Saturday, December 3, 2022

Operation Raid

In a shocking incident, government officials, businessmen, and chartered accountants were raided and properties worth Rs 150 crore unearthed. Was it meant to destabilise an elected government? By Neeraj Mishra

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The Delhi riots have pushed into the background one of the most significant income tax and ED search and sei­zure operations in recent ti­mes. It is significant in ter­ms of centre-state relations and the use of central agencies “to destabilise the functioning of an elected government”. For four days from February 27, the two central agencies raided nearly two dozen officials, businessmen and chartered accountants in Raipur, Durg, Bhilai and Bilaspur.

It was an operation which Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said was unconstitutional and designed to threaten his existence. The income tax department released a terse statement on March 2 that properties worth Rs 150 crore had been un­earthed. It said that most of the money had come from the liquor and mining trades and had been invested in shell companies in Kolkata. Strangely, several bank accounts in the name of lower-level staff in the government were found in the possession of those raided, said the press release. The modus operandi, it seems, was that these bank accounts were maintained by those who were the target of the searches.

Baghel held an emergency meeting of the cabinet and met Governor Ansui­ya Uike. He flew to Delhi and met Cong­­ress President Sonia Gandhi. The AICC then held a press conference to allege that centre-state relations were at stake here. Baghel then raised the issue of misuse of the CRPF and non-information to the state government in a letter to the prime minister. Income tax teams from Delhi, Jaipur and Hyderabad with nearly 200 officers and staff descended on Raipur on Feb­ruary 27 when the entire administration was busy with the ongoing budget session.

They proceeded to raid the houses and premises of former chief secretary and RERA chairman Vivek Dhand, IAS officer Anil Tuteja, liquor baron Amolak Bhatia, Raipur mayor Ejaz Dhebar and OSD (excise) AP Tripathi. Thereon they increased the ambit of their operations and included Dhand’s CA, Kamlesh Jain, Tuteja’s wife, Meenakshi, his neighbour, Dr Allu Farishta, and CAs Sanjay Sancheti and Amar Sadhwani. The moonball finally fell on the most powerful bureaucrat in the state, deputy secretary to the chief minister Saumya Chaurasia and her associates, businessmen Sidhartha Singhania, Sanjay Diwan and Vijay Agarwal.

Dhand became the first chief secretary to be raided in the history of the Madhya Pradesh cadre (original) even as the chief minister’s OSD Arun Mar­kam and his closest associate, Vijay Bhatia, were also included in the raids. In two eventful days, the entire coterie of a sitting chief minister barring his two re­maining—largely out of work—advisers had been raided and locked in the in­trigue of stashed gold being found in their houses.

Pradesh Congress Committee president Mohan Markam came out with a rather comical statement on the raids: “All those who have been raided were all sitting on Malaidar (prized) posts during the previous Raman Singh re­gime.” He forgot that these were the same people who had been running the state for Baghel for the past year. It’s a rather strange situation where even the BJP is not able to attack the Congress as most of the people raided were powerful during the 15-year Raman Singh regime as well.

On his part, Raman Singh said: “Why is the chief minister so perturbed over these raids? None of his MLAs are involved, nobody is destabilising his government.” The raids were all-encompassing and meticulously planned. Ejaz Dhebar—Baghel’s political muscleman—has become the mayor of Rai­pur against all odds with his backing be­cause the entire Dhebar family is belie­ved (by the IT and ED departments) to be the moneybags in the present era. Six residences of the Dhebar family were searched thoroughly.

Strangely, the anti-CAA crowd that had been sitting on the main square in the city was suddenly chased away by the same government which had been apparently supporting it. It is belie­ved that the agitators were backed by the Dhebars. Tuteja, who had been suspended following the surfacing of the NAN scam, was reinstated by Baghel and made special secretary, industries. He and his neighbour, Farishta, were raided together because of the suspicion that they have been making collections on behalf of the powers that be. Tuteja’s wife, Meenakshi, who runs a chain of half a dozen beauty parlours, was included in the search. AP Tripathi who was brou­ght in from his parent department, BSNL, is believed to be a close relative of a senior officer in the CM’s secretariat and handled the excise tracking system. He is believed to have some properties in the Netherlands.

Amolak Bhatia who was crucial to the new excise policy and another businessman, Gurcharan Singh Hora, were netted for their roles in running liquor and real estate deals. It did not stop here. Three CAs who have been handling the acc­ounts of all those raided were also netted. It is likely that they may prove to be the biggest source of all the skeletons that may tumble out. Significantly, everyone who has been raided has been part of excise and mining in the state in some way or the other. Also significant is that the IT department press release said that large sums from both the departments were deposited with government officials.

What government officials have to do with the money trail will perhaps be explained later, as in normal circumstances it is assumed that such money trails lead to politicians.
But the biggest upset has been the raid at the premises of Chaurasia, Dhand and Tuteja. The Dhebars come after that. The involvement of the ED means that it will not be easy for any of those in the net to wriggle out. All documents seized—especially from the CAs—have been taken to Delhi where a team of IT experts and accountants is poring over them.

The IT department by itself is unable to prosecute anyone for any criminal offence. That is why the ED may have been taken along. Any knowledge or proof of a dirty money trail or hawala operations can then be passed on to the ED which can prosecute people under the severe PMLA provisions. It will be interesting to see if the IT department comes out with more revelations. If it does not—and in case it has found nothing earth-shattering—then it will be hard-put to explain why such a covert and drastic operation was carried out in the first place.

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