The arrest of three legislators of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), including two ministers, by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Monday took a controversial turn after the speaker of the state assembly termed the probe agency’s action based on the governor’s consent “illegal and unethical".
The central agency arrested TMC ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee as well as MLA Madan Mitra and former Trinamool leader Sovan Chatterjee in Kolkata in connection with the 2014 Narada sting case in which politicians were purportedly caught taking money on camera. The development is being seen by analysts against the backdrop of a Bengal-Centre tussle brewing since a fiercely fought assembly election victory of the TMC led by Mamata Banerjee this month. Repeated verbal sniping has also been witnessed between governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Trinamool leadership over alleged post-poll violence targeted towards Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers and supporters.
Speaking exclusively to News18.com, assembly speaker Biman Banerjee said, “Recently, the matter was up for hearing at the Calcutta High Court and then the judge asked the CBI whether they have taken the consent of the state Assembly speaker to prosecute them (those who were arrested today) or not. We informed the advocate general that no such consent was given. The CBI has not sent us any letter or communication in this matter.”
The Calcutta High Court then gave a clear instruction to the CBI to take the consent from the speaker, he said. “In the meantime, the CBI, instead of approaching the state assembly speaker, met governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and he accorded prosecution sanction against the leaders. I don’t know why the CBI avoided me and went directly to the governor for his consent. I was very much present in my office when they went to meet the governor for his consent. I think when the high court highlighted ‘speaker’s consent’ before prosecuting the leaders, the governor’s interference in this matter is against the law. It could be seen as going against the Calcutta High Court’s view. I think the governor’s consent is illegal and arresting someone on the basis of this illegal consent is unethical, unconstitutional and undemocratic. To file a chargesheet against the MLAs, the speaker’s consent is required. Unfortunately, in this case the CBI didn’t follow the constitutional norms,” he said.
In a separate conversation with CNN-News18, the assembly speaker reiterated his view and also indicated some foul play. “There are some other persons also involved in the matter, who switched over to the other party. I don’t want to name them…because their names are not appearing in the chargesheet, I don’t know how their names could be bypassed by the governor, that too is very doubtful. Although the court has the power to issue summons against them, take cognisance against them, the court has the power, if the court finds that there are materials that have been left out," he said.
Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, who were among the Trinamool leaders allegedly caught taking bribes, have since joined the BJP and are now MLAs from the party.
The arrests prompted chief minister Mamata Banerjee to reach the CBI office in Kolkata where she began a sit-in demonstration. Trinamool supporters too staged a protest and some incidents of stone-throwing were also reported.
Taking to Twitter, governor Dhankhar urged the chief minister to follow constitutional norms and rule of law.
Sad- situation is being allowed to drift with no tangible action by authorities.
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 17, 2021
Message @MamataOfficial “Total lawlessness & anarchy. Police and administration in silence mode. Hope you realize repercussions of such lawlessness and failure of constitutional mechanism.Time to reflect and contain this explosive situation that is worsening minute by minute.”— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 17, 2021
Invited attention @MamataOfficial “On channels and in public domain I notice arson and pelting of stones at CBI office. Pathetic that Kolkata Police @KolkataPolice and West Bengal Police @WBPolice are just onlookers.Appeal to you to act and restore law and order.”— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 17, 2021
Following reports of violence, Trinamool MP and the CM’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee appealed for peace on the microblogging site.
“I urge everyone to abide by the law & refrain from any activity that violates lockdown norms for the sake of the larger interest of Bengal and its people. We have utmost faith in the judiciary & the battle will be fought legally," he wrote.
Rajya Sabha member from the Trinamool Congress and Calcutta High Court advocate Sukhendu Sekhar Ray demanded the governor’s resignation, terming his act “illegal". “On 9 May Dhankar accorded sanction for prosecution whereas Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim took oath on 10 May. Hence, Dhankar was not the competent authority for sanction under the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act 2018. Absolutely illegal act by Jagdeep. RESIGN," he tweeted.
TMC leader Chandrima Bhattacharya wrote a letter to Kolkata’s commissioner of police, mentioning that the arrests were “illegal" and also pointing out the “unethical" practices of the governor.
“It is unfortunate that the governor is highly indulged in all the unconstitutional practices and acts as a BJP mouthpiece,” she wrote.
Reacting to the arrests of his party colleagues, TMC MP Sougata Roy hit out at the BJP for allegedly using central agencies like the CBI for its political interests.
“There is no doubt that it is politically motivated because the BJP is finding it difficult to accept the humiliating defeat in the assembly polls. The BJP leaders in Delhi instructed the CBI to take selective action against TMC leaders. I condemn the arrests of Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Madan Mitra. The governor’s consent to CBI to prosecute them is also questionable because all three of them are MLAs and as per norms the speaker of the West Bengal assembly is authorised to give the consent and no one else,” he said.
Following controversies over the governor’s consent to prosecute the leaders, the Raj Bhawan on May 9 issued a statement. “After taking note of media reports that Hon’ble Governor of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar has accorded sanction for prosecution in respect of persons who happened to be members of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, it is made categorically apparent that Hon’ble Governor of the State of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar accorded sanction for prosecution in respect of Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra and Sovan Chatterjee, for the reason that all of them at the relevant time of commission of crime were holding the position of ministers in the government of West Bengal,” the statement said.
“The Governor is the competent authority to accord sanction in terms of law as he happens to be the appointing authority for such ministers in terms of Article 164 of the Constitution. The sanction came to be accorded by Governor after CBI had made a request and made available entire documentation relevant to the case to the Governor and he involved his powers under Articles 163 and 164 of the Constitution, being the competent authority to accord such sanction. The impression generated in some quarters of the media that sanction has come to be accorded because these persons at the relevant time were members of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly are factually untenable. The premise of the sanction as indicated is that these persons at the relevant point of time of commission of crime were holding the position of ministers in the government of West Bengal,” it added.