Kolkata: Rs 7-8 lakh — this was the going rate that middlemen and staff of the West Bengal Education Department allegedly offered to job aspirants for primary teacher posts in government-aided schools. But coughing up the money didn’t always translate into the promised job.
Accounts of how “common”, “small-time” people were allegedly “duped” and “extorted” stand out in the Enforcement Directorate’s 172-page chargesheet, filed before a judge Monday, against former West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee.
The suspended Trinamool Congress heavyweight, once a trusted aide of Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has been in jail since July as one of the accused in the so-called School Service Commission (SSC) recruitment scam. He was arrested after tens of crores 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 amounting to about Rs 103 crore.
Submitted at a special Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) court in Kolkata, the chargesheet, which ThePrint has read, includes some startling witness statements — backed with bank records — to show how job aspirants were purportedly offered posts for cash during Chatterjee’s tenure, from 2014 until his removal from the post this year.
One target of the alleged scam was widow Shefali Mandal, an assistant teacher at Ballavpur Primary School in Malda.
She claimed that when she approached the education department to submit a complaint in 2017 about her posting and salary, an official under Chatterjee’s officer on special duty (OSD) offered her a bargain she couldn’t refuse: jobs for her twin daughters, for the price of Rs 8 lakh. According to Mandal, an education department official “close to Partha Chatterjee” stayed the night at her house and collected the money — but her daughters never got the jobs.
“The duping of Shefali Mandal is a glaring example of how the staff of the education department looted and extorted money from the common people in the name of providing jobs,” reads the ED chargesheet.
In connection with the alleged jobs-for-cash racket, the chargesheet also includes WhatsApp exchanges implicating sitting TMC MLA Manik Bhattacharya. Further, it details how shell companies were allegedly created to launder the “tainted funds” from the purported scam.
Chatterjee, meanwhile, has maintained that the allegations against him are false.
When he was produced before a special court on 16 September during a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) hearing in the same case, he broke down and said he was the victim of a conspiracy.
“I am an MBA, I have a doctorate with an unblemished career as a public servant. This is a conspiracy to keep me behind bars. I am very ill, I take a lot of medicines. Who will help me,” he said.
When ThePrint asked his lawyer, Sukanya Bhattacharya, about the fresh details in the ED’s chargesheet, she said that that there were no specific allegations against Chatterjee.
“Except for the cash recovery, the chargesheet doesn’t mention anything alarming. The allegations made by the ED are very childish,” she said.
On Wednesday, Chatterjee was sent to judicial custody till 5 October in a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) case relating to the same alleged scam.
‘Purchase’ of primary teacher posts
Witness statements produced in the ED’s chargesheet detail how jobseekers allegedly emptied their savings and borrowed heavily to ‘buy’ jobs in West Bengal-government-run schools.
While the jobs didn’t pan out for some — as in Shefali Mandal’s case — others apparently got what they sought.
One such case was that of battery shop owner Jayanta Biswas and his wife Papya Mukherjee from Baghda in North 24 Parganas district.
Biswas told investigating officers that he dug into his retirement savings and shelled out Rs 7.5 lakh to get his wife an assistant primary teacher job in 2017.
He said he paid the money to a man called Chandan Mohan, who, according to the chargesheet, was an “agent who had high contacts with influential persons for giving primary teachers job (sic).”
The middleman apparently gave Papya tips to clear the entrance test: He asked her to only answer questions she knew perfectly and to submit blank OMR sheets for the remaining questions. She cleared the test and got the job.
Another job aspirant, Samar Kumar Haldar, said he paid Rs 7 lakh in two installments to a middleman named Abani Mondal who worked at the Municipal Service Commission at Kolkata’s AJC Bose Road. Mondal allegedly assured Haldar he would get a job when a new panel was formed in 2018.
