Legal troubles fail to dent Mondal’s influence in Bengal belt
“Can you see that row of trees? A few years ago, the land beside it was purchased by Kesto Mondal’s men. Several patches of multi-crop land have changed hands in recent years,” Ajijul Sheikh, a small farmer at Nanoor in Bengal’s Birbhum district, says as he wipes his face with a gamchha
“Can you see that row of trees? A few years ago, the land beside it was purchased by Kesto Mondal’s men. Several patches of multi-crop land have changed hands in recent years,” Ajijul Sheikh, a small farmer at Nanoor in Bengal’s Birbhum district, says as he wipes his face with a gamchha.
It is noon and the sun is still unforgiving in early September. The 60-year-old, like most local villagers, is not keen on a prolonged conversation with a stranger from Kolkata. “Please don’t ask for details. Nobody here will talk,” he quips, and heads off to his village.
That’s the common refrain in West Bengal’s Birbhum, long associated with Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati, a seat of learning. Now, the district is associated with Anubrata Mondal, 62, the firebrand district president of Trinamool Congress, who was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation on August 11 in a cattle smuggling case.
Despite his physical absence for almost a month from Birbhum, Anubrata, Kesto to friends and foes alike, seems to be keeping a watchful eye on the 4,545 square km district where he is seen as an uncrowned king ever since the TMC unseated the Left Front government in 2011. With the usual queue of visitors and parked vehicles missing, Mondal’s home at Bolpur’s Nichupatty wears a rather deserted look.
He may be housed in the Asansol correctional home in the adjoining West Burdwan district, but the burly TMC strongman remains the subject of discussion, albeit in hushed tones, at almost every tea stall gossip in Bolpur town — around 170km to the south-west of Kolkata — where he lives.
Having set up a camp office at Sriniketan in Bolpur town, CBI officials claim to have unearthed Mondal’s alleged links with 168 land and property deeds executed in or after 2014. At least two dozen of these properties belong to Mondal himself, claims the federal agency, while the remaining 144 bear the names of his relatives, aides and their kin. The CBI suspects that proceeds from cattle smuggling were used to buy these properties.
“Local people had been hearing about these land deals for years. It was like an open secret but not even the opposition parties raised any questions,” says Niloy Mukherjee, a second-year college student whose ancestors settled down in Bolpur in the 1950s.
Properties under scanner
A CBI official said on condition of anonymity that many of the documents being looked at are of farmland in Birbhum.
Most are located in the area under the purview of the Bolpur police station while the rest come under the jurisdiction of Nanoor, Panrui, Muhammad Bazar, Ilambazar and Mayureshwar police stations, according to CBI.
Murshidabad district — the centre of the cattle smuggling operations and located 104 km away — comes second in terms of the number of properties, with the agency claiming that 55 plots there have been registered in the name of Mondal’s former bodyguard Sehgal Hossain, a state police constable, and the latter’s relatives. Located in the Jalangi and Domkal areas of Murshidabad, these plots were reportedly registered in 30 deeds between 2017 and 2022, the CBI official added.
Hossain and his family also own 50 plots in the Muhammad Bazar area of Birbhum as well, according to CBI.
Hossain was arrested by CBI on June 10 and is lodged in the cell next to Mondal’s at Asansol correctional home. Mondal pleaded during interrogation that he had no knowledge of the properties Hossain owns while the latter, whose father, too, was a police constable, could not explain how he bought all these on a government salary, according to CBI officials, who have interrogated both Mondal and Hossain.
Among the rest of the deeds under CBI scanner are those of some residential apartments located on the outskirts of Kolkata. There is also a 0.14 acre land located in the Gosaba area of South 24 Parganas district.
The cumulative value of all properties covered in the 168 deeds (some deeds involve multiple plots of land), which include agricultural and non-agricultural land varying between a few hundred square feet to more than an acre, is estimated to be a few hundred crores, according to CBI.
A Birbhum TMC leader who asked not to be named — Mondol’s arrest has brought to the fore rifts within the party — said there are more land deals that may have escaped the notice of CBI.
Businessmen, farmers, legal experts and common citizens in Birbhum speak of Mondol’s network of property agents and lawyers who allegedly played a role in the acquisitions.
A businessman, who owns a hotel near Bolpur said: “I selected a piece of land near the Bolpur-Ilambazar highway for a second hotel and held talks with the owner. Two days later, I came to know that an agent and a lawyer offered payment in cash to the land owner and made him sign the sale deed. The property was undervalued. Inquiry revealed that the duo was involved in similar deals on behalf of an influential person. You can draw your own conclusions.”
Investing in family
Before his rise in politics, Mondal used to run a small grocery shop and sell fish at the local market, say Bolpur residents. He was a small-time Congress worker and used to maintain a low-profile to escape the terror unleashed by CPI(M) cadres, they add.
