Scam prone? Here are cases and probes from Himanta Biswa Sarma's past
Assam CM, in his career spanning over three decades, has seen his name crop up in several investigations and allegations
Barely a couple of months before Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the BJP, in August 2015, the party had released a booklet accusing him of being a “key suspect” in a multi-crore Louis Berger scam.
In a bizarre coincidence, Sarma’s entry into the Congress party from the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1991, too, was preceded by allegations of his involvement in twin cases of extortion and murder.The entry was considered a major political shift as the AASU being the fountainhead of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was a strong critic of the Congress at that point of time. It was alleged that he got associated with the then-ruling party to get protection. The allegation was repeated in 2015 in the wake of his joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amid corruption charges.In his eventful political career spanning over three decades, the 54-old Sarma — the current Chief Minister of Assam — has always been in the eye of a storm, with his name figuring in multiple scams and offences. The ongoing subsidy and land scam row in the state is just an addition to that long list.
But nothing has been proved against him so far. Like an expert oarsman, he has been successful in navigating the choppy waters of politics, allaying all allegations.
The allegation this time is that the Chief Minister’s wife Riniki Bhuyan Sharma, who is also chairperson-cum managing director of the media group the Pride East Entertainments Pvt Ltd, got undue benefits of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana and land deals from the Assam government. Her company was the alleged beneficiary of Rs 10 crore subsidy to set up a food processing unit in the state’s Nagaon district. The company is further accused of acquiring two parcels of agricultural land at Kaliabor Dargaji village in Nagaon district violating the state’s land ceiling laws.
Enthused by the twin row, the Congress is even contemplating to revive the old case against Sarma through a public interest litigation (PIL). “All the cases against him (Sarma) can be reopened for investigation through a PIL,” said lawyer-cum politician RP Sharma of the Congress.
A Congress spokesperson, Netra Ranjan Choudhury, said the party was exploring the possibility. “We need to have solid justification and supporting data to make the move. In fact, I am keen to file it (the PIL) in my individual capacity,” he added.
It is to be seen whether like in the past, Sarma could remain unscathed from the latest allegations involving his wife.
Nonetheless, a low-down of past cases against Sarma would be a worthwhile exercise in an attempt to understand the likely political ramification of the current controversy.
Litany of cases and allegations
1. Extortion bid: Two cases were registered at Chandmari police station (case number 77/1991) and Panbazar police station (case number 15/1991) against Sarma. The Chandmari police station case was related to an alleged extortion bid by Sarma on behalf of ULFA. He was allegedly “caught red-handed” while collecting Rs 10 lakh as extortion money on behalf of the banned terrorist outfit. For this offence, he was booked under TADA on March 28, 1991.
The Panbazar police station case was also related to extortion for ULFA where Sarma allegedly collected Rs 7 lakh for the outfit from city-based businessmen. For the offence he was booked under TADA on January 12, 1991 and was also remanded in police custody for 15 days.
2. Arms Act cases: In the Panbazar police station case, certain sections under Arms Act were also slapped because the police allegedly recovered a revolver and 25 rounds of ammunition, reportedly hidden by Sarma behind a kitchen at a Cotton College hostel.
3. TADAcases On August 19, 2009, the Gauhati High Court directed the state government to furnish the records of two TADA cases registered against Himanta, then health and family welfare minister. A division bench of the high court, comprising acting Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey, passed the order after hearing a PIL filed by a former BJP MP from Bihar, Sukhdeo Paswan, seeking reopening of the two cases against Sarma.
Paswan in his PIL filed on August 14 also made a prayer before the court seeking a CBI probe or an investigation by an independent agency into the matter. As the case diaries of two cases went missing, the Gauhati High Court acquitted Sarma.
4. Murder allegation: A popular and soft-spoken Congress leader, Manabendra Sarma, was killed in broad daylight in February 1991. Sarma’s name cropped up in connection with the murder. Former Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta reiterated at a press conference in 2019 that Sarma was suspended from the AASU because of his alleged involvement in the murder and that to save himself Sarma had sought help from then Congress chief minister Hiteswar Saikia. In this case, too, Sarma got acquittal from the court.
