The Calcutta high court on Friday dismissed a petition by Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Anubrata Mondal seeking relief from appearing before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Kolkata for questioning in the cattle smuggling case.
Citing illness, Mondal, a close aide of chief minister Mamata Banerjee and a member of the TMC’s new national working committee, filed the petition on March 7 seeking permission to face the agency either virtually or somewhere close to his home in Birbhum district where he is president of the TMC unit.
The CBI summoned Mondal on February 14 but he did not visit the agency’s office. He was summoned again this week.
The CBI, which has field offices in Birbhum and the adjoining West Burdwan district, summoned Mondal to its regional head office at Nizam Palace in south Kolkata to appear not as an accused but as a witness in the multi-crore cattle smuggling operation.
Several state police officers and officers of the Border Security Force (BSF) and Customs department are suspects in this case which is being probed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) as well. Two BSF officers and a state police inspector have been arrested so far. Bengali movie star and TMC Lok Sabha member Deepak Adhikari was interrogated by the CBI for five hours in Kolkata on February 15.
Justice Rajasekhar Mantha dismissed Mondal’s petition on Friday, telling his lawyer, Kishore Datta, the state’s former advocate general, that Mondal cannot cite illness every time a probe agency summons him for questioning.
Before dismissing the petition, Justice Mantha said that in February he granted relief to Mondal when he was summoned by the CBI in connection with post-assembly poll violence in Birbhum.
On February 3, Justice Mantha asked the CBI not to take coercive action against Mondal after he challenged summons sent in connection with the killing of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker. At that time, Mondal was admitted at the state-run SSKM hospital in Kolkata. The judge said that the CBI would have to take the court’s permission to arrest him.
On Friday, lawyers representing the CBI raised questions over Mondal’s illness and cited social media posts showing him in Kolkata and attending TMC meetings in the adjoining Howrah district. The CBI also questioned the authority of the medical board formed for Mondal at SSKM hospital.
Justice Mantha asked Kishore Dutta why Mondal cannot visit the CBI office at Nizam Palace in Kolkata since he has promised to cooperate with the agency.
Lawyers who attended Friday’s hearing said Justice Mantha observed that the court can neither intervene in all investigations nor offer relief to Mondal because the court does not know why he has been summoned as a witness in the cattle smuggling case.
The court observed that Mondal may seek anticipatory bail if he feels that he might be arrested.
The probe into cattle smuggling gained pace following the arrest of Muhammad Enamul Haque, one of the prime accused, by the ED in Delhi on February 18.
Haque, who was arrested by the CBI in November 2020, was released on bail after he moved the Supreme Court. He was named in a CBI charge sheet filed at the Asansol court in West Burdwan district in 2021.
The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate are conducting parallel probes into cattle smuggling that took place for several years along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border.
The probe was started by the CBI in 2018. According to the CBI’s first information report (FIR), three Bengal-based cattle traders, Muhammad Enamul Haque, Anarul Sheikh and Muhammad Gulam Mustafa, carried out the operation.
The ED got involved since it was alleged that a sizeable chunk of the money went to politicians and influential people and invested in various businesses. The probe has led to raids in multiple states. In December 2020, for example, the CBI conducted simultaneous raids in 15 cities and towns of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. It is suspected that a large quantity of money was sent to other states through hawala operators.
Deepak Adhikari, who is popularly known as Dev, represents the Ghatal constituency from where he won twice. CBI officials said they received information that Haque’s money was used to produce a movie starring the actor.
Adhikari denied the allegation on February 15. “I told the CBI officers that I neither know Haque nor did I receive anything from him,” he told the media while leaving the CBI office.
According to ED officials, Vinay Mishra, a Kolkata-based businessman who was a general secretary of the TMC’s youth wing, is a prime accused in the cattle smuggling case. After Mishra remained untraceable for months and was declared an absconder by the CBI, his lawyers informed the Calcutta high court in June last year that he had relinquished Indian citizenship in November 2020. Mishra is believed to be living in Vanuatu, an island nation in the south Pacific whose citizenship he acquired.
According to the CBI’s FIR, cattle seized by the BSF were undervalued and auctioned with the help of some customs officers so that traders could buy these at very low price and legally sell them again in Bangladesh. Part of the sale proceeds allegedly went to some TMC leaders and government officers.
Leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, welcomed the court’s order on Friday. “The CBI will spare none of the TMC leaders involved in cattle smuggling,” he said.
Countering him, TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said: “Adhikari is talking big because he joined the BJP only to escape arrest in the Narada and Saradha cases. Though named by CBI in the FIR in the Narada case, he has not been touched yet. The agencies are controlled by the BJP.”