| Naresh Kumar Puri (centre), executive director (eastern region), Airports Authority of India, is taken out of Barasat court by sleuths of the CBI on Friday. Puri was arrested on charges by a contractor, who claimed he had pocketed a bribe. Picture by Amit Datta
This is a story of crime in high places that held a high court room spellbound on Friday.
The narrator: public prosecutor Kazi Safiullah.
The chief protagonist: former head of the regional transport office (RTO) and current executive magistrate of Alipore court Basudeb Mukherjee.
The issue: whether or not to grant anticipatory bail to Mukherjee.
“This crime should not go unpunished,” public prosecutor Safiullah declared, as the court settled down to hear the anticipatory bail application of Mukherjee. “And the punishment should be exemplary, so that no one dares to repeat it in future.”
The “crime”, Safiullah said, was that Mukherjee, during his five-year stint as head of the RTO, was hand-in-glove with car thieves, issuing them documents to “legalise” the ownership of the stolen vehicles.
This charge was based, Safiullah said, on elaborate investigation by both the Howrah and the Rajasthan police.
Sekhar Basu, advocate on behalf of Mukherjee, who was not present in court, said his client was “innocent” and being “falsely implicated”. Basu said Mukherjee “has not indulged in the acts that he is being charged with... He should be granted the bail that he is pleading for”.
The division bench of Justices A. Talukdar and P.N. Sinha thought otherwise. After considering Safiullah’s plea that Mukherjee would use his position as an important public servant to influence the case, the judges decided not to grant him the anticipatory bail.
Additional superintendent of police (town), Howrah, Rahul Srivastava, said that before any further action or arrest is initiated against Mukherjee, the police would verify the statements of the other accused in the case, “so that all loopholes are plugged”. Srivastava asserted, though, that “Mukherjee is certainly a major suspect in this stolen car racket”.
Public prosecutor Safiullah told the court that former RTO head Mukherjee’s name first got implicated in the case after the Rajasthan police seized a car that had been used to commit a dacoity in that state.
The driver of the vehicle was arrested and the vehicle impounded. Both the documents, as well as the statement of the driver, revealed that the owner of the car was one Ranjit Haldar, a resident of Golabari, in Howrah.
The Golabari police station was contacted and provided the address of Haldar. The Golabari police, in turn, conducted a raid on Haldar’s house and arrested him. As a bonus, they found two of his accomplices, Swapan Banerjee and Syed Amanuddin, putting up with him and arrested them as well. Both were well-known car-thieves, the police said.
Interrogation of the trio revealed that this particular gang of car-thieves was much larger than what the police had gathered till then.
As the interrogation proceeded, more names emerged and this time, it took the police to Rajarhat, in North 24-Parganas.
There, they arrested two other criminals, Debu and Deben Agarwal, and recovered from them two Tata Sumos and a Mahindra Armada.
Further questioning of the car-thieves brought forth more names, this time of two brothers, Indranath and Chandranath, who operated a car-lifting racket in Calcutta.
Public prosecutor Safiullah told the court that though these criminals hailed from and operated in different parts of the state, they had one common link — Basudeb Mukherjee.
According to the police, Safiullah said, all the car-thieves had told them that it was Mukherjee, as head of the RTO, who had helped them get false documents to legalise the “new” car ownerships. “He used his position to help the criminals,” Safiullah said. “This is a heinous crime.”
Officials investigating the case said they are probing to find out whether other employees of the RTO are also involved in helping car-thieves. “If so, we shall get to the bottom of it soon,” an official said.
Shouts of ‘thief’, fear of torture
From 4 pm on Friday, the crowds —lawyers, local residents and mediapersons -started swelling outside the gates leading to third additional sessions court in Bar-asat. No one was let in, as a team of six Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sleuths stood guard.
The rush of onlookers, and the CBI’s no-entry, were understandable — word had spread about the Thursday night arrest of Airports Authority of India (AAI) executive director, eastern region, Naresh Kumar Puri.
And Puri was supposed to reach Barasat court, from Nizam’s Palace, around 4 pm. But the crowd grew restive — and then dispersed — as the clock ticked over.
4.45 pm. As if on cue that the coast was relatively clear, three white Ambassadors zoomed into the court campus and screeched to a halt in front of the barred gate. Naresh Puri and son Ank-ush were whisked into the third additional sessions court by the sleuths. The Puris were locked in the ‘cage’ as the proceedings began, with public prosecutor Mihir Das handing over the CBI's charges to judge P.G. Dutta.
After going through some of the charges, the judge called out to the AAI official in custody: “The CBI has framed charges that you were caught taking a bribe… Do you have anything to say to this'”
With the CBI sleuths and two Intelligence Bureau (IB) personnel standing by, Puri kept on pleading with the judge for bail. “Your lordship, please grant me bail, otherwise I will be tortured.”
Responding to this, S.R. Majumder, deputy superintendent in the anti-corruption department of the CBI, brought to the notice of the court that Puri was “a very influential person”. Crying for rejection of his bail plea, Majumder told judge Dutta: “If he is granted bail, he might tamper with the documents that are essential for the case.”
The Central agency then asked for a three-day CBI remand for the accused. The judge, however, remanded Puri to a single day’s CBI custody.
When judge Dutta asked the CBI whether they needed to interrogate Ankush as well, the sleuths replied in the negative. The boy was remanded in jail custody for 14 days.
Puri was charged under Section 27 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for being involved in corruption by abusing his official position. An official of the CBI said some of Puri’s superiors may also be involved in this bribery racket.
The investigating team reiterated before the court that it had picked up the AAI executive director on the basis of allegations levelled against him by Soumya Chatterjee, a local contractor who had constructed the fence around the airport, from whom Puri had demanded a bribe.
By the time the court was adjourned, it was 6.15 pm and a huge crowd was back at the gates to catch a glimpse. Screams of “chor, chor” greeted Puri as he was escorted out to first the Barasat central lock-up, and then back to Nizam’s Palace.