Cash, strewn across the floor and also packed in yellow coloured bundles like baby parcels, at the home of a confidant of a top Bengal minister has triggered a face-palm moment for the ruling Trinamool Congress that has always claimed to be cash-starved.
The cash was discovered by officers of the Enforcement Directorate. The officers raided the residential home of Arpita Mukherjee, rumoured to be a close confidant of West Bengal Minister Partha Chatterjee.
Mukherjee, a former actress, initially denied she had anything to do with Chatterjee, but fell silent after videos of her attending the 21 July 2022 Shahid Diwas rally surfaced on social media. A video showing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee describing her as a top party official also went viral.
ED officers alleged that Mukherjee owns eight flats in plush neighbourhoods in Kolkata and often travelled across India and abroad, presumably on TMC funds. Mukherjee, claimed sources, was the main organiser of a big buck Durga Puja in Garia Naktala in the southern fringes of Kolkata. The Durga Puja festivities had the backing of Partha Chatterjee.
The cash, claimed the ED, was earned from youngsters who paid hefty bribes to get employment in schools and colleges run by the state government.
“If the raid was delayed by the week, the cash would have been taken out and circulated among various clubs organising Durga Puja in October,” a top official told this reporter.
Former Rajya Sabha member, Swapan Dasgupta posted a photograph of cash stacked inside Mukherjee’s room and remarked on social media: “This photograph defines the state of West Bengal. A cash-based raj.”
CPM leader Sujan Chakraborty remarked: “If a close aide has so much money, imagine the wealth the big players may have.” Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury called TMC leaders “thieves”.
The photographs, which went viral, reminded many of a similar incident that took place in early November when a company dealing in export-import flung bundles of cash out of the window following a DRI raid.
The teacher recruitment scam is being named “Cash For Job” scam, almost like the cash for votes scam that nearly sank the UPA 1 government. The initial estimates show the scam could be in the range of Rs 400-600 crore.
While the ED carried out the raids, teachers who got jobs in state government schools, allegedly by paying bribes, took to the streets after their services were terminated by an order of the Calcutta High Court. The sacking happened because of alleged irregularities and corruption in the recruitment process. Most of these teachers are from schools in semi-urban or rural areas.
Those protesting included the son of a TMC leader, the wife of a CPM leader, a TMC youth leader, two brothers, and the wife and two close relatives of a secretary at a private teachers’ training institute. There are an estimated 273 primary teachers in state-run schools who got the sack and took to the streets to stage a protest.
Former Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee, who currently holds the portfolio for industry, commerce and enterprise, has already been arrested for his alleged involvement in facilitating the scam and earning huge cash.
It is reliably learnt that the TMC may ask Partha Chatterjee to step down amid pressure from the Opposition as he’s not only a minister but also the secretary general of the party. TMC insiders claim Chatterjee was a very influential minister of the Mamata Banerjee cabinet.
Chatterjee tried hard to reach out to Banerjee but the CM was virtually incommunicado. Worse, she did not react with strong statements against the Centre and did not blame the Narendra Modi government for pushing the Central agencies against her ministers. Even the fiery Mahua Moitra is silent on her twitter timeline.
Political cognoscenti says Banerjee’s reaction is in contrast against the one she displayed when some of her cabinet colleagues were arrested by the CBI in the Narada case. Banerjee had done a sit-in when the CBI raided the residence of Kolkata’s the then police commissioner, Rajeev Kumar.
“Has she sacrificed Chatterjee to save someone? Who is that person? Has she struck a deal with the BJP?” asked Sanmoy Bandopadhyay in his YouTube blog.
The total cash recovered from Mukherjee’s home—claimed ED officers—was approximately Rs 21 crore. There were documents pertaining to around 10 properties, gold and diamond ornaments worth about Rs 50 lakh which were also recovered from Mukherjee’s house, the ED officers added.
“The said amount is suspected to be proceeds of the said SSC scam,” the federal probe agency said in a statement. The search teams took the help of bank officials for counting cash through machines.
What is disturbing is that bundles of cash were found in envelopes of the West Bengal education ministry with a national emblem printed on them. The ED officers feel the state’s entire education department was allegedly involved in the scam.
