A BJP leader's arrest for child trafficking raises the political battle in Bengal several notches

Subrata Nagchoudhury

The arrest of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Juhi Chowdhury in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district on Tuesday for her alleged involvement in the trafficking of children through illegal adoptions comes at a time when vendetta politics between the BJP-led government at the Centre and the Trinamool Congress in the state is at its worst. As a result, the political significance of the arrest has overshadowed its criminal aspect.

“I have fallen to a political trap,” Chowdhury, general secretary of the BJP’s women’s wing in the state, said as she was produced before a court in the North Bengal district on Wednesday, where she was remanded to police custody for 12 days. “But to slap a criminal charge is not enough. I will come clean in the court of law.”

The BJP, too, called the arrest a conspiracy of the Trinamool Congress, though it relieved Chowdhury and her father, Rabindranarayan Chowdhury, from their party posts. Rabindranarayan Chowdhury was secretary of the BJP state secretariat.

And in a swift tit-for-tat move, the party on Wednesday moved court against Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien for allegedly morphing a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and showing it at a press conference before Assembly elections in the state last year.

The BJP also claimed that as many as 150 of its district and sub-divisional leaders and at least 12 top leaders at the state and national levels had been booked on various criminal charges since January. In some cases, old first information reports had been revived. “The FIRs lodged against BJP leaders are often on flimsy grounds,” said state BJP president Dilip Ghosh, who himself secured anticipatory bail on Wednesday in a criminal case for allegedly making an inflammatory speech and maligning the chief minister.

Going by what the police have to say, the BJP may find more of its leaders involved in the trafficking case as the investigation widens. The names of two senior leaders, Roopa Ganguly and Kailash Vijayvargiya, have already cropped up for allegedly helping Chowdhury in her effort to secure an adoption licence for a child care home through which the children were allegedly trafficked.

“It is all part of political conspiracy, but a stupid one to undergo the trial at the court,” responded Ganguly. Vijayvargiya denied any knowledge of Chowdhury.

On the other side of the political divide, a senior Trinamool Congress leader, who refused to be identified, admitted that the two parties were at daggers drawn and the situation could get worse with the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results due on March 11. “The political warfare in West Bengal is now being played in court rooms, in the offices of various investigating agencies, and at the police headquarters,” the leader said. “There is not much of political activity or discourse at the ground level, in villages, in cities or on street corners.”

Mamata’s counter-attack

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For the Trinamool Congress, the case against Juhi Chowdhury with all its criminal-political dimensions could not have come at a more opportune moment, what with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee having unleashed a counter-offensive to what she calls the vendetta politics of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre in the past few months.

In the first week of January, when the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested Trinamool MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay in the Rose Valley case – a multi-crore chit fund scam in Bengal – Banerjee had said, “This is the price we are paying for the huge country-wide anti-demonetisation stir we launched. But we won’t be cowed down.”

The Trinamool Congress chief had led the Opposition campaign against the government’s decision to demonetise high-value bank notes in November, leading a protest march to Rashtrapati Bhavan and addressing rallies against the monetary policy.

The Rose Valley case, as well as the Saradha chit find scam that came before it (which defrauded thousands of small savers in Bengal), have taken a heavy toll on the Trinamool Congress. Two of its MPs have resigned, another has been jailed and over a dozen other leaders have been questioned. Apart from Bandyopadhyay, senior Trinamool leader Tapas Paul was arrested in the Rose Valley case in December.

Following Bandyopadhyay’s arrest, a blueprint for a counter-offensive was launched with Mamata Banerjee spelling out the line of action to be taken at an emergency meeting of top leaders of the party and administration. At the meeting, she reportedly asked her party colleagues to revive old criminal cases against BJP functionaries and register new first information reports whenever an opportunity arose. Her mandate was clear: “If the Centre has the CBI, we have a government and a police.”

