The Narada sting operation case came back to the spotlight after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested West Bengal Ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, TMC (Trinamool Congress) MLA Madan Mitra & Former BJP leader & Ex-Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chattopadhyaya on May 17 in connection with the 2016 Narada Bribery case. The CBI has claimed that all 4 of them were caught accepting bribes on camera & henceforth, the Governor Jagdeep Dhankar sanctioned prosecution against those ministers & leaders.
WHAT IS NARADA STING OPERATION CASE?
As the name itself suggests, the Narada sting operation was a chain of operations & an undercover investigation conducted by Narada news portal in West Bengal with the main motive of exposing the corrupt & deceitful ministers in the ruling of Mamata Banerjee government. This sting operation was conducted by Mathew Samuel, the Former Managing Editor of Tehelka, a news magazine which is known for its investigative journalism & sting operations. Around 2014, the Tehelka team formulated an idea conducting sting operation that would facilitate them to come back into the market with a story that would unfold truth & shake the entire nation. Initially, they opted for either Himachal Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh as their targets but they dropped off the idea. Because BJP was the ruling government in Madhya Pradesh & Samuel didn’t favor the idea of being called up as the journalist who solely criticised BJP government while in Himachal Pradesh the political atmosphere was too still & silent to conduct a sting operation. During this time, the Saradha Group financial scandal transpired in West Bengal. Samuel felt that the corruption is deep rooted among the legislators & politicians in West Bengal & has to be unearthed by any possible means. Therefore, Samuel & his team decided to put their collective efforts on sting operation with West Bengal as their target. Between 2014 & 2016, Mathew Samuel conducted near around 12 sting operations on TMC leaders & an IPS officer who were alleged to have been indulged in bribery by receiving cash in exchange of extending favors to the business firms.
WHEN WAS THE NARADA STING OPERATION FOOTAGE RELEASED?
Though the operation got started in 2014 but was released ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal. The footage clearly revealed how the TMC leaders & Ministers accepted bribes. It came to be a huge misfortune for the party whose senior leaders were already alleged to have been entangled in the multi-crore Saradha chit-fund scam, which was a large-scale financial fraud occurred in 2013.
WHO WERE THE ACCUSED?
A fictitious company named as “Impex Consultancy Solutions” was set up by Samuel to conduct the sting operation & all those corrupt ministers were approached by the sting operators who asked them for the favors in exchange of money. So the 56 hour long footage caught several ministers & leaders like Mukul Roy, Subrata Mukherjee, Sultan Ahmed, Sugata Roy, Suvendhu Adhikari, Kakoli Ghosh Dastikar, Prasoon Banerjee, Suvon Chatterjee, Madan Mitra, Iqbal Ahmed & Farhad Hakim on camera – responding positively to Samuel’s proposals & accepting bribe. Senior police officer MH Ahmed Mirza was also caught accepting money who was alleged to play the key role in raising funds for the party.
LEGAL PROCEEDINGS AND CBI & THE ED PROBE
Despite criticisms, TMC managed to win the election in 2016 assembly polls & Mamata Banerjee retained the position & came into power for the second time. Mamata Banerjee-led-government in West Bengal started an inquiry under deep scrutiny against the Narada News Founder Mathew Samuel. He was inquired under multiple sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC) including section 469 which deals with forgery to harm reputation, section 500 which deals with defamation & section 120 (B) which deals with criminal conspiracy. The Calcutta High Court in 2016 cited that state’s investigation & court-monitored investigation cannot be carried out parallel to each other & hence the inquiry was stayed by the court.
However, on 17th March 2017, the Calcutta High Court ordered a preliminary investigation to be conducted by the CBI regarding the sting operation case. It also directed the CBI to arrest those ministers & leaders who were involved in this case, if required.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) was also conducting a separate investigation regarding this case. The Directorate lodged a case under Anti-Corruption Act for misappropriation of public funds & also issued several summons to the accused & Mathew Samuel. Finally on April 2017, the CBI filed an F.I.R (First Information Report) against 12 leaders of Trinamool Congress (TMC) & summoned everyone involved in the case to assist in the probe (investigation). The case was registered under multiple sections like Section 120B of IPC which deals with criminal conspiracy, Section 13(2) read with Section 13(1)(a) & Section 7 of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
HOW TMC REACTED?
