Railway Minister Suranjit Sengupta received heavy flak from various quarters over the seizure of Tk 70 lakh from his assistant personal secretary's car Monday night and his handling of the matter afterwards.
The parliamentary body on railway ministry and officials of railway and other ministries alleged that Suranjit took the matter very lightly. They questioned how neutral the two probe committees, formed by the minister, would be when an officer of the same ministry is to investigate his subordinates.
Even the Anti-Corruption Commission joined the crowd yesterday. The graft watchdog said it would launch a probe into the minister's alleged involvement in the incident, reports Channel i, a private TV channel.
Apparently embarrassed, the government and the ruling party leaders are now waiting for the prime minister to return from Turkey and tell them what to do about the scandal.
Meanwhile, the opposition BNP demanded the minister's resignation while the parliamentary body launched a probe into the ministry's handling of tenders over the last three years.
However, the money found in the car is believed to be bribes from railway job seekers.
With Suranjit's assistant personal secretary Omar Faruq Talukder, Railway's General Manager (East) Yusuf Ali Mridha and Divisional Commandant Enamul Huq on board, driver Ali Azam of Faruq's car drove the vehicle into the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) headquarters in the capital around 11:30pm Monday and stopped.
When guards at the gate rushed towards the vehicle as it had entered the BGB headquarters without authorisation, the driver told them there was bribe money stashed in the car. The guards discovered Tk 70 lakh in the car and they detained the four.
The BGB personnel wanted to hand them over to police but police refused to receive them, saying there was no case filed against them. Faruq, Yusuf and Enamul were eventually released but the driver is said to be still in BGB custody.
The Daily Star failed to reach the driver for comments despite repeated attempts on his two mobile phones.
Meanwhile, BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir during a demonstration in the capital against price hike of essentials called for Suranjit's resignation. He said the minister should shoulder the responsibilities of what has happened, reported UNB.
Suranjit, clearly on the back foot, told the press at the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban yesterday that he had asked Faruq and Yusuf not to come to work until further notice.
“This was unwarranted,” Suranjit said, adding, “In a country like ours, this kind of incidents has happened before. This incident has created problems for me. I will face it.”
When the press asked if he had suspended them, he was rather vague and said, “You can think like that if you want.”
However, after the seizure of the money the minister had told a press briefing at Rail Bhaban that Faruq and Yusuf would continue work since they had not been proved guilty of any wrongdoing. He even denied that Enamul was in the car.
Late last night, Suranjit's personal secretary sent a letter to the secretary of the ministry informing him of Faruq's suspension from yesterday morning.
The Daily Star could not reach Suranjit for comments.
Sources in the railway said Rail Sramik League, ministers, lawmakers, ruling party leaders and a section of corrupt railway officials were taking bribes from job seekers. The railway ministry recently started recruitment of 7,500 people.
A senior railway official on condition of anonymity said, “Tk 2 lakh to 5 lakh is being taken from each candidate.”
During the meeting of the parliamentary body on the railway ministry at the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban yesterday, a number of lawmakers came down heavily on the minister over the issue. They even questioned how an APS has a lawmaker's sticker on his personal car.
The parliamentary body yesterday formed a five-member sub-committee headed by lawmaker Shah Alam to probe alleged irregularities in awarding contracts under the ministry's various projects in the last three years.
BNP MP Rehana Akhter Ranu, a member of the parliamentary body, demanded that the government form a judicial probe committee to investigate the source and destination of the money found. She said Suranjit must resign for the sake of impartial investigation.
Rehana said, “We believe the minister's APS and a general manager of railway were taking the money to him [Suranjit], which was bribe in exchange for jobs in the ministry.”
Other members, including a ruling party lawmaker, of the standing committee asked the minister about the alleged corruption in recruiting employees in the ministry.
Suranjit, also a member of the parliamentary body, said such incident was unexpected and he would place the enquiry reports of the two probe committees before the parliamentary body and take actions as per the parliamentary committee's directives.
Suranjit refused Rehana's demand for a judicial probe.
Talking to The Daily Star, several railway officials and employees said the three--Faruk, Mirdha and Enamul--should have been suspended immediately and an independent investigation body should have been formed.
Joint secretary (administration) of the railway ministry Shashi Bhushan Singha was assigned to investigate the involvement of Mirdha while minister's Personal Secretary Akhtaruzzaman was probing the involvement of Faruq.
“How can the minister's PS be assigned to investigate such an incident since the two work together?” an official told The Daily Star at Railway Bhaban yesterday. The officer said an official of the ministry could not probe irregularities of another official of the same ministry.
Yet another official suspected that proper investigation would not be possible by the probe committees. “Officials of other ministries could have easily been engaged in the probe,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Another official said, “There are allegations that many of us are chor [thieves]. This is the proof of that.”
The official said if Railway's General Manager (East) Yusuf Ali Mridha was properly quizzed, everything would be revealed since he knows everything.
Meanwhile, the Railway Bhaban yesterday looked desert since morning as almost no senior officials came to work.
ACC TO PROBE
Anti-Corruption Commission Chairman Ghulam Rahman yesterday said the commission would investigate the allegation of taking bribe by Suranjit.
“There used to be no investigation into any allegation against ministers in the past, but now the graft watchdog will probe,” he said, addressing the concluding ceremony of a training programme for newly-appointed 28 ACC assistant directors, reports UNB.
The ACC chairman also said the commission would also conduct an investigation into the allegations of corruption in the Padma bridge project and against Destiny-2000 Ltd.
GOVT, AL EMBARRASSED
The government and the ruling Awami League were embarrassed by the incident, The Daily Star found out after talking to several leaders and ministers.
However, none agreed to go on the record.
“It is really embarrassing for the government and the party at this time [at the fag end of the government's tenure],” said a minister requesting not to be named. “It is a very sensitive matter…”
The minister said they would discuss the matter with the prime minister upon her return from Turkey on Saturday.
Highly placed government sources said that before her departure for Turkey, the prime minister had asked Suranjit to suspend his APS immediately.
Awami League Deputy Office Secretary Mrinal Kanti Das, however, said there might be a conspiracy behind the incident. It could have been staged to disgrace the government.