The same middleman was also named by Sujoy Biswas, the owner of a small fish business, in his statement to the ED. Biswas had apparently failed to clear the recruitment test in 2016 and so decided to try a different route to a teacher’s job. He claimed he borrowed money from his family to pay Rs 7 lakh to Abani Mondal in two instalments.
WhatsApp chats show ‘deeply corrupt system’
The alleged SSC scam has thrown the ED’s spotlight on several other Bengal leaders, including sitting TMC MLA Manik Bhattacharya, who was suspended earlier this year from his post as president of the state’s Primary Education Board.
The chargesheet includes WhatsApp exchanges allegedly retrieved from Chatterjee’s seized phone that indicate that he was aware of corruption allegations against Bhattacharya. This, according to the ED, indicated a “deeply corrupt system”.
One lengthy WhatsApp message alerts Chatterjee (addressing him as dada, or big brother) that Bhattacharya was allegedly “taking money” from colleges and students.
“Dada, Manik Bhattacharya taking money in every possible way. He has taken 500 rupees per student from every pvt B.Ed college during covid when colleges were closed. Students could not pay so many colleges paid themselves. Again, he has asked for 500 per student. He harasses colleges and threatens so they pay up (sic),” the message says.
“In Nadia, primary TET (Teachers Entrance Test) interview is complete, but he is telling chairman to give blank signed master sheet without putting interview marks. He will do the work again by taking money. The case will start again, and the party will suffer. Please look into the matter,” it further urges.
This message was forwarded by Partha Chatterjee to Manik Bhattacharya, the chargesheet says.
When questioned by the ED about the evident malpractices described in the text, Chatterjee reportedly said that “the matter was referred to Manik Bhattacharya and his board was in a position to act accordingly”.
‘People exploited to launder tainted money’
The ED chargesheet details four “shell companies” that allegedly operated under Chatterjee’s instructions, namely Viewmore Highrise Pvt. Ltd, APA Services, Sentry Engineering Pvt Ltd, and Symbiosis Merchants Pvt Ltd.
The ED claims these companies were floated with the sole aim to “launder the tainted funds acquired from the criminal activity of selling jobs in lieu of money”.
The chargesheet reads: “[S]mall time people having meagre means of living were exploited and made directors of these companies and thereafter made to sign on the papers of the company without their consent or knowledge.”
One company’s director was a gardener and another was Arpita Mukherjee’s driver, Kalyan Dhar. (He also happens to be her brother-in-law.)
The ED has also asserted that it has evidence that Chatterjee concealed illegal funds derived from “criminal activities”. The agency claims he misused his official position and social standing as a cabinet minister to float “dummy companies”.
The agency has claimed that Chatterjee was “uncooperative and knowingly concealing facts” when confronted with recoveries.
What was Arpita Mukherjee’s role?
Partha Chatterjee’s associate Arpita Mukherjee has been a key figure in the SSC scandal ever since the ED recovered close to Rs 50 crore in cash, gold jewellery worth over Rs 5.08 crore, and purportedly incriminating documents from her properties in and around Kolkata. She was arrested along with Chatterjee on 23 July.
According to the chargesheet, she has been a close aide of the TMC leader since at least 2012, but has told the agency that she has not made “true disclosures” due to “fear of her personal security and that of her mother”.
According to the chargesheet, she has alleged that all the cash and gold belong to Partha Chatterjee, and that she wants to file a formal application before the court for this disclosure to be considered.
During its investigation, the ED says it also discovered a letter issued by Chatterjee, dated 22 February 2022, pertaining to Mukherjee’s plans to adopt a child.
The letter said Chatterjee was a “close friend” of Arpita Mukherjee and that he had “no objection” to her adopting a child.
When asked about this, Chatterjee told the investigating officer that he used to issue certificates as a public representative to those who approached him.
Investigations, however, have revealed that Mukherjee had 31 life insurance policies in which Chatterjee was named as the nominee, according to the chargesheet. It also says that the two have travelled to Singapore and Thailand and stayed at the plush Hotel Leela in Goa on various occasions.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)