Initially,TMC refused to have any connection with the sting operation, alleging it to be merely a political conspiracy to defame the party & claimed the video to be entirely forged & fabricated. The Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee condemned it to be an immoral effort or “smear campaign” by the opposition manifesting from vendetta-politics. Later, the TMC claimed the money received is to be in the form of a donation exclusive of any intention to bribe. On one hand the Trinamool MP Dinesh Trivedi was asked for the resignation of the accused while on the other hand mass protests & demonstrations were organized by the Communist Party of India (CPI) & Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) demanding the resignation of the politicians involved. No arrest was made till date.
On September 2017, Mukul Roy was suspended from the party for six years on account of involvement in anti-party activities & TMC leader Iqbal Ahmed died of heart attack in Kolkata, wherein the CBI was condemned by Mamata Banerjee for being the reason for his death.
In June 2018, CBIs probe gained momentum after Rakesh Asthana, the agency’s then special director held a special meeting with officers in Kolkata to discuss the Narada sting operation & other important cases.
On September 2019, after the Ministry of Home Affairs granted permission, the CBI arrested IPS officer Mirza.
In February 2020, the Lok Sabha secretariat asked for the Union Ministry’s opinion on a request by CBI to permit the prosecution of TMC leaders accused in the Narada sting operation case. The Enforcement Directorate also initiated a parallel investigation for the Narada sting operation case.
In August 2020, Enforecement directorate (ED) sends notices to five TMC leaders – Lok Sabha members Saugata Roy & Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, Former Lok Sabha member Aparupa Poddar, then minister Suvendu Adhikari & TMC leader Ratna Chatterjee, and also summoned & suspended IPS officer Mirza.
WHY THE 2016 STING OPERATION CASE IS BEING WIDELY DISCUSSED NOW?
On 9th May 2021, the West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar permitted the CBI for the prosecution against three TMC MLAs Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee & Firhad Hakim and Former party leader Sovan Chatterjee. Following this, the agency filed a chargesheet against the four accordingly. On May 6, Mukherjee was elected as the Protem speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. And on May 10, Mukherjee & Hakim took oath as ministers in Mamata Banerjee’s new cabinet in West Bengal.
A statement that was issued by Raj Bhavan in Kolkata clearly read out that the Governor of West Bengal sanctioned the prosecution of the respective leaders because it was alleged that all four of them committed the crime while they were holding their ministerial position in the government of West Bengal. The CBI made an arrest of all the four leaders on May 17 in connection with the Narada case. Though 12 TMC leaders’ name popped up in the Narada sting case but CBI arrested only four of them. And all four of them were currently elected in the Bengal state legislative assembly.
WIDESPREAD PUBLIC DEMONSTRATION
Soon after their arrest, there were widespread protests over the entire state where Mamata Banerjee herself staged a dharna at CBI’s office for the release of arrested leaders & restrain CBI from conducting the proceedings while around 3,000 TMC workers & supporters led to the court premises showing their disagreement with the CBI’s act. The protesters demonstrated by shouting slogans, hurling bricks and pelting stones, bottles & shoes at the central forces outside the CBI’s office. The TMC MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who also happens to be a senior advocate pleading bail for the arrested leader described the Chief Minister’s dharna at CBI’s office as a “Gandhian way of protest” without any fierceness & violence.
LEGAL PROCEEDINGS: –
After the arrest, all four of them were granted bail by a special CBI court on the very day of arrest itself i.e. May 17 but the CBI didn’t decide to follow up with the decision. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that due to the mob violence the CBI could not perform its duties. It wanted to transfer the Narada case from the trial court to the high court & the proceedings & declaration made by the CBI court shall be declared as null & void. He also added that order garnting bail was passed in a mob-dominating situation & hence people will lose their trust & confidence in judicial system.
There was an intensely fought courtroom battle between the senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Siddharth Luthra and Kalyan Banerjee pleading for the bail of the arrested leaders and on the opposition Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for CBI who very firmly opposed the bail. The CBI opposed the bail on the reasonable grounds that they may tamper or secrete the evidences, destroy any documents or threaten the witnesses. Henceforth, the CBI approached the Calcutta High Court. A division bench of the Calcutta High Court comprising of Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal & Justice Arijit Banerjee stayed the interim bail order late at night granted to them by a special CBI court & sent them to judicial custody. The Supreme Court criticised the act & expressed a antagonistic view of this order passed by the Calcutta High Court.
