Tapas Ghosh and Meghdeep Bhattacharyya, TT, Calcutta, March 17: Calcutta High Court today handed the Narada payoffs case to the CBI, striking at the root of the political argument that election results render judicial processes redundant.
The order prompted the Mamata Banerjee government as well as the Trinamul Congress to vow to challenge it in the Supreme Court.
The division bench of acting Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre and Justice Tapobrata Chakraborty told the CBI to gather all case-related documents within 24 hours, conduct a preliminary probe within 72 hours and thereafter ascertain whether a fresh case needed to be filed.
The court directed the state to launch within seven days departmental proceedings against IPS officer S.M.H. Meerza, the lone non-politician linked to the scandal. The state has been asked to "consider suspending" Meerza in consonance with the service rules.
The Narada case deals with tapes that show images resembling several prominent Trinamul leaders accepting cash from a man posing as an agent of a company keen to set up projects in Bengal.
The alleged events on the tapes date back to the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 but the visuals had surfaced just before the Assembly elections last year, which Mamata swept effortlessly. The election verdict was construed as a clean chit for those who feature on the Narada tapes.
In the court, the directives for rapid action came with certain significant observations.
One, the high court said the antecedents of the sting operator do not absolve the respondents from their duty to maintain probity. The Trinamul defence has been resting on the premise that the motive of Mathew Samuel, who conducted the sting operation, was suspect.
Two, the court described state police as "puppets on a string, the end of which is with the respondents (those named in the sting)".
Although the court did not make any comment on how the police have acted so far in the case, the law enforcers had not initiated any action against those seen taking bundles of cash. Instead, the police had booked Samuel for alleged offences that included forgery, defamation, public mischief, criminal conspiracy and false statements in connection with an election.
Today, the court cited the "puppet" analogy to justify the handover of the payoffs case to the CBI.
"The state police are at best, unfortunately, puppets on a string, the end of which is with the respondents. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the preliminary inquiry should be conducted by a neutral and independent investigating agency," the bench said.
Mamata, who termed the court development "unfortunate" in the afternoon, made an unscheduled, 30-minute stop this evening at Lalbazar on her way back from Nabanna, conducting meetings with Calcutta police commissioner Rajeev Kumar and other senior officials.
Sources in Trinamul, already embroiled in CBI probes into the Saradha and Rose Valley deposit-mobilisation cases, said the chief minister was "very displeased and very agitated" with the development.
The judgment comes days after the Uttar Pradesh poll results, which have strengthened the BJP and weakened the positions of anti-BJP forces such as Mamata and raised fears within the Trinamul establishment of a crackdown.
"At a time several central agencies seem to have started dusting off old files related to chit fund scams in which names of Trinamul leaders have cropped up, the Narada development has deepened concerns," said a minister.
The verdict follows three public interest litigation petitions moved by state Congress general secretary Amitava Chakrabarty, Akshoy Sarengy and Brojesh Jha.
In a packed Courtroom 1, Chief Justice Mhatre read out the operative part of the 58-page judgment while Justice Chakraborty expressed his complete support.
"Society at large has a stake in proper investigation into the alleged offences which involves ministers and high-placed government officials. The allegations in the instant case are neither skirmishes nor bald, but speak of overt acts indicating complicity among members of Parliament, ministers and high-placed government officials," Justice Chakraborty said.
After the judgment was delivered, the lawyers appearing for the accused politicians prayed for an interim stay, which the division bench turned down.