mullMiraj Sheikh is a happy man.

In December 2021, he was appointed as a primary teacher in a school run by the West Bengal government in Murshidabad district. But four months later, he was sacked. The authorities alleged that Sheikh did not get the required 45 percent marks after graduation to be appointed in the reserved category, according to the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBPE) norms. Sheikh went to court. He showed his graduation certificate to the judge; it said 46 percent marks.

On July 23, Trinamool Congress minister Partha Chatterjee, who held the education portfolio, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which alleged his involvement in a massive cash-for-jobs teachers’ recruitment scam. The jobs were reportedly available at different prices — Rs 8-10 lakh for Class IX-X, Rs 10-15 lakh for Class XI-XII and Rs 20 lakh for outstation candidates and aspirants without the mandatory B.Ed degree or those who didn’t take the test.

Also incarcerated is Partha’s long-time confidante, the pulchritudinous Arpita Mukherjee, who has featured in a few Bengali and Odia films. Investigators bagged nearly Rs 50 crore in bank notes and six kg of gold from her homes in north Kolkata. Giving Sheikh his job back, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta High Court ordered the removal of Trinamool MLA Manik Bhattacharya from his position as WBPE president. 

The judge snapped: “Probably the litigant did not pay money to Manik Bhattacharya and so his employment was terminated. West Bengal has become such a state where no one can secure or even retain a state government job without paying money.”

His words resonated a widespread belief in West Bengal (and other states in India, too) that corruption is an integral part of governance. Partha was also minister for commerce and industry and parliamentary affairs, and the third most-powerful person in the TMC hierarchy. 

Of love’s labour lost
On August 15, Partha participated in the flag-hoisting ceremony as he had been doing for years. The only difference was the venue — the Presidency Jail. Partha’s ‘material excesses’ in a state whose economy is in the doldrums was sufficient to kick up a firestorm of protests from the opposition BJP and, to some extent, from a vastly weakened CPI(M). For much of West Bengal, which has ceaselessly experienced one political-financial scandal after another since the TMC’s first term in power(2011-2016), l’affaire Partha-Arpita is a shocker.

Congress workers protest against West Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee
after he was arrested by ED officials

Stories that undeserving candidates could secure government teaching jobs by paying bribes to the minister, who in turn splurged a portion of the ‘ill-gotten’ wealth on a ‘friend’, have outraged Bengalis. After mountains of cash were found, salacious stories were the order of the day. Kolkata media were agog with news about sex toys seized from Arpita’s apartments in Belghoria in north Kolkata.     

It was a Kolkata Municipal Corporation councillor who introduced Partha to Arpita at her dance performance during a Durga Puja event in 2017, a few months after the minister’s wife Jayashree, nicknamed Babli, died. One thing led to another and the bereaved politician found a willing confidante in Arpita. Their relationship deepened, but the couple was hardly, if ever, seen in public. “They would mostly meet in one of their flats or drive out of the city to spend time in one of their private getaways,” a source revealed.

Investigators were sceptical why Arpita never questioned Partha when her name was willingly used for registering the properties. It was one such property — spread over a substantial parcel of land — that attracted the attention of the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Located in Shanti Niketan, it has been named ‘Apa’ — a portmanteau name that endearingly combines Arpita and Partha. 

As Kolkatans salivated over the mounds of money and the ‘fleshy’ details of the couple’s relationship, the ED was hot on the money trail and details about movable and immovable properties in Arpita’s name. It led the agency to more surprises: eight large dogs, and a fleet of luxury cars, including a Mini Cooper and a Mercedes-Benz. As the search went on, gold ornaments worth Rs 74 lakh, US dollars worth Rs 54 lakh, and 22 mobile phones were found.

“Which sane man would park so much hard cash at home?” one of Partha’s former TMC colleagues asked.

“Unlike some others in the party, he was a miser who hoarded money. He did not splurge on the good things of life or lavishly spend on clothes and expensive things, but he invested in property,” confided the TMC veteran.

Since the disgraced former minister did not lead an ostentatious existence, partymen excuse his ‘miserly’ ways to explain the stash. “He neither gave much money to the party nor did he throw parties for MLAs in spite of being the parliamentary affairs minister,” another Trinamool old-timer recalled.

