The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Tuesday (23 February) questioned Rujira Banerjee Naroola, wife of Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek, in connection with an illegal coal mining scam that it has been formally investigating since November last year.
According to CBI sources, Rujira is likely to be questioned again soon. Her questioning has raised political temperatures in poll-bound Bengal with Mamata Banerjee accusing the Union government of trying to use the CBI to intimidate her.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, has accused Abhishek Banerjee and his wife of being beneficiaries of the scam.
BJP national general secretary and Bengal minder Kailash Vijayvargiya has claimed he has documents to prove that Abhishek and a prime accused in the scam, Vinay Mishra, were very close and had travelled abroad together a few times.
“Mishra, who was in the Yuva Trinamool Congress, is close to Abhishek Banerjee and was the latter’s linkman to the illegal coal mining, sand mining and cattle smuggling scams,” alleged Vijayvargiya.
Abhishek headed the Yuva Trinamool which was formed in 2010 by Mamata Banerjee. The organisation was dismantled and merged with the Trinamool Youth Congress (TYC) in November 2014 when Abhishek took over as the president of the TYC.
The BJP leader also claimed that the names of many bureaucrats and police officers will surface for their links with the coal mafia during the course of the investigations.
Former Trinamool minister Suvendu Adhikari, who joined the BJP recently, has said he will soon expose ‘Madam Naroola’ (Rujira) and her bank accounts in Thailand.
Here’s an explainer on the scam and Rujira’s alleged links to it:
The Illegal Coal Mining Scam And The CBI Probe
Every day, thousands of tonnes of coal are mined illegally from the abandoned open cast mines of the public sector Eastern Coalfields Limited in the western districts of Bengal bordering Jharkhand.
The illegal mining is an organised activity controlled by a very powerful mafia. One of the kingpins is Anup Manjhi alias Lala. He has been on the run since last year. Manjhi is suspected to have strong links with senior Trinamool leaders and many IAS and IPS officers who used to receive regular payoffs from him.
Manjhi’s alleged primary link with the Trinamool leadership is said to be Yuva Trinamool leader Vinay Mishra. Mishra was raided by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and has been absconding since January. His brother is also wanted for questioning.
CBI sources said that the coal mafia was not only involved in illegal mining, but also in stealing coal from railway wagons.
After months of secret investigations, the CBI filed a first information report (FIR) on 27 November 2020, naming Anup Manjhi, ECL general managers Amit Kumar Dhar and Jayesh Chandra Rai, ECL security chief Tanmay Das, ECL’s area security inspector K Dhananjay Rai and security officer Debashish Mukherjee.
The CBI had said that many officers and personnel of CISF, the railways and other central government departments are under the agency’s scanner for their suspected involvement in the scam.
The CBI’s investigations have revealed that a UAE-based businessman received a large portion of the proceeds of the illegal coal mining and coal theft rackets and stashed the funds through a complex of companies.
The money trail, say CBI sources, extends to Thailand, Germany and the UK.
In end-November last year, the CBI conducted marathon raids in 45 different locations across Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. The agency also raided the offices and homes of Anup Manjhi in Durgapur, Raniganj and Bishnupur.
The ED, which has also launched a parallel probe into illegal coal mining and coal theft, conducted raids in January at 12 different locations. Some of these raids were targeted at Vinay Mishra.
The ED raids netted two businessmen — Ganesh Bagadia and Sanjay Singh — who are believed to be close to Manjhi and had laundered a lot of money on Manjhi’s behalf through a web of fake companies.
The CBI believes that the cattle smuggling and coal mining and coal theft rackets are inter-connected and all these rackets are controlled by a few people with close links to some top politicians of the ruling party in Bengal.
Why Is Rujira Being Probed?
The CBI’s investigations into the illegal coal mining and coal theft rackets have allegedly revealed some links between Rujira Banerjee and Anup Manjhi.
CBI sources say that some bank transactions between Rujira and Manjhi are being probed. The CBI has also reportedly sought details of Rujira’s investments and involvement with some companies.
The sources said that the agency is probing some bank accounts in Thailand which are allegedly linked to Rujira.
The CBI wants to know how the turnover of the companies Rujira Banerjee is allegedly associated with have risen suddenly in recent years.
The CBI is also probing Rujira’s sister Menka Gambhir. CBI sleuths questioned Menka at her residence in Panchasayar in East Kolkata on Monday.
BJP leaders allege that the proceeds from these rackets in Bengal were channelled through Rujira Banerjee and Menka Gambhir, apart from the UAE-based businessman, to overseas banks.
The CBI also asked Rujira on Tuesday to furnish details of her bank accounts, citizenship documents and other personal details.
Controversies Surrounding Rujira
Rujira is not new to controversies.
There is one controversy surrounding Rujira’s citizenship and her father’s name. A PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card issued to Rujira in 2010 by the Indian embassy in Bangkok mentions her father’s name as Niphan Naroola.
Rujira applied for conversion of her PIO card to an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card in end-2017. She submitted her marriage certificate with Abhishek Banerjee (an Indian citizen) issued on 13 February 2013, as a supporting document along with her application for OCI card.
In the marriage certificate, her father’s name is mentioned as Gursharan Singh Ahuja.
On 14 November 2019, Rujira applied for a PAN card and filled up form 49A that is meant only for Indian citizens. Since she holds a Thai passport (and is a citizen of Thailand), she ought to have filled up Form 49AA for a PAN card that OCI cardholders are entitled to.
PAN card holders with OCI status are restricted from buying certain properties or engaging in many financial transactions.
The Union Home Ministry had sent her notices in 2019 asking her to explain these discrepancies and asking her to show cause why her OCI card should not be revoked. The matter is said to be under investigation.
Rujira and her sister had a brush with customs authorities at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in March 2019 when they resisted attempts by customs officers to X-ray her baggage.
Customs officers alleged that she was carrying a ‘significant amount’ of gold when she flew in from Bangkok.
But when they wanted to check her bags, she resisted and allegedly called up state police officers posted at the airport who reportedly intervened and whisked her away.
Rujira and her sister lodged an FIR against customs officials, who also filed a counter FIR. The customs authorities issued a notice asking her to appear before a senior officer of the department, but Rujira and her sister moved court and got the notice quashed.
The matter is now sub judice.
Who Is Rujira?
Born in Bangkok, Rujira grew up in West Delhi’s Rajouri Gardens. Her father ran a cellphone shop at Gaffar Market in Delhi.
Her father, who already had some links in Thailand, shifted to that country later on and entered the real estate business there.
Rujira met Abhishek while the two were studying at the now-closed Indian Institute of Personnel Management (IIPM). The two reportedly grew close while on an academic tour to Switzerland in their first year at IIPM.
Rujira married Abhishek at a gala ceremony at Delhi’s Le Meridien Hotel in early 2012 after Mamata Banerjee became the Chief Minister of Bengal in mid-2011. Many media outlets had mentioned her name as Jasmeet Ahuja at that time.
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