Every time cops in Kolkata came to arrest Shibaji Panja, he calmly walked into the waiting Black Maria, made a few headlines and then returned to his business as if nothing had happened. His popular expression was “set kore firchhi (will return on settling this issue)”. It actually suggested there was nothing in Bengal he could not settle over cash and liquor.
He had been in the business for decades and the powers that ruled the state had taught him how quickly the rich and powerful could wriggle off the hook. There was little reason to think this case would be any different.
As it turned out, Panja and his men were wrong.
This time, a consortium of banks led by the state-owned Canara Bank joined hands with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for a water-tight case to prove Panja, and directors of Kolkata-based RP Info System did not return an estimated Rs 515 crore—the figure could be higher with interest—the company had borrowed from the banks on the basis of forged stocks and debtors’ statements and then wilfully defaulted on amount by diverting it elsewhere. Panja and his directors—Kaustuv Ray, Vinay Bafna and Debnath Pal—and a handful of Canara Bank officials who helped the four musketeers take loans from bank without collaterals are in serious trouble.
“We have filed an FIR and arrests will be made soon,” an official spokesperson of the country’s biggest investigating agency said in Delhi. The spokesperson said the case was like “a can of worms” and could also lead CBI to other, similar cases in state-owned banks in Kolkata.
No one is responding from RP Info Systems, repeated phone calls and emails went unanswered. Worse, Panja claimed he no longer represented the company. It is reliably learnt that the CBI is pushing for a lookout notice for Panja, who was once called the Man Friday of Mamata Banerjee, when she swept to power in 2011, by none other than author Shobhaa De in a piece in the Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata. Panja, who was once close to the Left Front, was then a regular at all top Trinamool Congress meetings. Newspapers even carried photographs of Panja holding an umbrella over Banerjee. Soon after the recent CBI raid, social media was full of photographs of Panja having lunch with Mamata, the CM being served by her secretary.
Controversies are not new to Panja, who was once arrested by the Delhi police and booked by the CBI in connection with loan frauds. Interestingly, Panja was detained by the West Bengal police at the airport while returning from Dhaka in February 2015 on the basis of a lookout circular issued by Delhi police’s Economic Offences Wing (EoW). Panja, who had accompanied Banerjee as a “non-official delegate” on a three-day visit to Bangladesh, eventually set himself free by submitting to the cops reports of his interactions with IDBI bank, which had levelled a Rs 180 crore fraud charge. But that eventually proved to be a bagful of lies. In June 2015, the CBI booked Panja and RP Info Systems, along with other company directors in the IDBI fraud. Like the current FIR by CBI, all were named in the June 2015 FIR as well.
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, who was among the first critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after he was seen in a Davos photograph with fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, had at the time distanced herself from Panja, saying that what businessmen in her entourage did was not related to her.
“It has now come back to haunt her. Those arrested grew with patronage from the Left parties, and then Trinamool Congress (TMC). It is an open and shut case,” says Dilip Ghosh, West Bengal BJP president.
Political observers in Kolkata say Panja is a very powerful businessman, with strong roots in TMC. Besides his business of computer hardware, he was also involved in the film industry, and would routinely summon directors and producers to his residence to explain “the TMC point of view”.
“Once, he called ten directors at his residence at 0300 hours to seek support to take over the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EMPA), a trade body of filmmakers. He did not care about the time,” said a top Tollywood source in Kolkata.
On 28 February 2018, the CBI conducted searches at residences and offices of Pal, and residences of Panja, Vinay Bafna and Kaustav Roy, as well as the corporate office of RP Info Systems. CBI officials claimed it has collected documents on the basis of which the company availed of the funds. “The company showed false and fabricated stock/receivable/debtors’ statements, forged drawing power letter etc. It was a loot in broad daylight,” said CBI officials.
The CBI has alleged that “letters of credit (LCs) opened by different member banks of the consortium on the applications of M/S RP Infosystems Ltd started devolving from 2012 onwards due to non-maintenance of funds”…the “company fraudulently did not route the sale proceeds through the loan account and siphoned off the entire amount. The…company also inflated its receivables.” Worse, according o the FIR, some of the purported debtors such as Gail India Ltd, Vincent Electronics (Rourkela) and CEAT Ltd had informed the SBI—one of the consortium banks—that they had no dealings with the company. The consortium also includes Punjab National Bank, which is at the centre of a Rs 12,636 crore alleged loan fraud by diamantaires Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.
Panja’s partner-in-crime, Kaustav Roy is also known as an influential media baron and film producer. He owns Kolkata TV and, of late, has been producing Byomkesh Bakshi detective films. When the CBI came calling, a defiant Roy told his friends he was being hounded because he was perceived to be close to Banerjee. “Nowhere you will hear a filmmaker being arrested in a scam, it only happens in India,” Roy told reporters.
“If such an investigation takes place, I would be happy to cooperate. The IDBI bank is trying to hamper my business,” said Roy.
But what he did not say was, his dues could even double and the CBI had evidence that he, along with others, had submitted forged papers to the banks to acquire loans. A former swimmer, Roy, who was once the personal secretary to Left Front leader Rabin Deb and shaped his business career under the tutelage of Left Front leader Mohammed Salim, eventually changed colours like Panja and started producing desktop and laptop computers under the Chirag brand. Chirag hoardings were all over Kolkata, even outside the Mumbai airport. Roy, who along with Panja, had sat on a hunger strike in Kolkata’s Salt Lake office complex to push the state government buy his computers, had eyes on some big contracts from the Central government and even hired lobbyists for the cause, but nothing happened. Roy, claim many in Kolkata, was also instrumental in pushing out the managers of Hyderabad-based TV9, the original owners of Kolkata TV, with help from TMC goons and then got the state government to acquire stake in the channel.
Now that he could be arrested, an estimated 200 employees of the television channel stare at a bleak future.