All that changed after the Nanoor massacre in which 11 marginal farmers were killed, allegedly by CPI(M) activists in Birbhum. Mondal took the lead in campaigning against the CPI(M) for TMC after the killings. “It was during the Nanoor massacre agitation that he came into limelight and caught Mamta Banerjee’s attention,” according to a senior TMC leader who did not want to be named.
“Kesto Mondal’s fortune changed after the TMC came to power in 2011,” says Shyamal Mondal, a Bolpur resident.
Banerjee gave Mondal the task of organizing campaigns across the district. He targeted CPI(M) members, who had previously attacked TMC leaders. Many of the CPI(M) members joined TMC under his stewardship, local party leaders said.
In 2013, Mondal was appointed as Birbhum district president of TMC. He became Banerjee’s one-man army in the district, local party leaders said.
As he acquired properties, many in name of his relatives, his daughter Sukanya, a primary school teacher, floated two companies — Neer Developer Pvt Ltd and ANM Agrochem Foods Pvt Ltd. HT reported on August 28 that these companies received ₹27.73 crore between 2018-22 as debt from either another company or from their own directors.
CBI has traced documents which indicate that between 2018 and 2021 as many as 16 property deeds were recorded in the name ANM Agrochem Foods while three were recorded in the name of Neer Developer.
These 19 registrations include more than 40 plots of land of which some are as small as one decimal, or 40.4 square metre in size according to the land measurement system in Bengal. The largest one covers 121 decimals or 1.20 acre.
CBI found names of Bidyut Baran Gayen, an employee at the Bolpur municipal office, and a director in these companies, his wife and their two minor children, in 35 deeds. Of these, Gayen reportedly signed 19 on behalf of ANM Agrochem Foods and Neer Developers.
Sukanya Mondal did not sign even one of these documents but CBI officers in Birbhum claim to have found records which indicate that Sukanya Mondal’s name appears as buyer in 26 other property deeds.
Twelve deeds are recorded in the name of Anubrata Mondal’s sister while five are in the name of his sister’s husband and 13 more documents reportedly show the names of their son and daughter-in-law. Also under the CBI scanner are six land deeds registered in the name of Chhabi Mondal, the TMC leader’s wife who died in 2020.
Mondal’s lawyer, Sanjib Kumar Dawn says they will defend all charges in court. “If there were irregularities, the income tax department would have pointed these out long ago. A lot of unsubstantiated charges are being brought by CBI. We will counter these in court.”
Several villagers allege that the plots purchased by Mondal and his aides were undervalued during registration and in many cases, people facing debt were forced into distress sales. None were willing to come on record fearing Mondal and his men.
Mojammel Haque, a farmer from the Panrui area says: “In 2015, some TMC workers threatened to frame my cousin in a false case under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act if he refused to sell his land. Many have gone through similar experience.”
Birbhum police superintendent Nagendra Nath Tripathi said the allegations of rampant of misuse of the NDPS Act are baseless.
“I cannot say what happened in the past but no more than 7-8 cases under this Act have been filed in Birbhum since I took over as SP 16 months ago,” Tripathi says, adding that he has not received any complaint against Mondal.
Among the plots of land that have drawn CBI’s attention is one that covers more than 100 decimals (around 1.4 acre) and was sold to ANM Agrochem Foods in 2021 for ₹1.6 crore by the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, a nationally known welfare and charitable organisation.
Swami Sanghamitrananda, head of the Sangha’s sprawling campus at Muluk village says that the land was donated to the organisation by a retired marine engineer, Suchinta Kumar Chattopadhyay, around eight years ago, who wanted to set up technical education institution in the name of his parents. “We decided to sell his land and dedicated the polytechnic unit at our Muluk campus to the memory of Chattopadhyay’s parents.”
“Some property agents contacted us. Mondal never came here or threatened us. Gayen signed the sale deed and the money was transferred to our bank account in Kolkata in 15 instalments,” he adds.
Amid several allegations on Mondal’s source of income, Arupratan Bhattacharya, a Birbhum-based businessman, has alleged that he was forced to give ₹3.63 crore in cash to the TMC leader in 2018 to secure a contract for restoring the Tilpara barrage near Siuri town.
“Mondal demanded ₹10 crore as bribe. I never got the contract. When I asked for a refund, he threatened to get me arrested under NDPS Act. CBI summoned me to its Kolkata office on September 5 but I was told to move a court since my complaint is not related to the cow smuggling case,” Bhattacharya says. Dawn rubbished his claim.
While CBI officials are visiting various banks in Bolpur almost on a daily basis to go through transaction records, Mondal has found support from chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Mondal, who never contested any elections, is the only TMC district president to be a member of TMC’s national working committee, the party’s most powerful body.
“Make sure that Kesto is released and he gets a warrior’s welcome,” Banerjee told TMC workers at an important party conference in Kolkata on September 8. “He was arrested so that the Bharatiya Janata Party can win Lok Sabha seats in Birbhum,” she alleged.
“I will be released unconditionally. It is a matter of time. I am innocent. CBI has found no evidence against me,” Mondal said on September 9, while being taken to court in connection with another case.