Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Once a TMC strongman, now cowering like a petty thief

Anubrato Mondal

Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Anubrato Mondal, now in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on charges of smuggling cows to Bangladesh, has fallen silent.

Mondal is being questioned by CBI officers at Nizam Palace, the agency’s office in the heart of Kolkata. One charge-sheet names him as a cow smuggler. The CBI has got a 10-day custody of Mondal.

There are chances that he could be named in supplementary charge-sheets for smuggling coal, sand, and stone chips as well.

Mondal has been at it for more than a decade. He did not care because he had the support of his party.  He is called BBB, Birbhum’s Big Boss. A YouTube video in circulation shows Mondal threatening cops with dire consequences during an election in Bengal.

His personal wealth is estimated to be in the region of Rs 2,000-3,000 crore. It has been a meteoric rise for Mondal, who started his career as a bodyguard for Congress leader Sushovon Banerjee. He also sold fish and helped his father run the family grocery business.

Once he got into politics, Mondal took pride in being his party’s biggest fundraiser and became a star.

Till a month ago, he would always be surrounded by numerous supporters, many carrying guns. He lives in Bolpur, close to Santiniketan — home to Visva Bharati University set up by Rabindranath Tagore.

His followers call him Maha Prabhu, a title given to the 15th century saint Chaitanya, considered the personification of peace and love.

Anupam Hazra, national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has compiled a list of over 70 people who have amassed wealth disproportionate to their income, thanks to Mondal.

“I have personally investigated the cases and have given the list to the union home ministry,” Hazra, a former MP from Birbhum, told this reporter. 

“He is a terror; he has been lording over Birbhum as if it is his personal fiefdom. He has tortured thousands of BJP workers, destroyed their homes, and hounded them out of the region,” Hazra said.

Hazra said Mondal, presumably encouraged by the TMC high command, has made life miserable for Viswa Bharati university vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty.

“Mondal has unleashed total terror in Viswa Bharati,” said Hazra.

Mondal has tried his best to hoodwink the CBI officers. He got himself admitted to a hospital in Kolkata. But the doctors on duty said Mondal needed no hospitalisation. He then rushed back to Bolpur hospital, where the medical superintendent of the hospital, Buddhadeb Murmu, checked him for long hours even as CBI officers waited outside.

Mondal demanded he be operated for his fistula. But Dr Chandrakant Acharya, who had gone to check Mondal, said he did not require any operation.

“The idea was to delay the arrest by at least a month (the normal time taken for recovery post a standard fistula operation),” said Sonmoy Banerjee, a veteran Kolkata-based lawyer.

For years, Mondal has been dogged by corruption charges, but he has pooh-poohed the same saying that the cop who would arrest him was yet to be born.

But things have changed now. Mondal is the latest in the seemingly never-ending list of Trinamool politicians who have stepped down following corruption charges.

Officials of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) are probing his connections with fugitive TMC youth leader Vinay Mishra, rumoured to be hiding in Vanuatu, an island nation in the south Pacific ocean. Mishra, who is allegedly linked to a coal mining and pilferage case, worked very closely with Mondal, claimed the ED.

The ED further claims that Mondal helped Mishra launder cash abroad. The ED has attached a large number of Mishra’s properties under various sections of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

Mishra has been declared a proclaimed offender by a Delhi court for evading court proceedings in the ED case. The ED has claimed that Mishra received proceeds of crime worth Rs 730 crore in the coal pilferage case.

Mondal’s cow smuggling business worked like a well-oiled machine in the Illambazar cattle market near Santiniketan. Abdul Latif, named in the cattle-smuggling charge sheet, owned the market and would regularly negotiate rates with one Saigal Hossain, Anubrata’s bodyguard, now in CBI custody.

Hossain was arrested in June 2022. According to the CBI, the police constable owned property worth Rs 150 crore.

Hossain told the CBI that he would collect cash on behalf of Mondal.

CBI lawyers say they have call records that have Saigal negotiating rates with Latif. These records show that Saigal was working for Mondal.

Every year, about 1,50,000 heads of cattle are smuggled from India to Bangladesh annually. The business is lucrative because cattle rates are double in Bangladesh. An adult bovine (buffalo or cow) that costs Rs 50,000 in India sells for nearly Rs 90,000 in Bangladesh. During Eid, the animals can fetch up to Rs 150,000.

The CBI started probing the cattle smuggling racket almost five years ago. Two top BSF officials were arrested by the CBI. One of them, Satish Kumar, named Mondal as one of the kingpins of the racket.

Mondal is a powerful figure in the Birbhum-Bardhaman-Bankura belt that is rich in natural resources, has several industrial units, and generates substantial revenues.

CBI officials say they will also question Rana Singh, a TMC vice president and legislator of Labhpur, who apparently works closely with Mondal.

(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.)

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