What's so complicated about the Narada case that CBI and the courts are tying themselves in knots?

What appeared to be an open and shut case involving politicians and former IPS officers who allegedly received collectively bribes of Rupees 80 lakhs has been turned into a curious spectacle

What's so complicated about the Narada case that CBI and the courts are tying themselves in knots?

Shalini Sahay

Delhi-based journalist Mathew Samuel and his colleague Angel Abraham claim to have paid a total sum of Rs 81 lakhs to various MPs and MLAs belonging to Trinamool Congress between 2014 and 2016. While the duo asserted that it was a sting operation to expose how easy it was to bribe politicians, the recipients allegedly shown accepting cash claimed they accepted the donation in good faith.

The sting operation was released ahead of the 2016 assembly election in Bengal. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was brought in to investigate the ‘bribery’ case in 2017. Samuel claims to have handed over 52-hour-long video footage to the agency. The agency had the footage forensically examined and filed the chargesheet against some of the accused this week, two weeks after the results of the Bengal assembly election 2021 came out. Four of the accused including two ministers, an MLA and a former Mayor of Kolkata who quit BJP ahead of the election, were promptly arrested by the CBI, which sought custody to interrogate them. Despite reams of reports on the case in the public domain, there are several unexplained questions that are waiting for an answer. Here are a few of them.

1. Why custody and arrest?

Since the chargesheet has already been filed after four years of investigation and interrogation of the accused, it is presumed the agency has collected evidence and recorded witness statements. It should lead logically to a speedy trial. But CBI claims it has only filed the ‘first’ chargesheet and will file supplementary chargesheets after further investigation. Why is it such a complicated case for the CBI to crack?

2. Who arranged the money and why?

Samuel has claimed that the bribe money was given by businessman-politician K.D. Singh, founder of the Alchemist Group and frozen poultry chain of Republic of Chicken. He had various other businesses including stakes in Tehelka magazine, where Samuel was the Managing Editor. Singh, whose property was attached by ED in a case related to Alchemist Group and was arrested for money laundering in January this year, had denied giving money to Samuel. The journalist, however, claimed that Singh developed cold feet after seeing the footage and did not allow him to publish details of the sting. He waited till 2016 to release the footage and the report on his own portal. It is not clear why Singh allowed him to retain the footage. What was Singh’s motivation in sponsoring the sting operation and if not Singh, who gave Samuel the money and why is also not clear.

3. Why no action against Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari? The former TMC MP who fell out with Mamata Banerjee and crossed over to the BJP, where he is a national vice president, has not been arrested, ostensibly because in the video footage he is not seen accepting cash. Instead, he is heard asking Samuel to hand over the amount to an IPS officer, who admitted to the CBI that he had accepted the money on behalf of Mukul Roy. Samuel, who claims others were paid Rs. 5 lakhs each, has said that he paid Rs 15 lakhs to Roy. CBI had earlier told the media that it had sought sanction for prosecuting Roy but his name is missing from the chargesheet.

Also missing from the chargesheet is the name of Suvendu Adhikari, who too defected to the BJP, defeated Mamata Banerjee at Nandigram and who is now the Leader of the Opposition in the Bengal assembly. Adhikari does figure in the footage and Samuel also confirms having paid him a sum of Rs. 5 lakh.

4 What’s the Speaker’s role?

The CBI claims to have first requested for approval from the Lok Sabha Speaker in April 2019 to prosecute four MPs including Roy and Adhikari, who too has joined the BJP. In October 2020, the CBI told the media that during the past 18 months, it had sent five reminders to the Lok Sabha but the approval had not come. “We have informed the Calcutta High Court about the delay. We will not be able to file the chargesheet without LS approval,” a CBI spokesman was then quoted as saying before adding that the approval for the accused IPS officer (S.M.H. Mirza) was also pending with the central government. Lawyer and CPM’s Rajya Sabha member Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya had claimed in January 2021 that he had personally met the LS Speaker, Om Birla, and requested him to expedite the sanction. There is no explanation of why the Speaker has been sitting over the request for two years. Nor is there any information on the proceedings of the Lok Sabha’s Ethics Committee, which had been set up to inquire into the charges against the Members.

Significantly, CBI officers claimed in Kolkata that rules had been changed and hence the agency was not required to seek the approval of the Assembly Speaker before arresting a Member of the House. There is no clarity why such approval is seemingly essential for MPs but not for MLAs. CBI also sought this week permission to further investigate the ‘remaining accused’!

The case does smack of a political vendetta by the Centre. CBI has not had a full-time director since January. And the collegium to select the new director is expected to meet next week. In the absence of a full-time director, the go-ahead to arrest the accused would have been approved by the PMO and the Home Ministry.

Samuel Mathew and Angel Abraham have been at the centre of several controversies in recent years and faced charges of extortion in Kerala. While both claim to have been harassed by West Bengal and Kolkata Police, they are likely to face some torrid cross questioning in the court when the trial commences. This could be another reason why the CBI and Samuel would both like the case to be transferred outside the state.

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