Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool Congress national general secretary and nephew of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, emerged from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) office at Nizam Palace complex in Kolkata a little before 9 pm Saturday (20 May).
Responding to a CBI summons over the cash-for-jobs scam, Abhishek reached the CBI office a couple of minutes before 11 am and his questioning started at 11.20 am.
The CBI team that questioned Abhishek was led by a Superintendent-rank officer. The team had prepared a five-page questionnaire for him.
Before presenting himself to the CBI, Abhishek wrote a letter to the investigative agency, saying he had moved a special leave petition before the Supreme Court seeking a recall of the Calcutta High Court’s nod to the CBI to interrogate him in connection with the cash-for-jobs scam in the school education department.
In the letter, he also questioned the CBI’s haste in issuing a summons to him and giving him less than 24 hours to appear before the agency.
What Happened At The CBI Office
CBI sources told Swarajya that the agency’s team was courteous but firm with Abhishek Banerjee and treated him with the utmost respect due to a parliamentarian.
The CBI’s main focus was to ascertain links between Kuntal Ghosh, an accused in the scam who is now in custody, and Abhishek Banerjee.
CBI sleuths asked Abhishek in detail about his connection to Ghosh and financial transactions between Ghosh and himself.
The probe agency also wanted to know why Ghosh repeated the allegation made publicly by Abhishek that CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers were putting pressure on Ghosh to name Abhishek as a beneficiary of the scam.
CBI officials wanted to know if Abhishek deputed anyone to pass on instructions to Ghosh to write letters to the police and Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay making these allegations.
“This was the primary line of questioning. These same questions were put innumerable times directly and indirectly to Abhishek Banerjee,” a senior CBI officer told Swarajya.
However, Abhishek was not questioned continuously for more than nine hours. He was given adequate breaks to relax and have food.
“Our officers also chatted with him to put him at ease. The interrogation was not hostile at all and was conducted in an easy and relaxed manner,” the officer added.
By the time the CBI sleuths were done with Abhishek, they had collected enough leads to help them in the investigation into the scam.
"The tactic used by the interrogators while questioning (Abhishek) Banerjee is very effective. A suspect is put to ease and the same question is put across multiple times in many forms without the suspect even realising it. And the suspect, with his or her guard down, often lets the truth slip through unwittingly," said a former CBI officer who retired as a joint director.
It is most likely that this is what happened with Abhishek as well, even though the Trinamool leader never realised what he let out.
Abhishek told the media after coming out of the CBI office that the entire exercise was a "waste of time."
However, CBI officers in the know told Swarajya that the agency is satisfied with the interrogation.
All the statements of Abhishek Banerjee will be collated now and Kuntal Ghosh may be brought in for questioning once again.
Based on that outcome, Abhishek may be summoned for cross-examination once again, maybe even with Ghosh.
Clearly, Abhishek is not out of the woods. If the signals emanating from the CBI office at Nizam Palace are anything to go by, Abhishek’s tribulations may have just started.
Why CBI Issued Summons To Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek is not an accused in the scam and would not have been summoned by the CBI but for a letter written by Kuntal Ghosh to a judge complaining that CBI and ED officers were putting pressure on him to name Abhishek in the scam.
Before Ghosh filed his complaint, Abhishek had made the same allegation at a public meeting he addressed in Kolkata on 29 March.
He had alleged that central agencies probing the cash-for-jobs scam were putting pressure on Trinamool functionaries who had been arrested to name him as a beneficiary of the scam.
Ghosh, as if on cue, repeated this allegation in a complaint he filed from Alipore Jail the next day. The police promptly took cognisance of the complaint.
Matters took an unexpected turn (for Abhishek Banerjee) when Calcutta High Court Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who had ordered the CBI to probe the scam and was monitoring the investigations, took cognisance of the allegations made by both Abhishek and Ghosh.
On 13 April, Justice Gangopadhyay asked the CBI to question Banerjee and determine his links with Ghosh.
