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New Delhi: The controversy around the recent arrest of three Jharkhand MLAs in Howrah with a substantial amount of cash continues to hover around Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. On August 7, Sunday, the West Bengal police issued a summons to Ashok Dhanuka, a Guwahati-based businessman who is a long-time partner of the Sarma family. They told media persons that Assam police officers with “automatic rifles” were guarding his residence and he could not be questioned.
Dhanuka is suspected of supplying the cash – Rs 48 lakh – seized from the MLAs during their visit to Guwahati to meet Sarma, whom they had met before they were nabbed in Howrah on July 31.
According to media reports, a team from Kolkata arrived in Guwahati to interrogate Dhanuka on August 7 on the matter but he did not open the door of the premises, even as a team of heavily armed Assam police was standing guard. Sarma is also the state’s home minister, with the police under his direct control. After he took over the chief minister’s chair, Dhanukas have been given state police protection.
“A team went to the residence of Ashok Dhanuka in Guwahati, but people inside the house refused to open the door. The house was guarded by Assam police personnel armed with automatic rifles,” a criminal investigation department officer was quoted in a Hindustan Times report. “Before leaving, the team pasted a notice on the door, asking Dhanuka to report at the CID headquarters in Kolkata at 10 am on Monday (August 8),” the officer told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
The notice was issued to Dhanuka by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the West Bengal police under section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure to gather information for the case.
As per an NDTV report which quoted sources in the Kolkata police headquarters, Dhanuka and his son Ghanshyam Dhanuka may be questioned on Monday.
The four-member team of Bengal Police had reached Guwahati this past week in tandem with the interrogation of the three Congress MLAs, now suspended by the party, about the money trail. Reports said the trio – Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachchap and Naman Bixal Kongari – had claimed that the sum recovered from them, Rs 48 lakh, was meant to buy sarees for a tribal festival in their state. But the Bengal police told the media that the cash could be traced to Guwahati, where they went to meet Sarma.
A local court in Howrah had remanded the trio to judicial custody till August 10 while the state police transferred the case to the CID.
Additionally, another Congress MLA from Jharkhand – Kumar Jaimangal – filed an FIR in Ranchi, claiming that two of the MLAs had gotten in touch with him and asked him to come to Kolkata. They wanted to take him to Guwahati to meet the Assam chief minister to topple the Hemant Soren-led coalition government in the state.
Claiming that he was offered Rs 10 crore to support the formation of a BJP government in Jharkhand, the Congress legislator wrote in his complaint to the Ranchi police, “Shri Irfan Ansari and Rajesh Kachchap want me to come to Kolkata and then take me to Guwahati where, according to (Ansari), he will make me meet Shri Himanta Biswa Sarma who will give me assurance of a definite ministerial berth, apart from the money.”
Sarma has denied any wrongdoing and told the media that several Congress leaders are in touch with him for ‘political advice’.
Following the incident, the Congress had accused the BJP of trying to topple another opposition-led government. The needle of suspicion was directly pointed at Sarma, based on the Congress legislator’s police complaint and the case in Jharkhand.
The allegations came close on the heels of the Sarma government guarding the rebel Shiv Sena MLAs in a Guwahati hotel, ultimately aiding the formation of a BJP-supported government in Maharashtra.
Who is Ashok Dhanuka?
With the Bengal police now set to question Ashok Dhanuka, the matter has crept even closer to Sarma. The businessman has a long and close partnership with the chief minister’s family, which was revealed by The Wire and The Cross Current in a series of reports in June this year.
Ashok Dhanuka is currently a full-time director of a company, Vasistha Realtors (earlier RBS Realtors), in which the chief minister’s son, Nandil Biswa Sarma, has majority shares.
Ashok Dhanuka took over the position of the company’s director on the same day in June 2009 when Sarma’s wife, Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, resigned from the position, as shown by an earlier report in The Wire based on information the company provided to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs.
The premises of the Dhanukas in Guwahati – Dhanuka Complex, Block A, Room No 211, Aathgaon – shares the same address as the Sarma family’s Vasistha Realtors. Two companies owned by the Dhanukas – GRD Pharmaceuticals and Meditime Healthcare – also share the same official common address as Vasistha Realtors.
In June, an RTI-based investigative report by The Wire and The Cross Current showed that when Sarma was the health minister, the ministry had issued urgent orders for procurement of sanitisers and PPE kits to GRD Pharmaceuticals and Meditime Healthcare respectively – owned by the Dhanukas – at an exorbitant rate.
Sarma’s wife Riniki and his father Kailash Nath Sarma were directors of another company called Padamavati Traders (India) Pvt Ltd in 2005. Like with RBS Realtors (now Vasitha Realtors), Ashok Dhanuka became its full-time director after Sarma’s wife and father quit their positions as directors. Ashok Dhanuka’s son, Ghanshyam Dhanuka, became a director in that company in 2013. As per Sarma’s election affidavit, filed before the 2016 assembly elections, Riniki is shown to have borrowed Rs 10 lakh from Padamavati Traders.
Significantly, the cash found with the Jharkhand MLAs was in Kolkata, where several shell companies with hawala money are said to operating, especially in the Burra Bazar area.
The Wire’s investigation in June had shown that the Dhanuka-run Padamavati Traders and Sarma family’s Vasistha Realtors (earlier RBS Realtors) share at least six common investors which could be traced to Kolkata’s Burra Bazar.
Some of the investors have common addresses, as per the ministry’s records. In June, when The Wire visited some of the addresses where Padamavati Traders and Vasistha Realtors told the corporate affairs ministry the investors were based, there was no semblance of any office but just dingy rooms dealing with garments, etc. with people’s movement duly monitored.
As per the ministry’s records, when Sarma’s wife was a director in RBS Realtors, 17 Kolkata-based investors (from Burra Bazar) had pumped in more than Rs 2 crore into the company. In Padamavati Traders (India) too, when Sarma’s wife and father were directors, 14 Kolkata-based investors contributed a total of Rs 3.5 crore. Those shares eventually got transferred to the Sarma family.
As stated earlier, once the Sarma family quit the directors’ position, Ashok Dhanuka took over, similar to him taking over the day Sarma’s wife had quit the director’s position at RBS Realtors (now Vasistha Realtors) and continues to be so.