After the election poll results in West Bengal a series of events started which showed many protests and public outrage. Last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested four ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, TMC MLA Madan Mitra, and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chattopadhyay in the Narada bribery case. The move comes only days after Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar gave his consent to the CBI filing a charge sheet and sanctioning prosecution against the four accused. In this article I will be discussing background of the NARADA Scam, how operation conducted, political reaction, investigation process, judiciary stand, and at last concluding case by putting my stand on this case and some suggestions.
What is Narada Scam Case?
Mathew Samuel conducted the Narada sting operation, which targeted high-ranking officials and politicians from the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). It showed numerous politicians and high-ranking cops accepting cash bribes to give a company unofficial benefits.
It was performed in 2014 for the Indian news magazine Tehelka, and months before the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, it was published on a private website.
The case is now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), and a parliamentary ethics committee as of June 2017.
- Tehelka, a news magazine noted for its investigative journalism and sting operations, has Mathew Samuel as its managing editor. He was a key figure in the sting operation West End, which sparked a mini-democratic crisis in 2001, resulting in the resignation of Defence Minister George Fernandes and the subsequent conviction of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Bangaru Laxman.
- Around the year 2014, the Tehelka management proposed a sting operation as a way to “return to the market with a nice narrative; with a bang.” Samuel and his crew considered going to Madhya Pradesh or Himachal Pradesh, but neither of those options became available. The BJP was in power in Madhya Pradesh, and Samuel did not want to be seen as a journalist who just challenged BJP governments, while the political situation in Himachal Pradesh was too calm for a sting operation.
- The Saradha Group financial scandal broke in West Bengal around this period. Samuel believed that the corruption discovered up to that point was simply “the tip of the iceberg,” and the team decided to focus their efforts on West Bengal politicians.
Mathew Samuel stated he was inspired by Israeli Mossad officer Mike Harari in an interview with The Telegraph. He’d requested a friend to make a cover for him as a senior executive at the fake Chennai-based firm Impex Consultancy Solutions. Samuel received an Aadhaar card in the name of Santhosh Shankaran, as well as social media profiles.
While looking toward the progress of the operation, Samuel met with a person who was locally known as ‘Tiger’. Samuel claims that Tiger introduced him to Iqbal Ahmed, then Deputy Mayor of Kolkata, and S.M.H. Mirza (IPS Officer). In the course, they also met Sultan Ahmed (Iqbal’s Brother), Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim, and Aparupa Poddar at the time. In this chain of meeting all known each other.
Samuel created a bogus company called Impex Consultancy Solutions and approached many TMC ministers, MPs, and leaders, asking for favors in exchange for money as part of the operation.
In the 52-hour footage captured by Samuel and his associate Angel Abraham, the then TMC MP’s Mukul Roy, Sougata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Prasun Banerjee, Suvendu Adhikari, Aparupa Poddar, and Sultan Ahmad, and the state minister Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim and Iqbal Ahmed were seen accepting alleged money in exchange for unofficial favors for Impex Consultancy Solutions, which was floated by Samuel himself. Sujay Bhadra alias Shantu, the then PA of Member of Parliament Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, was also shown on the footage, and Karan Sharma Abhishek Banerjee’s close aide.
HMS Mirza, an IPS officer who has now been suspended, was also caught collecting money from Samuel. Shanku Deb Panda, the TMC’s head, was also seen requesting shares in Samuel’s fictional company in exchange for promised favors.
Although Mukul Roy (currently the BJP’s national vice-president) was not shown collecting payment in the video, he was shown instructing Samuel to come to his party’s office with the promised money. Suvendu Adhikari is now a BJP leader and the state Assembly’s Leader of the Opposition. Sovan Chatterjee joined the BJP in 2019 but left after being denied a ticket for the Assembly elections this year. Panda is presently a member of the BJP.
While Samuel initially stated that K. D. Singh, a Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP and majority owner of Tehelka, was unaware of the operation and that he was a ‘lone wolf,’ he later retracted his assertions, claiming that Singh was aware of the operation and sponsored it. According to him, the operation’s budget was initially set at Rs. 2,500,000, but was later boosted to Rs. 8,000,000 as the number of prospective targets grew significantly. The police then opened a criminal case against Singh, believing that a major portion of the money had come from his West Bengal chit fund operation. Singh, on the other hand, denied any involvement in the sting.
The video of the sting operation was released to the public through the website naradanews.com after a nearly two-year lag in 2016, before the WB state election.
Initially, the Trinamool Congress denied any involvement with the sting operation, claiming that it was the result of a political conspiracy and that the film was wholly manufactured. Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamool Congress and the Chief Minister of West Bengal, claimed it was a smear campaign by the opposition motivated by revenge politics. The Trinamool Congress later stated that the money was received as a donation. The CBI investigations that followed were dubbed “witch hunts” and accused of being driven by strong political interests. Dinesh Trivedi, a Trinamool MP, was a dissident voice who demanded the accused’s resignation.