The ED, till now, has raided 11 locations, including the premises of Minister of State for Education, Paresh C. Adhikary, and ex-president of West Bengal Board of Primary Education, Manik Bhattacharya, and others.
Others raided include P.K. Bandopadhyay, OSD to Partha Chatterjee when he was the state education minister earlier, his then personal secretary Sukanta Acharjee, Chandan Mondal alias Ranjan, a “tout” who allegedly used to take money on the promise of giving school teacher jobs, Kalyanmay Bhattacharya, son-in-law of Partha Bhattacharya; Krishna C. Adhikary, and Dr S.P. Sinha, advisor of the West Bengal Central School Service Commission—convenor of the five-member committee.
Another person, Monalisa Das, a professor of Bengali with Kazi Nazrul University, is also under ED radar. She is also suspected to have bought extravagant properties and is reportedly having links with Partha Chatterjee. Sources say Das has agreed to cooperate with the ED officials. “We expect her to spill the beans,” said an ED official who was part of the raid.
Kalyanmoy Ganguly, the ex-president of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education; Saumitra Sarkar, ex-president of the West Bengal Central School Service Commission; and Alok Kumar Sarkar, the deputy director of the School Education Department were also raided.
The ED’s money-laundering case stems from an FIR by the CBI, which was first directed by the Calcutta High Court to investigate the alleged scam in the recruitment of Group “C” and “D” staff, assistant teachers of Classes 11 and 12 and primary teachers.
Chatterjee held the education portfolio when the alleged scam was reportedly pulled off. He was interrogated by the CBI twice, once on 26 April 2022 and then on 18 May 2022. Adhikari, the minister of state for education, had also been grilled by the CBI, with his daughter losing her job as a school teacher.
Picture Abhi Baaki Hai
The raids have turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the TMC. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is already out attacking CM Mamata Banerjee. “Yeh toh bas trailer hai, picture abhi baaki hai (This is just a trailer, the movie is yet to come),” tweeted senior BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari as he described the raids.
Old-timers in Kolkata say taking cash for state government jobs is routine, but some TMC workers went berserk with their plans. In many places, virtually illiterate youngsters were recruited after they paid huge cash as bribes. In some cases, minors were recruited. “There was a price for everything, including for joining a school close to home,” said a source in a telephonic interview from Kolkata.
Kunal Ghosh, TMC general secretary, said the cash recovered by ED had nothing to do with his party. “Those who are named in this investigation, it is their responsibility to answer the questions related to them or their lawyers. Why is there a campaign in the name of the party? TMC is closely watching the developments and will give its reaction at the right time,” Ghosh tweeted.
The worries of TMC have just begun, ostensibly because a single-judge bench of Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay on 13 June 2022, had not only ordered the sacking of these teachers, who were hired through the Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET) in 2014, but also ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.
Justice Gangopadhyay further said a CBI special investigation team (SIT) under a joint director of its anti-corruption branch must be set up to probe the alleged irregularities. The court also directed that the SIT members cannot be transferred until the conclusion of the probe. The court further said the SIT would not investigate any other case and the joint director cannot be transferred without a court order.
A week later, the court ordered the removal of West Bengal Board of Primary Education chairperson, Manik Bhattacharya.
Last November, the single-judge Bench ordered a CBI probe into the hiring of Group C and Group D staff by the state School Service Commission (SSC). The order was upheld by a Division Bench in May.
Recruitment in state government schools is lucrative because the vacancies are the highest. Teachers who found jobs by allegedly paying bribes are wondering what has hit them. Many are absconding, some of the family members of the teachers were quoted by newspapers as saying they were living in total fear, also public shame.
Several teachers and headmasters of primary schools welcomed the court order. But they said it had also damaged the image of everyone in the teaching profession.
The raids have just begun and there are fears that if the court and the CBI do their duty, thousands of teachers, not only in primary but in secondary schools, will lose their jobs. This is apart from the alleged irregularities in the hiring of Group C and Group D staff.
The images of bundles of cash will haunt Mamata Banerjee. After all, she had resigned from the NDA cabinet in 2001 when a Tehelka sting showed the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting cash for governmental favours. Now, these very images of cash have returned to haunt CM Banerjee and TMC.
(Shantanu Guha Ray, a Wharton-trained journalist, is the Asia Editor of Central European News & Zenger News and an award-winning author. He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.)