Jharkhand: What next, Enforcement Directorate?

States 360º: The ED has been trying to interrogate Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren since August 2023, and claims to have sent him as many as eight summons

Hemant Soren meets supporters (photo: @HemantSorenJMM/X)
Hemant Soren meets supporters (photo: @HemantSorenJMM/X)

V.P. Sharan

Several thousand Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) workers kept vigil at the police barricades outside chief minister Hemant Soren’s home on 20 January. Some carried bows and arrows, the JMM symbol. "Jab-jab Modi darta hai/ ED aagey karta hai (whenever Modi is scared, he calls for the ED)," they chorused, heckling the Enforcement Directorate (ED) team inside the ministerial residence on Kanke Road.

The ED team included investigators flown in from Delhi, 2,000 police personnel for their support and protection, and several administrative officials summoned on duty. The agency had come armed with some 30 questions related to an alleged ‘land scam’ they were probing.

At one point, tension mounted as several hundred CRPF jawans arrived in nine buses. This was taken as a sign of the chief minister’s imminent arrest, and the JMM workers grew restive. Thankfully, despite small displays of aggression, matters did not come to a head.

The interrogation lasted seven hours and the high drama ended around 9.00 pm, after the ED team left and Soren came out to address his supporters. By then, a light drizzle was falling. “You need not be afraid. Keep your morale high. I assure you that your leader will take the first bullet fired at us,” Soren said, reminding them that the Opposition was uniting nationally.

The ED sought another appointment the very next day to grill the chief minister again, a request that was turned down.

JMM supporters camping outside Soren's residence
JMM supporters camping outside Soren's residence

Meanwhile, JMM spokespersons claimed that the CRPF had no jurisdiction in the prohibited zone around the chief minister’s official residence. They had not been called by the chief secretary or the director general of police (DGP), they said. Describing the CRPF’s mysterious arrival as a provocation and part of a larger conspiracy, they demanded an official inquiry amidst rumours that the CMO had also called for a report from the home department.

The ED has been trying to interrogate the Jharkhand chief minister since August last year and claims to have sent him as many as eight summons, the last on 16 January. In a terse letter, the agency had asked Soren to confirm a convenient place, date and time by 20 January. The letter apparently said, "You may be the chief minister but you are not above the law." It also informed the CM that if the ED team were to go to his office or residence, he must bear the responsibility for security and for law and order.

The tone and tenor incensed the JMM. “How can an official in the agency address such a letter to the CM?” fumed a JMM leader, as party workers held protests across the state against the “politically motivated” summons. Stop harassing the chief minister, they shouted, while burning effigies representing the central agency. In some places, hoardings reportedly came up featuring BJP leaders, including one showing Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, allegedly ‘let off’ by the ED after he joined the BJP.

It was a tense day in the state capital because BJP supporters were expected to hit the streets in a ‘balancing’ show of strength. Luckily, barring former chief minister Babulal Marandi, the saffron party chose to keep a low profile and remained indoors. They wanted to avoid trouble before the consecration of the Ram temple, insiders said.

Attention shifted to Ayodhya — and then the suspense returned: another summons landed on 23 January, right on schedule.


Storm in a teacup?

At the heart of the ED investigation of Hemant Soren is a 4.5-acre plot purchased by one Amit Agarwal in 2021. The land is said to be on Bariatu Road behind the DAV School and, curiously, in the possession of the Army. The Army had a firing range in the area for over half a century. Over the years, housing and construction activities — some of them suspected to be illegal — made the firing range practically inoperable.

The land revenue records in Ranchi are notorious. Several IAS officers, including a deputy commissioner of Ranchi, are in jail for having allowed fraudulent land deals based on forged documents. The ED claims Amit Agarwal’s purchase is one such questionable deal. With Agarwal said to be a close associate of the chief minister, the agency suspects a benami transaction, apparently. It is not clear, however, whether Agarwal himself has been interrogated or arrested by the ED.

Ranchi University
Ranchi University

Even more curiously, said plot of land, registered originally in 1932 in the name of Jayant Karnad, was sold to Jagatbandhu Tea Estate of Kolkata in 2021. While a director of the tea estate, Dipu Ghosh, is named in the deed, the ED believes it is Agarwal who is the real purchaser and that behind Agarwal is the ‘real’ beneficiary, the chief minister. What evidence the agency has is not in the public domain, though selective leaks have been faithfully published by local newspapers, suggesting there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The JMM and the chief minister, meanwhile, argue ‘intimidation tactics’ to create a mahaul (atmosphere) for defamation, adding some ballast to the floundering state BJP.


Who appointed VCs for money?

Six of the eight state universities in Jharkhand are forced to keep functioning without vice-chancellors or pro-VCs (in some cases both), without registrars or financial advisors. Ranchi University, for example, remains without a pro-VC, permanent registrar, full-time financial advisor or finance officer. Why? Because the state governor, who is the chancellor, cannot make up his mind.

After taking over as governor of Jharkhand in February 2023, C.P. Radhakrishnan scrapped the list of names put forth by the search committee set up by his predecessor, Ramesh Bais. At a meeting with university teachers, Radhakrishnan — a former BJP MP from Coimbatore — declared that VCs and pro-VCs had been selected for monetary considerations in the past.

Surprising, because two of his immediate predecessors, Bais and Droupadi Murmu, were also BJP appointees. Murmu, currently President of India, was governor of Jharkhand for six years, until 2021. Radhakrishnan’s comment, therefore, created ripples. Unconfirmed reports suggest he was summoned to Rashtrapati Bhavan and asked to be careful in speech and deed.

Radhakrishnan has, however, continued with his tirade, most recently scrapping the selection committee itself, replacing it with a jumbo advisory committee of over two dozen members, and a lengthy terms-of-reference for administrative reforms.


The big school lottery

A report this week in the Jamshedpur edition of Prabhat Khabar on the lottery for admissions to nursery and lower KG in 70 private schools in the steel city was revealing. The report said that out of 1 lakh applications, 10,000 lucky toddlers were selected by draw of lots — all of 10 per cent. Per the newspaper’s report, listing the seats and fees for each school, admission fees range between Rs 11,000 and Rs 40,000.

Many parents had, of course, submitted simultaneous applications to several private schools, hoping to strike gold somewhere. A second list is expected by the end of January. After that, the unlucky 10,000-30,000 infants remaining must try their luck again next year — or settle for state schooling.

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