He observed that the probe agencies (ED and CBI) "have so far been able to reach till the hip of the scamsters while the heart and head are yet to be identified."
Justice Gangopadhyay also preempted the state police’s move to summon CBI and ED officers probing the scam for questioning in order to intimidate them.
He told police they cannot act on Ghosh’s complaint against ED and CBI officers without prior permission of the court.
The Trinamool Congress and the Bengal government reacted angrily to Justice Gangopadhyay’s order and approached the Supreme Court pleading that the judge’s orders asking CBI to probe the scam and also question Abhishek be quashed.
The Supreme Court refused to entertain those pleas and only asked the then acting chief justice of Calcutta High Court to assign the case against Banerjee to some other judge.
The apex court order was based on an interview purportedly granted by Justice Gangopadhyay to a TV channel in which he reportedly criticised Abhishek Banerjee.
The case was reassigned to Justice Amrita Sinha who, much to the chagrin of the Trinamool and the state government, upheld Justice Gangopadhyay’s order asking the CBI to question Abhishek.
Justice Sinha, in her order passed 18 May, also imposed penalties of Rs 25 lakh each on Abhishek and Ghosh for wasting the time of the court.
Abhishek’s legal team then approached a division bench comprising Justices Subrata Talukdar and Supratim Bhattacharya Friday (19 May) pleading for an urgent hearing and quashing of Justice Sinha’s order.
This division bench refused to entertain the plea. Abhishek’s team then took the same plea to another bench headed by Chief Justice T S Sivagnanam and comprising Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharya. But they could not get any relief from this bench as well.
After all these legal options were exhausted, the CBI sent the summons to Abhishek Friday afternoon (19 May). He was at that time in Bankura as part of his statewide ‘Naba Jowar’ outreach programme and rushed back to Kolkata the same evening.
Saturday’s Simultaneous ED Raids
Meanwhile, the ED, which is probing the money trail in the scam, conducted raids at various locations in the city Saturday (20 May).
The ED raids started at 7 am from the residence of Sujoy Krishna Bhadra, who is close to Abhishek.
Known in Trinamool circles as ‘Kalighat er kaku’ (uncle of Kalighat), Bhadra works at Abhishek’s office and is also close to Mamata Banerjee.
Kalighat is the area where both Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek stay.
The ED searched the residence, office, and an apartment owned by Bhadra at Behala in South Kolkata. They questioned Abhishek on confessions of another scam-accused, Santanu Banerjee, who is now in custody.
The ED team later reached the house of Pranab De, a Trinamool functionary close to Bhadra, to question him.
Another ED team raided the residence of Gyanananda Samanta, a Trinamool leader close to Abhishek, at Bibirhat in South 24 Parganas.
Samanta is a member of the South 24 Parganas Zilla Parishad. Bibirhat falls in Abhishek’s Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha constituency.
Yet another ED team raided the residence of Santu Gangopadhyay, a close aide of former education minister Partha Chatterjee, who is now in judicial custody for his involvement in the cash-for-jobs scam.
Gangopadhyay is also said to be close to senior Trinamool leaders.
Mamata Banerjee Unnerved
The questioning of her nephew and the raids on houses and offices of Trinamool leaders, including Sujoy Krishna Bhadra, who has close links with Mamata Banerjee and her family, unnerved the Trinamool chairperson.
Saturday (20 May) was the twelfth anniversary of the day Mamata Banerjee ascended the chief minister’s chair in 2011.
In a tweet, she lashed out at the Union government for unleashing ‘agency raj’ on opposition parties but vowed to fight on.
But beneath that bravado, said the leader of opposition Suvendu Adhikary, is her "fear that the noose is tightening around her nephew’s neck."
"She realises that time is running out and very soon her nephew will land behind bars. That upsets her a lot since she knows that once that happens, the Trinamool will fall like a pack of cards and she will stand thoroughly discredited. That will be the end of her," Adhikary said.
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