Some peeved TMC politicians though recalled, betraying a tinge of derision, that at the ceremony where he met Arpita, Partha instructed workers from Nadia to procure the best and most fresh vegetables. He also told them to fetch the best fish from Midnapore. “But he didn’t pay for any of it. The workers bore all the expenses of the food, which was served to hundreds of guests,” said another party canvasser. 

First elected an MLA from Behala West assembly constituency in 2001, Partha was considered close to Mamata and was part of her inner circle. Insiders say it is naïve to believe that the party leadership had no clue about the corruption of individual ministers and legislators. While BJP MLA Samik Bhattacharya avoided commenting whether agencies could arrest or move against other TMC heavyweights, he pointed out that “Mamata Banerjee knew and knows everything” and “there is corruption at all levels of government recruitment, where posts are given away in exchange for money”.

Irony died when TMC’s own Lok Sabha MP Saugata Roy, who was disgraced in the Narada case, took a holier-than-thou stand, arguing that Partha had “embarrassed and dishonoured” the party. Meanwhile, at a TMC rally held in Kolkata last Tuesday, a participant wore a mask of the Leader of Opposition and BJP legislator Suvendu Adhikari, and sloganeered for his arrest. Demanding the turncoat’s arrest, TMC state general-secretary Kunal Ghosh alleged that Adhikari’s name appears in chargesheets in both the Saradha ponzi scam and the Narada bribery case.

Rogue gallery exposed
It is tempting to dismiss the unfolding drama in West Bengal — largely political, but with just the right doses of sex, lies and cash — as an unintended comedy. A few days after ‘Apa’ were arrested, much of Kolkata and the district towns waited with bated breath for ‘something big’ to happen. And it did. On August 8, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court made the ED a party in a PIL regarding the assets of 19 leaders of Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet.

On August 12, Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim, and ministers Arup Roy and Jyotipriya Mullick submitted a plea to the court that the ED be withdrawn from a property case. The drama is hotting up in Writers’ Building. Addressing a public meeting in Behala, around 13 km from Kolkata, a feisty Mamata threw down the gauntlet, “What to do if the ED and CBI come to my house tomorrow? Do you come out on the streets? Can you move democratically? I will fight my battle alone, but you will have to fight it too.” Following which, BJP leader Dilip Ghosh hinted that she, too, could be summoned by the ED soon.

No sooner had ‘Apa’ gone off primetime and the front pages, did more scandals rise. This time it was the CBI’s turn to turn on the heat. On August 11, its agents arrested the absconding ‘Birbhum bully’ and desperado Anubrata Mondal, alleging his involvement in West Bengal’s multi-crore cattle rustling racket that, until a year ago, was a lucrative business on the India-Bangladesh border. A well-organised, inter-state racket, cattle smuggling involves not just rustlers in the ‘sending’ states, but also politicians, the police and the BSF at the Bangladesh’s border with West Bengal.

“Now, that’s a bit of a surprise,” a senior BSF officer based in Kolkata exclaimed after Mondal’s arrest.

“Mondal wasn’t directly involved in cattle smuggling. But between 2015 and early 2019, three or four senior BSF officers, who were suspected of cattle smuggling, met him on several occasions,” the officer revealed. 

Last month, before the Trinamool muscleman’s arrest, the state CID quietly picked up Abdul Barik Biswas, an alleged cattle smuggling ‘kingpin’ operating from Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district. Biswas has had previous brushes with the law, and both the CBI and ED were keeping  a close watch over him. The CID arrested him not for cross-border cattle smuggling, which had reportedly earned him a huge fortune, but for coal pilferage.

“The CID action was to forestall any move by either the CBI or the ED against Barik,” a source said. The West Bengal police sources suggest that Biswas’s arrest is primarily to keep him at a “safe distance” from Central agencies, lest he reveals the connivance of other TMC politicians in the business and the pay-offs he is suspected to have been made. 

