On Sunday, 21 February, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) landed at the residence of Trinamool Congress MP and nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Abhishek Banerjee, in Kolkata.
The investigation agency had gone to serve a notice to Abhishek's wife Rujira Naroola Banerjee to join in the investigation of a multi-crore coal scam that the CBI is investigating in the state. A similar notice was also served to Abhishek's sister-in-law Maneka Gambhir, who was subsequently questioned by the CBI the day after, on 22 February.
Rujira Banerjee will be questioned on 23 February.
The CBI's notice to arguably the closest member of Mamata Banerjee's family and the potential heir to the TMC has caused ripples in the political circles of Bengal ahead of the upcoming state polls. But what is this multi-crore coal scam? And how is Rujira Banerjee allegedly involved? Let's take a look.
The West Bengal Coal Scam
The Bengal coal smuggling case, which the Central Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating, allegedly involves illegal mining and smuggling of coal worth crores of rupees across Bengal's borders to Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar with the help of government officials and politicians.
The agency has, in recent weeks, conducted searches in different locations in West Bengal, specifically in Purulia, West Burdwan, and Kolkata. It is also searching for local coal smugglers to establish a connection to a larger nexus.
In this regard, the CBI had registered an FIR in November 2020 against Anup Majhi, famously known as Lala, and his deputy Joydeb Mondol, both of whom are allegedly the kingpins of this multi-crore scam.
Sources in the CBI tell The Quint that mass scale theft of coal was allegedly taking place at the Eastern Coalfield Limited’s lines with the help of company officials and security-in-charge, engineered by Lala and Mondol.
The two were questioned by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) for their alleged involvement in this illegal coal empire worth Rs 20,000 crore at an undisclosed location in November 2020.
CBI sources told Moneycontrol that Majhi confessed in a written statement that he would routinely pay money for 20 years to influential politicians in Bengal for operating unhindered.
This alleged confession came after the cops from Dhanbad had arrested the drivers and cleaners transporting the coal from Asansol, Durgapur, and Dhanbad, and subsequently raided Majhi and Mondol's offices.
Both have been absconding since then. The CBI has issued a lookout notice against them.
Majhi had risen through the ranks from forming a coal briquette to dominating the illegal coal mining scene in Bengal. He is known to own 22 industrial units, and also allegedly deals in illegally quarried sand.
He's also known to have ties with Enamul Haque, the infamous cattle smuggler known to operate out of Bengal.
Haque, allegedly the kingpin of a cattle smuggling racket across the India-Bangladesh border was arrested from Delhi in November 2020 and then surrendered to the CBI in December 2020.
It was alleged that Haque used to bribe BSF officials on the border to smuggle cattle.
In February 2021, the CBI filed a charge sheet against seven people in the transborder cattle smuggling case, including Haque and a BSF commandant, Satish Kumar.
It is alleged that Majhi would use Haque's networks to transport illegal coal to Murshidabad, Malda, Dinajpur, and beyond, to Bangladesh.
The Alleged Involvement of TMC
The first time the case came to directly involve the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal is when TMC youth leader Vinay Mishra's house was raided by the CBI on 31 December 2020, in connection with both the coal and cattle scams.
The agency raided two of Mishra's houses in Kolkata, however, he was not at home.
Thereafter, in January 2021, the CBI issued summons to Mishra to cooperate with the investigation but he failed to appear. After several summons, the CBI first issued a lookout notice against Mishra and then a CBI court issued an arrest warrant against him.
Mishra's brother, Vikas Mishra, was also summoned by the agency for questioning, as the CBI and ED continued to raid multiple locations across the state.
On 13 February 2021, the ED raided Mishra's houses too. He is still evading arrest.
The coal and related cattle scams have since become a political weapon for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ahead of the West Bengal Assembly elections, scheduled for April-May this year.
“This is the true picture of the team members under the “able” leadership of the Nephew. What a great team he has made to take the @AITCofficial to a “different” level. #TolabaazBhaipoHatao!” tweeted Suvendu Adhikari, former Trinamool leader, who recently defected to the BJP, after raids at Mishra's home.
Adhikari has subsequently made several statements on TMC leaders and their relationship with Lala, especially training his guns on Abhishek Banerjee.
Thereafter, even before the CBI issued a notice to Rujira Banerjee, Adhikari had claimed that Lala transferred money to her bank account in Thailand.
“I said I had proof. This shows that money from coal smuggling was deposited in a bank account in Bangkok. The money went to a person named Madam Naroola. Who is Madam Naroola? It is the same person who was once caught at the Kolkata airport with a lot of gold. The truth will be out when Lala, the man who ran the coal smuggling operation, is nabbed", said Adhikari at a rally, holding up what seemed like a bank document.
Reference to the coal and cattle smuggling cases has been made by other BJP leaders too, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Who is Rujira Naroola? Why is the CBI Investigating Her?
Rujira Naroola, who comes from a Delhi-based business family, met Abhishek while he was in college and they married in February 2012, in a ceremony in Delhi.
She has largely been away from the public eye, but hit headlines for the first time in March 2019 in a case related to the Customs department, wherein she was held at the Kolkata airport for allegedly carrying two kilos of gold, without declaration, on her way back from Thailand. Abhishek Banerjee’s sister-in-law Menaka Gambhir was also present on this trip.
Rujira was issued a notice under Section 108 of the Customs Act, 1962, to appear in person before the Additional/Joint Commissioner of Customs in Kolkata in April 2019.
In the same month, however, the Calcutta High Court granted relief to Rujira saying that she wouldn't need to appear before the customs department before 31 July. Earlier, the court had said that the customs department could not take any coercive action.
“The Customs authorities became suspicious of her and had wanted to check her baggage. According to them she resented this, (as) her baggage was checked by the X-ray machine,” the court said, adding that Customs claimed that the “X-ray report revealed that she was carrying a significant quantity of gold", the court had said citing the Customs complaint, reports The Print.
At the time, Abhishek had called the "harassment" of his wife a political ploy. He'd also mentioned that Rujira is a "Citizen of Indian Origin" who has Thai citizenship and passport because she was born and brought up there.
In this specific case, the CBI is specifically investigating transactions in overseas bank accounts of both Naroola and Gambhir. CBI sources say that Lala has allegedly claimed that he deposits money to the tune of crores in Naroola’s account as “protection money.” They also alleged that they received money from others accused in the case.
The CBI further claims to have evidence on which the notices were issued.
Abhishek Banerjee's election affidavit for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which he stood from the Diamond Harbours constituency and won, lists Rujira as a "salaried professional."
The affidavit further shows that Naroola's total assets, before the elections in 2019, were worth Rs 35.55 lakh.
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