On May 21, Justice Arijit Banerjee favored granting of bail to all the four accused while Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal wanted them to be sent on house arrest. The division bench then modified their earlier order & sent the accused to house arrest. Due to the split of opinions the bench referred the matter to a five-judge bench & it took up the hearing of the case on May 24.
On May 24, the CBI filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court against the Calcutta High Court’s order of May 21, that modified its earlier decision of putting all the four accused in jail under judicial custody and passed a new order directing that they shall be kept under house arrest. The CBI demanded the withdrawal of this order of house arrest.
The Supreme Court stated that the issue is of depriving someone’s liberty which will infringe the Fundamental Right of “Right to Life & Personal Liberty” Under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. And High Court cannot pass a detention order without notice to the accused. So, Supreme Court clearly refuses to pass any order on the plea of CBI against the High Court’s order of house arrest of the Narada case’ accused.
A five-judge bench of Calcutta High Court heard the Narada case & decided to consider West Bengal Government a party to the case. The five-judge bench includes Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal and Justices Indra Prasanna Mukherji, Harish Tandon, Soumen Sen and Arijit Banerjee. The bench agreed to first hear the arguments on petition to invalidate or cancel the stay on bail of four political leaders accused in connection with Narada sting operation case and release them.
The literal meaning of mobocracy is the rule, supremacy or domination by the masses. The term “mobocracy” came into eminence when the special court of CBI granted interim bail on that very day of arrest as there was engineered violence by the mob right in front of CBI office. The Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, fighting in support of the CBI argued that the people’s protest can be a gliding reason to influence the case & turn in favour of the accused. Mr. Mehta raised the issue of the ruling party leaders protesting at the CBI’s office after the arrest & argued that if this kind of “mobocracy” will be allowed then there will be downright chances in the future of this being misused by the supporters of a gangster or any criminal or law breaker via protesting in the similar way.
Justice Harish Tandon, one of the judges on the bench said that there’s no reason at all to not believe that people’s protests & demonstrations can influence the judicial system & its verdict. Article 226 gives High Court the power to issue certain writs for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights as well as the legal rights. So, the court responded by saying that Article 226 can be invoked only when Mr. Mehta succeeds to prove that “mobocracy” had an influence on the court. Justice Indra Prasanna Mukherji asked for the proof if protesters have supremacy over the judicial system.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, in defence for the TMC ministers argued that there’s hardly any reason to refuse the grant of interim bail to the accused because of protests by people. The senior advocate Kalyan Banerj, in support of the TMC leaders expressed his grief in regard to the issue of cancelling the bail without hearing the accused arguments. He stated that in his entire 40 years of career, he has never seen the High Court passing a verdict in violation to the natural justice & promoting injustice.
THE CURRENT STATUS OF THE NARADA STING OPERATION CASE
After considering the applications filed by the arrested leaders for withdrawal of the earlier court order that had stayed the bail granted to them, the five-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court granted interim bail to all the 4 TMC leaders by asking them to submit a personal bond of Rs 2 lakh each with 2 sureties & are barred from giving any statement or interview on the scam case & interfere with the process of investigation. They have also been asked to ensure their presence as and when required via video-conferencing. The High Court stated that “Violation of any condition will lead to cancellation of bail.”
Hence, the trial & investigation for the Narada case is still on the process.
The transfer petition was taken up by the Division Bench of the High Court under Section 407 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) on May 17 on the basis of an email sent by the CBI. But the Appellate Side Rules of the court, which discusses the procedure of listing in such kind of matters, demands & requires that any motion seeking transfer be it civil or criminal shall be heard by a single judge. But from the very beginning itself it was taken up by a division bench treating it to be writ petition. But a writ petition under Article 228 of the Indian Constitution shall have been referred to a single judge having determination. The email or the information sent by CBI to the high court cannot be treated as writ petition at all because there was no substantial question for the interpretation of law was raised.
As was stated by Justice Arindam Sinha of Calcutta High Court on May 28, 2021, “Our conduct is unbecoming of the majesty the High Court commands. We have been reduced to a mockery” is what I believe to be truth about the judicial system.
Author: Komal Agrawal from KIIT University, Bhubaneswar.