There seems to be wheels within wheels in the time-tested nexus between politicians and crime. Questions abound in Kolkata whether Partha’s arrest and ignominious exit from the TMC was partly to “protect” a close relative of a powerful party leader. The jury is still out on that. Two months ago, CBI questioned Rujira Narula Banerjee, wife of Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s powerful nephew, in connection with coal smuggling and pilferage. The investigators were particularly interested in the transfer of huge amounts of money to a bank account in Thailand. Abhishek, the TMC’s national general-secretary, too was summoned and examined.

In early June, the ED had requested the UAE government, through the MEA, to keep a close watch on the couple’s movements in Dubai where they had gone for an eye treatment. A few days later, on June 19, the CBI filed a chargesheet in the coal smuggling case against 41 people, including Anup Majhi, the alleged kingpin. Included were former TMC leader Vinay Mishra and eight Eastern Coalfields Ltd employees. Curiously enough, long before the chargesheet was filed, Mishra had fled the country 
to reach, of all places, Vanuatu, a small island in the South Pacific Ocean, with which India has no extradition treaty. Mishra is also wanted in the cattle-smuggling case.

The new phrase in the Bengal corruption saga is ‘cut money’ — bribes charged by local politicians to get government grants for construction projects. Under pressure after Partha’s arrest, Mamata ordered party leaders to return ‘cut money’ — a clear admission that she knew about corruption in the TMC. Immediately afterwards, a TMC booth president, Trilochan Mukherjee, returned Rs 2.25 lakh he had extorted from 141 labourers from their wages. Even victims of Cyclone Amphan had not been spared: protests had broken out against local leaders across West Bengal over corruption in the distribution of relief materials. 

Mamata has launched a war on corruption in the party and government, which is greeted with mixed feelings. Fissures are emerging within the senior leadership; irrigation minister Rajib Banerjee and agricultural marketing minister Arup Roy locked horns, with the former demanding that the ongoing drive against in-house corruption must target not just the “small fries” but also “big fish”. Roy himself is in hot water after a murder case — in which he was named — has been transferred by the court to the CBI last week.

Upping the level
The TMC is going through a major churn within. On one hand, the law is after a section of the old guard accused of corruption. There were past occasions when the leadership defended some such MLAs and MPs. But the leadership is silent about the arrests of Partha and Mondal. There are ‘whispers’ in Kolkata’s political circles, wondering why the ED has suddenly gone soft on a few senior TMC leaders even after they were summoned.

“Is a new alignment in power equations within the TMC taking shape in which Abhishek is trying to play a bigger role?” a Kolkata analyst asked, indicating that Mamata’s nephew might chart a fresh political course in the months to come. Despite the ED’s ‘interest’ and consequent pressure on him, Abhishek has begun to take baby steps in leadership. 

A post on the TMC handle declared that Abhishek would “address the people of India on Independence Day” at the “stroke of midnight”. Usually, it would have been his formidable aunt in his place. There is no doubt that Mamata is grooming him; the fact that neither the CBI nor the ED is now breathing down his neck could indicate a future realignment in Bengal politics. During one of his post-arrest court appearances, Partha had talked about revealing everything “in good time”.

In spite of all the kerfuffle, the TMC believes that it is a good time for a coronation. Early this week, many parts of Kolkata city were engulfed in blue and white, the primary colours of the TMC flag. Posters proclaimed a soon-to-be-born “new Trinamool” with Abhishek featuring prominently on posters and buntings — not even Mamata, who has consistently and single-handedly pitch-forked the party to power since 2011, finds place on banners and billboards.

Does Abhishek have it in him to go up against powerful interests in his own party? Many TMC leaders respond with an unequivocal “No!” In West Bengal’s politics, corroded by decades of crime, murder, dalliances, dodgy loyalty and political muscle-flexing, it is ‘Khela Hobe!’ for the ED and its bosses in New Delhi.

The rot within

Sanchayita chit fund scam (1980) Rs 120 crore 
What: The first of many financial scams in West Bengal caused by the collapse of a Ponzi scheme that affected over 1.31 lakh people in the state.  
In the dock: Police arrested two main promoters Shambhu Prasad Mukherjee and Swapan Guha. Mukherjee died mysteriously after a fall from a tall building. The third promoter Bihari Lal Murarka has vanished and remains untraceable.