BJP arrests

Within a fortnight of Bandyopadhyay’s arrest, the Bengal Police picked up BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar on a complaint lodged six months ago by a group of students who had taken the Teacher’s Eligibility Test and failed to get jobs, despite allegedly having paid him Rs 7 lakhs. “It is all Didi’s [Banerjee’s] game, it is all cooked up,” Majumdar said. “I have fallen victim to a fight between Kolkata and Bhubaneshar [a reference to the Central Bureau of Investigation taking Sudip Bandyopadhyay to Bhubaneswar after his arrest]”.

In February, Kolkata Police commissioner Rajeev Kumar filed a criminal defamation complaint against senior Kailash Vijayvargiya in a court, in response to the latter’s allegation that the officer had destroyed evidence in the Saradha investigation to shield Trinamool leaders.

Before that, a Trinamool Congress woman worker had filed a molestation complaint against Roopa Ganguly, a Rajya Sabha member, last year. Ganguly had then claimed that it was she who was assaulted by a mob in South 24 Parganas during a clash between the two parties, and not the other way round.

Following the latest arrest of a party leader, that of Juhi Chowdhury, a state BJP delegation turned up at the office of the joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation in Kolkata, demanding an answer from officials on why the Rose Valley and Saradha investigations had slowed down.

Mastermind?

But to put the matter in perspective, it is necessary to look at the case against Juhi Chowdhury. Her name first came up when the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department started looking into complaints of illegal activity at a number of child care homes in Jalpaiguri run by one Chandana Chakrabarty.

According to Jalpaiguri district magistrate Rachna Bhagat, adoption cases handled by these homes were found to be illegal and several FIRs were lodged against them on various counts – such as releasing babies for adoption without valid documents, taking money for the adoptions, and for running the shelter homes in an improper manner.

After a preliminary inquiry, the adoption licence of one of the homes was suspended and the department was asked to investigate the matter further.

The investigation found at least 17 cases of adoption in recent months that were suspect. Apart from this, nine young girls whose names were on the registers of the homes were missing. Investigators said advances had been taken from couples in five cases. And of the 17 babies that they now believed to have been trafficked, two or three were suspected to have been sent to foreign destinations.

On February 22, Chakrabarty was arrested. And a week later, the police picked up Juhi Chowdhury, who had been absconding for a few days.

Chakrabarty had allegedly engaged Chowdhury to secure a fresh licence so that she could resume adoptions. With the kickbacks she received, the BJP leader planned to set up a resort in North Bengal, the police said. They added that Chowdhury’s father, Rabindranarayan Chowdhury, was also wanted in connection with the investigation but was absconding.

With the help of senior party colleagues such as Ganguly and Vijayvargiya, Juhi Chowdhury hoped to reach out to Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi to secure the necessary clearances for Chakrabarty’s children’s homes, the police said. In the first week of February, she traveled to Delhi twice to meet Gandhi but failed to do so. On one occasion, she got in touch with Vijayvargiya’s secretary who had promised her an audience with the senior leader, they added.

“We are seeing Juhi’s role as a mastermind of the baby trafficking racket,” said Dr Rajesh Kumar, additional director general of police of the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department. “She was working with Chandana Chakrabarty whose homes were dealing in illegal adoptions. When the police went for her, she went underground and a CID team could trace her at a hideout in the India-Nepal border. The ADG confirmed that some top BJP leaders’ names had cropped up in the course of her interrogation and should the investigators deem it necessary, they may be examined.”

On the BJP’s allegation that the police were working at the behest of the state government, Kumar said, “The CID does not work on political lines.”

As for how many babies might have been trafficked, he said: “It is difficult to specify the numbers but I can tell there were many.”

BJP’s dilemma

While the BJP’s immediate response to the police action against Juhi Chowdhury was to suspend her and her father from all party posts, the party has assured her of legal help and support to fight the case. But the development has led to a division within the party. One section has come out in support of the women’s wing leader but another wants the party leadership to deal firmly not just with her but with all those whose names crop up in the case. They say that the case has brought disrepute to the party.

What these developments, and those of the past few months, mean is that the political narrative of traditional political rivalry in West Bengal has taken on new shapes and dimensions.