM Hospital in Kolkata due to his ill health.
SSC scam – all you need to know
On 22 February, a two-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court of Justices Harish Tandon and Rabindranath Samanta set up an enquiry panel headed by Justice (Retd) Ranjit Bag to look into alleged irregularities in the recruitment process for state-run schools in West Bengal.
The Bag Committee, in its report submitted to the HC on 12 May, had alleged that an “illegal” supervisory committee was set up by then state education minister Partha Chatterjee in 2019 to fill vacant posts.
The report further alleged that the Right to Information (RTI) Act was used to manipulate marks of unsuccessful candidates, signatures of officials were forged, ranks were changed and “illegal” appointment letters distributed from the new SSC building to job seekers who had failed the exams — this process, the panel said, was followed for Group-C and Group-D recruitment.
Irregular appointments of primary school teachers and assistant teachers in state-run schools in West Bengal are also being investigated by the CBI.
TMC faces backlash for backing Chatterjee
The Trinamool Congress has no links to Arpita Mukherjee or the money recovered from her residence, TMC general secretary Kunal Ghosh told reporters during a press conference Sunday.
“There are many activists and people from various walks of life that join our programmes or are seen on stage, but Arpita is not a TMC member. As far as ED is concerned, we want a time bound investigation as the opposition is running an extortion campaign against us. TMC doesn’t support anything wrong,” Ghosh said.
Meanwhile, Arpita Mukherjee – as she was being taken into custody by the ED Saturday night – claimed that she is being framed and has done nothing wrong .
“I have done nothing wrong. I am innocent, I am being framed”, she told reporters outside her residence.
Arpita has been seen sharing the stage with TMC’s top leaders on more than one occasion, evident by photos on her social media page that are now going viral.
Reacting to the developments, BJP MP Raju Bista told ThePrint: “There is not a single sphere from where the TMC has not collected cut-money. The money recovered by ED is the tip of the iceberg.”
“Under TMC, the state has seen a systematic destruction of the education system. The appointments were based on the candidates’ alliance to the TMC,” he alleged.
The TMC thinks the “people of West Bengal don’t understand the levels of corruption”, said Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, the CPIM leader and lawyer representing candidates who did not get a job at a state-run school in West Bengal despite getting a rank in the entrance examination.
“How can TMC say that they have no links now when it has been proven beyond doubt. That ill-gotten money is used by the party,” the CPIM leader alleged.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)