Kolkata: A trail of “incriminating documents and digital evidence”, “huge amounts” of money deposited in bank accounts, and “contradictory” responses to questioning led to the arrest of Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA Manik Bhattacharya Tuesday, according to the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) remand document, which ThePrint has accessed.
Bhattacharya — the MLA for Palashipara in Nadia district and a former president of the West Bengal Primary Education Board — was arrested in connection with the alleged cash-for-jobs scam in the recruitment of primary teachers in Bengal’s government-aided schools.
Some key pieces of evidence the ED has cited include a CD that allegedly contains the names and roll numbers of candidates for the state’s primary teachers’ exam, and a letter purportedly addressed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that claimed 44 aspirants paid Rs 7 lakh each in return for a job — with the money allegedly collected by a general secretary of the state’s Trinamool Youth Congress Committee.
The agency has also referred to an alleged shell company registered under Bhattacharya’s son’s name that accrued more than Rs 2 crore in the name of “B.Ed training services”, which were purportedly never actually rendered.
The ED’s document, submitted before the special MP-MLA court in Kolkata, claims that Bhattacharya laundered money and played a “key role” in what has come to be known as the SSC scam. ‘SSC’ refers to the West Bengal School Service Commission, which is tasked with recruiting teaching and non-teaching staff in state-run schools.
The ED has been granted 14-day custody of Bhattacharya. He is the second TMC MLA to be arrested in the alleged SSC scam.
Last month, the ED had also submitted a 172-page chargesheet against former Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee for his alleged role in the scam. Chatterjee was arrested in July after wads of cash and jewellery were seized from premises belonging to his close associate and co-accused Arpita Mukherjee. So far, the ED has seized assets allegedly linked to the pair and amounting to about Rs 103 crore.
In that chargesheet, too, Manik Bhattacharya’s name had come up in the context of WhatsApp chats about him allegedly “taking money” from colleges and students, and his apparent collusion with Chatterjee.
In September, the Supreme Court had granted Bhattacharya interim protection from arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is also probing the case. This relief by the court, however, did not extend to the ED’s parallel investigation.
On Tuesday, Bhattacharya’s lawyer Sanjay Dasgupta claimed the arrest was illegal while arguing the matter in the MP-MLA court.
“My client has appeared before the central agency’s office six times when he was called. The ED has interrogated him for 10-12 hours before the arrest. How can the ED say he isn’t cooperating? The Supreme Court had asked the CBI not to take any coercive measures against him in this case, then how can the ED arrest him?” Dasgupta said before Justice Anandamohan Mukhopadhyay.
A petition was also filed in the Supreme Court in the matter, with the plea that the TMC MLA was arrested illegally and that he should be released on health grounds. The apex court has declined to interfere for now, and the next hearing is expected to be held on 17 October.
‘One of the key persons in the entire scam’
The ED’s remand document states that its investigations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) have thrown light on the “role of Dr. Manik Bhattacharya as one of the key persons in the entire scam of offering jobs in lieu of money”.
A former principal of Kolkata’s Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College, Bhattacharya headed the West Bengal Board of Primary Education for over a decade, from 2011 until his removal in June this year due to alleged regularities in recruiting teachers.
According to the ED’s document, “more than 58,000 primary teachers were recruited through the board” during Bhattacharya’s chairmanship.
On 22 July, the agency carried out searches at Bhattacharya’s residence and claimed it seized various “incriminating documents and digital evidence” that suggested he played a part in providing jobs to ineligible candidates and laundered the money obtained by giving jobs in an unfair manner.
The evidence included a CD allegedly containing the names and roll numbers of exam candidates. Further, says the document: “Manik Bhattacharya was in receipt of a letter which was also addressed to the chief minister of West Bengal. The contents of the said letter revealed that illegal amounts to the tune of Rs. 7 lacs each were taken from 44 candidates in lieu of offering them the job of teachers. It was also revealed that the said amounts were collected by one general secretary, West Bengal Pradesh Trinamool Youth Congress Committee.”
Bhattacharya was confronted with this letter by the ED on 27 July and 10 October, and allegedly gave contradictory replies that led to his arrest.
The ED is also probing a company, “M/S Acuere Consultancy Services”, whose proprietor is the MLA’s son, Souvik Bhattachrya.
According to the ED, between October 2018 and April 2019, this company received Rs 50,000 from 530 private institutes offering B.Ed training, adding up to Rs 2.64 crore, in the name of services rendered. However, no services were rendered by “M/S Acuere Consultancy Services”, the document claimed.
“[H]uge amounts have been deposited/ credited in the bank accounts of the family members of Shri Manik Bhattacharya and Shri Manik Bhattacharya has remained evasive in replying about such accounts and the source of such funds,” the ED has alleged.
The arrests of TMC leaders in the alleged SSC scam have heightened political tensions in the state. While the opposition BJP has accused the ruling TMC of corruption, the latter has suggested that it’s being persecuted by central agencies for politically motivated reasons.
BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya told ThePrint: “This was a well-planned scam and Manik was a pillar in this. The entire Trinamool Congress is linked to the scam and Manik was a kingpin who was rewarded with an MLA post by the party. The youth have been cheated, so many youngsters have lost a golden opportunity because of this scam we hope justice will be delivered to them.”
The Trinamool Congress, which has been fighting the corruption charges against its leaders, said that anyone who has committed a crime must be punished.
“The matter is under investigation, and we shouldn’t comment on it. But if someone has committed a crime, that person should be punished. We hope the agency conducts an unbiased investigation and doesn’t go by the BJP playbook. CM Mamata has informed the high court that the state is ready to conduct recruitment in the coming days,” Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh told ThePrint.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)