Mass rallies were organized by the Communist Party of India (CPIM) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calling for the resignation of the politicians involved.
Contrary to Indian media forecasts, there appears to have been no consequence from the sting operation during the 2016 assembly elections. With an absolute majority, the AITC government was re-elected. Mamata Banerjee declared this in her victory speech following the elections as an affirmation of the party’s honesty.
The state took the first legal steps on June 17, 2016, when it ordered a police investigation in Kolkata. Soon after, the Indian Congress and the BJP filed three public-interest lawsuits in the Calcutta High Court, requesting an impartial investigation because of the accused’s powerful positions. The State of West Bengal, together with the accused, requested a probe by a state investigation team or a special investigation team, whilst the petitioner requested a probe by a federal body.
Samuel was also accused of being heckled by the local police after they summoned him for allegedly running extortion rings and interrogated him about the sting.
The state then launched its investigation, charging Samuel with forgery to injure reputation, defamation, and criminal conspiracy under various sections of the IPC, including 469 (forgery to injure reputation), 500 (defamation), and 120(B) (criminal conspiracy). On August 5, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a billboard Infinitum stay of the state inquiry, stating that the police cannot conduct a parallel investigation while a court-monitored investigation is ongoing.
S. M. H. Meerza, a high-ranking officer in the Indian Police Service, was subjected to disciplinary action by the state on March 18, 2017. He was the lone individual (out of all those who were seen on video accepting a cash bribe) who was subjected to some type of state discipline.
The CBI was requested to investigate the matter when the court expressed concerns about the impartiality of the West Bengal Police investigation, even though the tape had been verified as authentic by the Central Forensic Laboratory. While the state objected to the CBI managing the inquiry, a bench of the Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre, later concluded that the sting’s findings were not jeopardized by the legality of Mathew Samuel’s acts and that an independent investigation would be conducted.
The state’s petition was also dismissed by the Supreme Court of India, enabling the CBI investigation to proceed.
The CBI filed a First Information Report against 12 Trinamool leaders for “criminal conspiracy” on April 17, 2017. The CBI then summoned all of the people engaged within the case to assist with the investigation.
Aparupa Poddar admitted to making money in the sum of 3 lakh INR but denied any ulterior intent. She also claimed to have worked on Iqbal Ahmed’s recommendations. Iqbal Ahmed admitted to accepting the money but claimed to have put it towards the growth of Mohammedan S.C., a Maidan-based sports club (Kolkata). Subrata Mukherjee admits to accepting payment of 3 lakh INR as well. Sougata Ray dismissed the film as a forgery and claimed he had never met Samuel. S.M.H. Meerza originally denied collecting any money, but later admitted the tape’s truthfulness and claimed to have given the entire sum to an orphanage.
Following that, the inquiry reached a snag when specific segments of the tape (before the) were discovered to be missing from the provided material. Samuel said that he removed the unnecessary parts of the tape while uploading it from his iPhone to his laptop and that he forgot the password for the iPhone folder containing the cut-out portions. The CBI then contacted Apple Inc. to obtain the contents of the folder, but while they refused to disclose the password due to privacy concerns, they did confirm that the entire sting video was shot on an iPhone. According to recent developments, the CBI was in contact with experienced hackers to acquire access to the folder.
ENFORCEMENT DIRECTORATE (ED) INVESTIGATION
A parallel inquiry is being conducted by the Enforcement Directorate. It has filed a lawsuit under the Anti-Corruption Act alleging theft of public funds and has issued many summonses to the accused and Samuel himself. In 2020, the ED sent further letters to the defendants, requesting that they give details of their bank statements and assets related to the money laundering portion of the investigation. The ED, on the other hand, is suffering the same fate as the CBI, stating that it is awaiting the Speaker’s approval before filing a charge.
Because members of Parliament were involved in the sting operation, a Lok Sabha ethics committee was formed to investigate if the individuals involved violated the house’s privileges. After the incident, the committee only met once.
CURRENT STATUS (2020-21)
- Within weeks of receiving the CBI’s plea, the Lok Sabha secretariat sought the Union law ministry’s opinion on a request by the CBI for authorization to prosecute three sitting Trinamool Congress (TMC) MPs accused in the Narada sting operation case, senior officials at the Lower House said.
- The ED issued notifications to five TMC leaders and summoned suspended IPS officer Mirza in August 2020. Lok Sabha members Saugata Roy and Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, former Lok Sabha member Aparupa Poddar, then-minister Suvendu Adhikari, and TMC leader Ratna Chatterjee, who is estranged from former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee, who is a defendant in the case, were among the TMC leaders.
- Suvendu Adhikari became a member of the BJP in December of 2020. He ran in the recent assembly elections in Nandigram, East Midnapore, and defeated Mamata Banerjee. The BJP was anticipated to win at least 200 seats in the assembly and oust the TMC, but the latter returned to power with 213 members. On May 2, the results were released. Sovan Chatterjee joined the BJP before the assembly elections but quit due to disagreements with the leadership.
