Nabbed by the `black cat’, instead…

By rahnuma ahmed

The so-called ‘black cat’ which the railway minister Suranjit Sengupta had promised to nab after his appointment in November 2011, seems to have nabbed him instead.

Tall promises made by the veteran parliamentarian, who had become a cabinet minister for the first time in a political career that spanned more than half a century — now lie exposed as hollow. After a mere less-than-five-months in office.
The “black” cat (like “black” money, “black”mail) — a metaphor born of racialised cultural ideas, has struck back. Taken revenge. Publicly.
As `Railwaygate’ scam unfolds, propaganda agents of the government — including top-ranking ministers — have made frantic attempts to disentangle the government’s image from the skeins of financial corruption and bribery which bedevil it. But not only have all attempts at resuscitation failed, each one has led to increased suspicion in its wake, has helped raise more questions than answered, thereby ensnarling the government further. Fingers caught in the till have not only remained unextricated, but frozen — as in ‘caught in the act’ — beneath swathes of inconsistencies, lies and deceit.
The latest scam story has possibly inflicted the greatest damage, leaving the government’s 2008 electoral pledge of fighting against coruption in shambles. In utter disrepute.
For how often is a minister’s APS, accompanied by two senior officials, discovered with a bag stuffed with 7 million takas in cash in the middle of the night (April 9-10, 2012)? Reportedly on their way to the minister’s house, with the APS’s personal car bearing the lawmaker’s sticker? How often does one hear that the driver had deliberately driven into the Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB) Headquarters in Pilkhana, had pulled up and yelled `bags of black money, stop, thief’? (conflicting press reports exist over whether he’d demanded a share of the loot, or had insisted that unsuccessful job-seekers be returned their bribe money).
How often do such a string of incidents follow? The four, who had been detained — Suranjit’s close aide and political appointee Omar Faruq Talukder, Railway General Manager (East)Yusuf Ali Mridha, Chief security commandant Enamul Huq, and the driver, Ali Azam — were soon released.
Azam, however?(who had belled the cat?) has since, ‘disappeared’. He remains missing. His family is deeply worried. I’m as shocked as everyone else is.
BGB personnel had informed the police, had requested that the four be taken into custody. But the police had declined on the grounds that no case had been filed.
And hence, the three walked out. Sauntered away. With the bag of loot. Free? Scotfree? Faruq tried to brazen it out at first, the money was for his sister’s wedding. But unfortunately, for him, no one bought the story. How had he acquired such a staggering amount? Surely not from legitimate earnings?? Suranjit made matters worse by rushing to his defence. It was Faruq’s personal money. Azam had conspired to abduct and blackmail him.
Faruq was suspended from service only after the the scandal could no longer be contained (on 11th morning).
Press reports, incriminating ones, soon followed. Railway sources divulged that a corrupt nexus existed which included the Railway Sramik League, ministers, lawmakers, ruling party leaders, and a section of corrupt railway officials (a chain of fat cats?). Recruitment had recently begun for 7,500 people, “Tk. 2 lakh to Tk. 5 lakh is being taken from each candidate” (Daily Star, April 12). A nine-member team is entrusted with collecting and delivering the bribe to the GM (Kaler Kantho, April 12). Father-in-law (Mridha) and his son-law (railway divisional engineer Arman Hossain) control the job ‘trade’ and tender bidding ‘trade’ for construction and purchases in the eastern sector (Samokal, April 12). Faruq owns a flat in Dhaka city, has 3 cars at his disposal, is the owner of a 32 lakh taka private car (Samokal, April 12). Security chief Enamul says, the car was headed for the minister’s home (Samokal, April 12). Six other railway officials live in the GM’s bungalow in Chittagong, despite having been allotted houses individually in Dhaka city. ‘The money was raised in the minister’s name’ (Kaler Kantho, April 14).
Suranjit tried first to save his skin by claiming victim status. Vested interests had hatched the plot. They had conspired against him because he was ridding the newly-created Railways ministry of corruption (his famous kalo beral).
Two probe committees were formed, but both have failed to gain the slightest bit of public esteem and confidence, headed as they are by railway ministry officials themselves: joint secretary (administration) is looking into allegations against Mridha, while the minister’s personal secretary is entrusted with investigating Faruq’s involvement.
Suranjit had tried another tack, he had appeared non-committal. Its no big deal, if the situation demands, I will resign immediately (April 12).
But his stance soon changed. There’s no question of resigning, the allegations are not against me. The incident is “motivated.” Dishonest bureaucrats, corrupt contractors and communal forces have ganged up against me (BBC interview, reported in Samokal, April 13).
