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Neighbour sneezes, Bengal sniffs
SC tilts to Odisha CBI probe

April 23: Striking a part-sardonic, part-sanguine posture, the Trinamul Congress today suggested it was not against a probe by a “neutral agency” into the Saradha scandal.

The declaration almost preceded — if not coincided with — an indication by the Supreme Court that it was not averse to ordering a CBI probe into a cash-collection scandal in Odisha where Saradha is one of the accused companies.

The Naveen Patnaik government took the hint and dropped its objections to a probe by the central agency, leaving Bengal as the sole big state that is opposed to a CBI investigation. The apex court did not pronounce the verdict in the Odisha case today, reserving the order as it had done last week on a separate petition seeking a CBI probe into the Saradha scandal in Bengal.

Around the same time, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee told a rally in West Midnapore’s Belda: “Sobai CBI, CBI korche… Etodin CBI ki koreche? Erpore jodi adalat chai, CBI hobe. Tate amar ki korar ache? (There seems to be a clamour for the CBI… But what has the CBI done till now? Now if the court wants, there will be CBI probe. What can I do about that?)

“The CBI had probed the Jnaneshwari (train) disaster…. The CBI had probed the killings in Netai. I want to know what has been the outcome.”

What sounded like a sarcastic statement appeared to crystallise into something more substantial when Trinamul all-India general secretary Mukul Roy addressed a rally in Bolpur.

“Now they (the Opposition) are saying that Trinamul has looted Saradha money. The Trinamul Congress has no objection to an inquiry by a neutral agency. If Trinamul as a political party is found to be involved in any kind of corruption, the party will no longer indulge in politics,” Roy said.

By then, word had begun to spread that the Odisha government had modified its stand in the Supreme Court. Some reports had suggested that the court would deliver its verdict in the Bengal case but the case list had mentioned Odisha.

It is not clear whether the possibility of a court order was weighing on the minds of Mamata and Roy and they were trying to pre-empt the negative fallout of any order for a CBI probe although the verdict need not be similar in the two cases.

The apex court did not mince words in the Odisha case. A bench of Justices T.S. Thakur and C. Nagappan said a CBI inquiry was needed to unearth the conspiracy as the companies had operations not just in Odisha but also in Assam and Tripura.

The default by the accused cash-collection companies in Odisha in May last year was triggered by the Saradha collapse in Bengal a month earlier.

The court spoke in favour of a CBI inquiry after former solicitor-general Gopal Subramanium, appearing for the Odisha government that was opposing a CBI probe, relented. The bench assured him that such an inquiry would not in any manner reflect on the functioning of the state machinery.

Appearing for the Bengal government, senior counsel U.U. Lalit urged the court not to link the Odisha case to that in the neighbouring state.

Lalit said the state special investigation team (SIT) had been acting with “alacrity”.

The court asked: “If we feel the amount (defaulted) is more than Rs 500 crore, should we not then order a CBI probe?”

Lalit said: “If Your Lordships are applying such a logic, then it should also go (to CBI), but I don’t think it should be entrusted to the CBI because we have been acting fairly.”

The court expressed strong displeasure at the inaction of regulatory agencies like Sebi, RBI and the Registrar of Companies — a point Mamata had also been stressing on. Such regulators do not report to the state government.

In this context, the court referred to allegations of payoffs in Bengal. “In West Bengal, these people (regulators) were on the monthly payrolls. They were being paid Rs 15 lakh per month each so that the regulators looked the other way round…. In West Bengal, we were told there was a nodal officer who used to distribute monthly money to the regulators. It is a matter of investigations,” the court said.

The court also brushed aside Odisha’s defence that a commission headed by a retired judge was looking into the issue — as is the case in Bengal.

The court said: “Mr Subramanium, we all know how and why commissions of inquiry are appointed. Sometimes they are very convenient political decisions. In how many commissions of inquiries, actions are taken? Have you done anything beyond the commission of inquiry? Tell us on which FIR you are investigating the trail.”

CAT IS OUT OF POLICE locker

Bidhannagar police on Wednesday fielded questions on why they broke open the bank
locker of Piyali Sen, the wife of Saradha chief Sudipta Sen, on Tuesday night in a tearing hurry even though the locker was in their possession for nearly a year. The answers by Arnab Ghosh, deputy commissioner (detective department), speak for themselves.

Q: When did you seal the locker?

A: On April 30, 2013

Q: Why did you wait so long to open the locker?

A: Under law, we had three years’ time to break open the locker. But on April 21, we received a letter from the manager of a bank (United Bank of India), informing us that the
Enforcement Directorate wanted access to the locker. We told the manager that since we had sealed the locker, he should not allow access to anyone. On the same day we moved the ACJM’s court in Salt Lake seeking permission to open the locker and we got the permission the very next day. We could have broken the locker next month but when we learnt that the ED too wanted to break it open, we acted immediately

Q: Are you suggesting that the ED would have tampered with evidence?

A: There was no question of allowing the ED to break open the locker since it is
us who had sealed the locker lawfully a year ago.

(The ED had sought further custody of Piyali to search her locker. The Bankshall court extended her custody. The sequence suggests that the ED had the right to open the locker)

Q: Did you tell the court that the ED had already issued a search warrant for the locker?

A: No, why should we? We had sealed the locker in connection with a case that is pending with us. It has nothing to do with the ED. So, we did not mention any other investigating agency in our petition

Q: Are you treating the ED as an enemy?

A: No, not at all. We are not treating the ED as an enemy. We got the court’s order between 5pm and 5.30pm yesterday (Tuesday) and we informed the ED well in advance. We rushed to the bank around 7pm and we waited for the ED and Piyali Sen, who is in their custody, to turn up but no one came to the bank. So, eventually, at 9.10pm, we broke open the locker to facilitate the ED’s investigation since they
wanted to know the contents of the locker. Now the ED can obtain a court order to examine the contents of the locker.

(An ED official had said on Tuesday night that the police actions made it clear they did not want to cooperate and the central agency did not want to be a mere spectator)

Q: What did you find inside the locker?

A: Ornaments weighing around 275 grams and three silver coins. The total value of this would be Rs 10 to 12 lakh. There were no documents

Q: Will you arrest Piyali when the ED probe is over?

A: No, we will not arrest her.... Her name never figured as an accused.

(The ED is exploring legal options, one of which is to move the high court requesting an affidavit from the police on the reasons for the haste in opening the locker. But the final decision was not taken till Wednesday evening.)