- Ratna Chatterjee ran for the TMC and won the Behala East seat, defeating the BJP candidate.
- The CBI has been granted prosecution sanctions against three TMC MLAs, Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee, and Firhad Hakim, as well as former party leader Sovan Chatterjee, according to a statement released by Raj Bhawan on May 9. This gave the agency the authority to press charges against the four people. Mukherjee and Hakim were sworn in as ministers on May 10th.
- “Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra, and Suvon Chatterjee were all ministers in the West Bengal government at the time of the crime, hence the Governor of West Bengal approved their prosecution” according to a statement released by Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
- A debate has erupted over the governor’s use of the interregnum between two governments to grant his consent; in normal circumstances, the speaker of the parliament would have been required.
- “To file a charge sheet against a sitting member of the house, the CBI must get permission from the assembly speaker. It was not completed. I’m not sure under what law or with what intent the governor granted such permission. This is anti-democratic,” stated assembly speaker Biman Banerjee.
- Calcutta High Court Justice Arindam Sinha criticized the High Court’s handling of the case on May 28, 2021. In a letter to Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal, he said, ‘We have been reduced to a mockery.’
- The three TMC leaders, as well as Sovan Chatterjee, were arrested amid widespread TMC protests. The Lok Sabha speaker, on the other hand, has yet to give his approval to the CBI’s request. The four leaders were granted bail and placed under house arrest by the Special CBI court. The CBI’s request to move the case from the special court to the High Court is being heard by a five-judge panel.
CONCLUSION: What is next?
To conclude this article we have to understand that the Narada sting case is positive or negative sting operation. So sting operation can be classified as positive and negative sting operation. Positive string operation are those which are conducted for the benefit of society and to infiltrate the working environment of the government. While Negative sting operations are a violation of an individual’s personal liberties. They serve no useful purpose in society and are harmful to the person who has been captured on video. Negative stings may not benefit the public at large, but they are a sensationalized attempt to gain attention in the age of “breaking news” by infringing on a person or entity’s dignity or sanctity.
The Narada sting operation can be termed as negative sting operation because the video of the operation was released at the time of election which clearly shown to create political turmoil and was an attempt to gain popularity. It also not served any purpose to society and harmed the reputation of the people shown in the video.
One such instance occurred in March 2001, when a few defence personnel and government officials from the ruling party were caught on tape collecting bribes, prompting immediate administrative action and intervention, which contributed to their impeachment.
The other way of looking this case is that it demonstrates how government officials are motivated by money, jeopardising their integrity. For the time being, the subject is before the Calcutta High Court, and its decision would open the way for further actions in the case. This case is a shining example of the dark secrets of behind-the-scenes dealings that the average taxpayer is unaware of. This case also demonstrates the power of the media, which currently appears to have kowtowed to its political masters.
There is no such specified laws pertaining to sting operation in India but there are some judicial ruling which deal with these operations.
In the case of Anirrudh Bahal v State, the Court held that it is the fundamental duty of an ordinary citizen under Article 51A (b), 51A (h), and 51A (j) to expose such common practices in the system, and that any act or operation carried out for this purpose is justified. In such circumstances, the court refused to treat agent provocateurs as accomplices.
As a result, the purpose of sting operations is to expose any public official’s (not just corrupt) behaviour that is against the public interest and, if exposed, will benefit the public at large. A public figure cannot claim his right to privacy in any of these situation.
The law is also extremely clear when it comes to exposing improper conduct of public authorities. In R. Rajgopal v State Of Tamil Nadu (1994) 6 SCC 632, the Supreme Court of India declared that when public officials’ privacy is violated, they have no remedy or damages available if the act or conduct is related to their official duties. The Court went on to say that in matters unrelated to his official duties, a public official is entitled to the same protection as any other citizen.
As it is rightly said great power comes with great responsibility, thus it is critical to choose how it will be used so that it does not cause any inconvenience to other members of society. To do so, one must first determine one’s boundaries with respect to other people’s rights, such as privacy, which is a major concern in such activities.
Regrettably, both the legislature and the judiciary remain silent on the topic. Where a law or guidelines from our country’s parliamentarians are urgently needed, they stand by as quiet spectators, as if they have no obligation to define how and under what conditions our country’s inhabitants should enjoy their freedom of speech and expression in this form.
As a result, it is urged that the case be handled in such a way that both the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) (a) and the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution are addressed fairly.
The suggestion could be an appropriate authority must approve a sting operation. Because no such position exists in India, and until one is established, a sting operation carried out by a private individual or office should be approved by a court of competent jurisdiction, which will be in a position to ensure that legal limitations are not breached as far as feasible.
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Author: Priyanandan Kumar from NMIMS, Mumbai.