Resign he did, later. After the prime minister, reportedly “furious” at Suranjit, returned from her three day official visit to Turkey, and hauled him up for a meeting (April 15).
At a jam-packed press conference the next day, Suranjit had the gall to claim that by tendering his resignation he would be making history, “I want to create a unique instance in ?the politics of Bangladesh.” Not many politicians, he added, have the fortune of setting such a stellar example. Cooee.
But there were superior claimants to history-making. Sajeda Chowdhury, presidium member of the Awami League and deputy leader of the House crowed, “Our Prime Minister has created… history [by] taking action [in this] matter, [it has taken us a ] step forward on [the] journey to democracy” (BSS, April 17).
The step towards democracy however, flip-flopped many steps backwards in less than 24 hours when Suranjit returned to the cabinet as “minister without a portfolio.” Rumors abound that Big Brothers across the border have insisted that Suranjit be brought back. If so, it will only serve to inflame the fires further, public anger at border killings, at Tipaimukh dam, transit, takeovers of business enterprises and more, fusing together more forcefully to mark off the present government as one held in clientage to India.
The corruption story has grown knottier with news of Suranjit’s son, Soumen Sengupta, having been awarded a gateway licence worth Taka 50 million by Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). The fees was paid between March 2 and April 2; he received the licence two days after Railway gate broke out. Soumen had worked for an IT firm, drawing a monthly salary of 50,000 takas, hence similar questions arose as they did for Faruq: where did Soumen get the money to pay for the licence? Where does he hope to get the additional 300 million taka needed to set up the telecom company?
Leading members of the opposition, noticeably pleased at the government’s disarray caused by Railway gate, have sat and smirked despite repeated reminders by commentators and analysts (not that we needed much reminding) about Hawa Bhaban, from where the former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s prodigal son Tareque Rahman, known also as the ‘ten percent man,’ had run a shadow government while she had been in power (2001-2006).
The opposition had smirked despite being reminded of the BNP-Jamaat led government’s cabinet ministers, infamous for corruption, Barrister Nazmul Huda, Mirza Abbas, Barrister Aminul Huq, Barrister Moudud Ahmed… Until Ilias Ali, the BNP’s organising secretary went missing in the early hours of Wednesday, April 18.
The BNP’s acting secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam has alleged that the abduction was a diversion tactic, to turn public attention away from the “cash scandal.” Sunday’s nationwide shutdown would be called off if Ilias was produced before the party, and his family. Sheikh Hasina had earlier insisted that Ilias has ‘self-disappeared.’
Since Ilias has remained missing, the BNP has gone ahead with its strike, the first one this year. It has received the support of its allies in the newly-floated 18 party alliance, formed obviously with the national elections looming ahead in 2013.
More than one independent analyst has expressed misgivings about the flurry of events. Is there more to it than meets the eye? Are there hidden forces at work, beyond even the government’s control? If its true, one can only blame the government for having made things exceptionally easy for them.
The Railway gate scam has probably proobably made things easy for the “good governance” folks as well.? For those who, despite the virtual explosion of corruption, financial fraud, ripoffs, bailouts, particularly in the US, persist in displaying an utter failure to think critically. To, not raise questions like, hey, but what went wrong with tackling corruption at home? How could the 2008 crash in the US happen? How come those who were responsible for it, have not only gone scot-free, but have been financially rewarded to boot? How come ordinary American taxpayers who have lost jobs, savings and homes, are now facing higher taxes and spending cuts? And, more crucially, does following the good governance model that you tout for us here, to “improve the climate for business and investments,” to “increase public confidence in government institutions” basically mean creating conditions more conducive for international capital, and not initiate pro-people programmes for the majority (like increased public spending, more subsidies)? For, if it had been the other way round, how could ordinary Americans (the 99%) have gotten ripped-off?
But lacking critical thinking faculties or gumption, or both, we will probably be served ever more roundtables, workshops, seminars, symposiums, press briefings where development experts will expound further on the benefits of good-governance-style anti-corruption, will persist in pontificating on the symptoms of the malaise, remaining persistently blind to its deep-rooted, structural causes. Will refuse to talk back and think independently, because they wouldn’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.
Black or white, nabbing no cat seems easy for those with their hands in some till or the other.
Revised copy. Earlier version published in New Age, Monday, April 23, 2012