5. Louis Berger case: A graft case came to light in July 2015 when Louis Berger International Inc, a New Jersey-based construction management company, told a US court that it had bribed government officials in India to win a project management consultancy in a water supply project in Guwahati. The US court documents revealed that the firm and several consortium partners paid bribes of $9,76,639 for two water development projects in Goa and Guwahati.
Sarma’s name figured in the case as he was minister in-charge of Guwahati Development Department that was the nodal department for implementing the water supply project. A CBI investigation in the case failed to make much progress as at least seven important files related to the project had gone missing from the GMDA office in 2011 and they are yet to be recovered.
6. Saradha scam: The Saradha scam It was a major political scam involving several eastern Indian states caused by the collapse of a Ponzi scheme run by the Saradha Group. Mastermind of the scam and Saradha Group chairman Sudipto Sen in his infamous 18-page confessional letter to the CBI named Sarma. “Another high-level person has dramatically cheated me. He is Hemanta (Himanta) Biswa Sarma. For the last six months, apart from one and a half years, he has taken from us not less than (Rs) 3 crore, all by cash, and some vouchers have been signed by his office executives by some other means (sic)”, Sen wrote on page 11 of the letter.
In August 2014, the CBI raided Sarma’s house in Guwahati and the office of News Live, an Assamese news channel owned by his wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma. It grilled Sarma for about eight hours in connection with the scam in November 2014. News reports then said he was accused of receiving Rs 20 lakh every month from Sen in order to help him run his business in the state without any hassles. Calling it a political conspiracy, Sarma vowed not to contest the next assembly elections till his name was cleared.
In August 2015, Sarma joined the BJP. Since then, the investigating agency did not summon him in the case.
7. Terror funding scam: Sarma’s name also figured in the Rs 1,000-crore terror funding scam in North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC) in 2009. It was alleged that the fund provided by the Social Welfare, Health and Family Welfare Department had been siphoned off by the political leaders and officers of the Autonomous Council.
The NIA and CBI, which have been entrusted to probe into the cases, accused Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, who were the leaders of now-disbanded militant group Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J), former chief executive member of NCHAC, Mohit Hojai, and a social welfare department officer, RH Khan, in the case along with a lot of businessmen and contractors. The Health and Family Welfare Department was, however, kept out of the purview of the NIA/CBI inquiry much to the relief of Sarma in the case. Sarma was the health minister at that time.
8. PPE kits scam: Sarma’s wife’s company, JCB Industries, was allegedly granted an urgent work order to supply PPE kits at the rate of Rs 990 each by the health department in 2020. Sarma was heading the department at that time as the health minister. JCB Industries allegedly supplied only a fraction of what it was supposed to supply to the health department as per the ‘urgent supply order’. The firm that had bagged the supply order from the health ministry did not possess prior experience of supplying medical equipment or gear. Sarma and his wife denied the allegations.
9. Flyover scam: A flyover was inaugurated by chief minister Sarma in Guwahati on November 4, 2021. For only the inaugural ceremony a whopping Rs 45 lakh was allegedly spent. The allegation is that the tender for the inauguration programme was invited almost five months after the flyover was officially inaugurated and the work order was given to the contractor after seven months.
The firm which was given the contract was also reportedly linked to Sarma’s family. The tender advertisement was published in local dailies on March 9, 2022 – more than four months after the event on November 5, 2021. Two Guwahati-based business houses – M/s JMK Construction and Supplier and Dreams A-Maze – and a contractor, Anjan Sarma, participated in the bidding. In a strange coincidence, the address cited by all three bidders was from the same area – Kamakhya Dham, Guwahati. The PWD granted the post-dated work to M/S Dream A-Maze. The firm is owned by Guwahati-based businessman Bhaskar Sarma.