Calcutta, April 22: Bengal police have gone to the extraordinary extent of securing a court order to scuttle the third bid by the Centre-run Enforcement Directorate (ED) to open a bank locker of Piyali Sen, the arrested wife of Saradha chief Sudipta Sen.
Bidhannagar police literally burned midnight lights to break open the locker at the United Bank of India (UBI) branch in Salt Lake and empty the contents.
No ED representative was present when the locker was opened tonight. The state police said they had video-recorded the events that unfolded in front of the locker to ensure that all items are accounted for. However, it is not clear whether the recording had been so thorough that each and every document had been filmed.
The dramatic intervention by the state police has fuelled suggestions that the state government wants to project the issue as a Centre-state tussle in the middle of the elections.
If that is the game plan, it carries the risk of strengthening suspicions that the government wants to hide something from the ED. Some state officials wondered whether the “operation” was the brainchild of a group keen to please the political bosses.
The ED had thrice gone to the UBI branch near BD block bus stop to check the contents of the locker after it arrested Piyali last week — something that Bidhannagar police could not do although she was staying close by for almost a year.
A private bank had cooperated with the ED in opening one locker in which some jewellery was found. But the public-sector UBI’s branch had last Saturday denied access to the central investigators to another locker, saying Bidhannagar police had sealed it.
On Monday, the ED officials had made a fresh attempt but the UBI branch manager again said he had been ordered verbally by the state police not to allow any other agency to open the locker.
This morning, after the news was reported, two senior officials of the bank, including the general manager (legal), went to the ED office in Salt Lake and offered full cooperation to the agency.
Piyali’s presence is required when the locker is opened but ED officials were busy in the afternoon at a Calcutta court seeking the extension of her custody. The court extended the custody till April 25.
This evening, ED officials went to the UBI branch with Piyali, confident of being granted access because of the assurances given by the senior bank officials.
The ED officials, who reached at 6pm, were made to sit for about an hour, apparently because the locksmith was busy with another job in central Calcutta.
The locker is held jointly by Sudipta Sen and Piyali, which means one key would have been with the couple and another with the bank. Both keys are required to open a locker. That a locksmith was awaited suggests the couple’s matching key could not be found.
Then, the ED officials waiting at the bank got a call from their office: Bidhannagar police had just served the central agency with a copy of an order by a court in Salt Lake. All this while, a police officer had positioned himself at the branch and was keeping on eye on the ED officials, sources said.
Bengal police said they had moved the court yesterday itself. “We moved the Bidhannagar court yesterday in connection with a complaint that was filed by Mallika Chatterjee, a depositor, against Narottam Dutta, an agent of Saradha Group and pleaded that we be allowed to open the locker,” said Arnab Ghosh, deputy commissioner of police, Bidhannagar comissionerate.
“We moved the court in connection with this case which we have been probing for the past several months and we suspect that some incriminating documents might be kept in the locker. Today, the court allowed our petition and gave us permission to open the locker,” Ghosh added.
Chatterjee had filed the case against Dutta claiming that she had been duped by him. But the state police did not say why it decided to act now and not before the ED had picked up Piyali.
According to Ghosh, the ACJM court, Salt Lake, directed the police to video-record the entire process — the opening of the locker, the removal of the articles and the sealing. “The order also said that the ED personnel and Piyali, as the owner of the locker, could be present during the entire process of the opening of the locker,” said Ghosh. It was not clear whether the court said “could” or “should”.
An ED official said it was clear from the police action that the state force was not willing to cooperate with the directorate and the central agency did not see any purpose in playing a mere spectator. The ED is expected to consult its legal cell tomorrow.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to resume tomorrow the hearing on a PIL seeking a CBI probe into a cash-collection scandal in Odisha. The case is different from another seeking a CBI investigation into the Saradha controversy in Bengal but the same bench is handling both. The hearing in the Bengal case has already concluded in the Supreme Court and the verdict is pending.