Rose Valley chit fund scam (2013) Rs 17,520 crore
What: Gautam Kundu of the Rose Valley group reportedly raised millions from investors across India. 
In the dock: Actor-turned-TMC MP Tapas Paul and TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay were arrested. TMC MP Arpita Ghosh was questioned.

The Saradha chit fund scam (2013) Rs 4,000 crore
What: Saradha Group owner Sudipto Sen swindled small investors using a wide network of agents.
In the dock: TMC leaders Madan Mitra (then transport minister), and former Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh were jailed, and Rajya Sabha MP Srinjoy Bose was forced to resign.  

Narada bribery scandal (2016)
What: A sting operation showed TMC MPs accepting money from representatives of a fictitious company in exchange of favours.
In the dock: MPs Mukul Roy, Saugata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Prasun Bannerjee, Suvendu Adhikari and Sultan Ahmed, and state ministers Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee were reportedly involved. State ministers Firhad Hakim and Iqbal Ahmed too were filmed accepting wads of cash. 

Cattle Smuggling scandal 
What: Unearthed when the CBI found discrepancies in documents to be presented to the BSF to make a seizure memo. For every cattle sold, the smuggler would pay a certain amount to BSF and customs officials. 
In the dock: Smuggler Emanul Haque and Satish Kumar were nabbed. Anubrata Mondal fled the country.

Coal Smuggling Case Rs 1.90 crore 
What: Illegal mining and transportation of coal from the Central government-run Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) in West Bengal to various parts of western India. 
In the dock: The ED and CBI filed FIRs in 2020. Interrogated were TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee, his wife Rujira Banerjee, state law minister Moloy Ghatak, along with senior state police officers and ECL officials. 

The dirty dozen

Partha Chatterjee: Jailed for reportedly taking bribes in the teachers’ recruitment scandal

Anubrata Mondal: A TMC leader from Birbhum arrested for his alleged involvement in cattle smuggling 

Abhishek Banerjee: Alleged to be a beneficiary in the multi-crore coal pilferage case, along with his wife Rujira Narula Banerjee

Saugata Roy: TMC Lok Sabha MP was reportedly filmed accepting money in the Narada sting operation

Mukul Roy: The TMC leader, who joined the BJP and switched back after Trinamool’s win, is named as a prime player in the Narada scam

Prasun Banerjee: A former ace footballer, the TMC MP was named in the Narada bribery case 

Suvendu Adhikari: Former TMC MLA and minister, now a BJP MLA, was seen accepting money in a video in Narada sting

Sultan Ahmed: A long-time Congress MLA who joined TMC, too was named in the Narada scam

Madan Mitra: Jailed former transport minister involved in Sarada scam was seen accepting money on camera in the Narada scandal

Firhad Hakim: Kolkata mayor and state minister arrested for accepting money in the Narada sting op

Arup Roy: Murdered TMC leader Tapan Dutta’s widow Pratima named Minister for Food Processing, Arup Roy, for participating in a conspiracy to kill her husband. The Calcutta High Court shifted the case from the state police to CBI to reopen the investigation.

Jyotipriya Mullick: Involved in the ‘cut money’ scandal, the state’s food minister has been ordered by the Calcutta High Court to respond to a complaint by two businessmen who claimed they were ordered to pay Rs 30 lakh at gunpoint in a property deal.

Anatomy of a Scam
The ripoff that Partha Chatterjee is in jail for, involves widespread bribery in the recruitment of Group C and Group D staff and teachers for government-run and aided schools in West Bengal. The case dates back to the TMC’s first term in power. While a notification for the appointment of teachers through the State Level Selection Test (SLST) was issued in 2014, recruitment began only two years later when Partha was the minister for higher education and school education.

Evidence of suspected foul play began to emerge in 2016, when petitions were filed in the Calcutta High Court by rejected candidates who had performed satisfactorily in the SLST. Around this time, the TMC government issued a notification to the School Service Commission, calling for the recruitment of 13,000 Group D staff for government-run and aided schools. The commission’s term ended in 2019. The petitions alleged that recruitment continued — no less than 500 such appointments were made by the Board.



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