On January 20, 2017, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the Indian government’s regulatory body for adoptions, sent a letter to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the West Bengal police’s detective department. The letter said that certain “irregularities” pertaining to a Darjeeling-based destitute women’s shelter and children’s home had come to the notice of CARA, and it urged the Bengal sleuths to initiate a probe. According to sources, CARA’s suspicions were raised when it found that a number of backdated adoption registration forms were being hurriedly uploaded on to its website in a short span of time. CARA’s cyber-crime wing traced it back to a server in the Darjeeling-Jalpaiguri area in north Bengal.
Between the letter’s arrival and February 19, when, after a month-long investigation, the Bengal detectives made their first arrest—of the owner of the shelter and home, Chandana Chakraborty—an unusual meeting took place at the residence of the general secretary of the district BJP women’s wing, Juhi Chowdhury. The January 25 meeting was between Juhi and Chandana, who, it has since emerged, had alleged links with local Trinamool Congress leaders.
The meeting gains salience because Chandana claimed during interrogation that actually it was Juhi who was the kingpin of the adoption racket. Still, the meeting of the two unknown local operators in north Bengal would perhaps have remained a footnote in the CID’s probe report had the names of two top BJP leaders—Rajya Sabha member Roopa Ganguly and Kailash Vijayvargiya—not been dropped by Chandana. CID officials, speaking to Outlook, confirm that Chandana, during questioning, stated that she was taken to Calcutta and New Delhi by Juhi to meet the leaders after January 20 (when, after receiving CARA’s letter, the CID began to act in earnest) to get ‘clearances’ for the orphanage, from where babies were allegedly sold to childless couples in India and abroad. Her allegations raise the question of the BJP leaders’ complicity in the child-trafficking scam. And, equally, that of even deeper intrigue.
In an interview to Outlook, Nishant Pervez, CID’s DIG (Operations), dismisses allegations of political interference laid by those who have been named. “Our arrests are made on the basis of our probe and interrogation of those arrested. We are not guided by political considerations. Some names revealed by the accused happen to be those of politicians. If required, we will call them for questioning too,” he states. Asked specifically if Roopa Ganguly and Vijayvargiya would be questioned, Pervez reiterated his stand.
Local BJP leader Juhi Chowdhury is produced at a court in Jalpaiguri
But Roopa insists such an allegation is “exactly what the Trinamool wants to raise to divert attention from the chit fund scam, in which its leaders are implicated”. Talking to Outlook, she offers a detailed counter-narrative. “Juhi was used in order to frame me. She is young, only 28, and too innocent to know that she was being used.” The film star-turned-politician says Chandana sent Juhi “repeated text messages”, seeking help with her NGO, which she claimed was going through a bad financial patch. Juhi was even told that as the district general secretary of a national party’s women’s wing, it was her duty to help a shelter for women and children, according to Roopa.
The MP’s version relies on Juhi herself being an unwitting, innocent interloper in the drama. “If you see the timing of her first meeting with Chandana (Jan 25), it was directly after the probe against her began. Juhi was always ready to help people and it doesn’t occur to her to find out who she helps. She may have been pressurised by Chandana for meetings with leaders and sought it from us without knowing what the NGO was up to.... she had too much faith in people. She was framed. The state government is using her through the CID to try to get to me.”
Juhi, who absconded soon after Chandana’s arrest, was tracked down and arrested by the police from a relative’s house in Kharibari, in Darjeeling district, near the Nepal border, on February 28.
Through the predictable thicket of allegations and counter-allegations, one indisputable fact emerges: the women’s shelter and the children’s home owned by Chandana Chakraborty were used to run a nefarious trafficking racket.
A narrow gully in a careworn Jalpaiguri neighbourhood called Kerani Para, lined on either side by fetid, open drains and infested with mosquitoes, hits a dead end where stands a three-storey house, the ground floor of which was used by Chandana Chakraborty for her ‘NGO’ work. “The children were cramped into that tiny room,” a neighbour, Rana Bhattacharjee, who owns a shop nearby, tells Outlook, pointing to a high, slit window covered with a net. “Chandana lived on the top floor with her husband, Jibon, an employee of the PWD in Jalpaiguri. While he is a quiet, polite gentleman, his wife was the opposite—quarrelsome and given to throwing her weight around. They have lived here for 20 years, but it was only since the last 10 to 12 years that we started noticing children being brought in and people entering the house at odd hours and even staying over.” Rana says that at times, Chandana would bring out a child or two—of different ages, and invariably emaciated—for a stroll. “She explained that they were given up for adoption by the poor, or born to unwed mothers, or were abandoned. There was even a foreigner child, white-skinned with blue eyes.” Rana says that when Chandana opened the ‘adoption agency’, he had gone to her with his sister, who was childless and wanted to adopt a baby. “It was around 2006. We even bought a form from Chandana for Rs 1,200. But something seemed wrong. She kept haggling with us about money. We instead went to the Missionaries of Charity.”
Rana informs Outlook that he noticed no signs of Chandana’s avowed TMC links. According to other locals, it was her rival factions in the party who tipped off the police detectives about her activities. “We are proud to belong to the Trinamool. It is people like her who ruin our party’s name,” says a local youth.
The CID has found evidence of illegal sale of over 70 children in the past decade. Chandana and her accomplices would allegedly trace poor pregnant women and take them to Ashray, the home for destitute women run by her. The women, after delivery, would be told their babies were stillborn. Forged documents would be made, and the infants spirited away to Bimala Sishugriha, the orphanage. In raids on these places, the police have recovered documents that show names of possible adopters and the names and photographs of children alloted to them. The shelter and the orphanage used to be run by Chandana’s NGO—North Bengal People’s Development Centre.
Juhi’s lawyer, Akhil Biswas, tells Outlook that her defence is built around the premise that she was framed. “There is definitely a political angle,” he says. “Chandana has links with the Trinamool. Her brother is a party worker and is seen with important leaders at rallies. We have enough evidence to suggest that Chandana herself was used as a bait. Even if TMC is not directly associated with the racket, its leaders could see in the scam an opportunity to implicate the BJP. Juhi, being the local BJP general secretary of the Mahila Morcha, is the softest target.”
At Juhi’s Jalpaiguri house, her mother, aunt and sister are listless. “Juhi takes after her father and has followed in his footsteps to join politics. When I was unhappy with his decision to join politics, he told me, ‘Politics doesn’t always have to be dirty.’ He has inculcated these values in my daughters too and Juhi always went out of her way to help people. Ours has been a well-respected family, now our reputation is tarnished. I know Juhi can’t be associated with such a heinous crime,” her mother says. Her sister rushes in with a copy of a degree from the University of California in Berkeley, where Juhi was selected to study as an exchange student.
Whether the family narrative will be borne out is not clear yet. A CID official tells Outlook, “We are not overruling the possibility that she may have been framed. Chandana is a very shrewd player, extremely manipulative.”
However, other CID officials point out that Juhi’s being on the run does not help her case. “We had to track her down to the Nepal border. She may have been advised to go on the run when Chandana named her.... Whoever advised Juhi to flee to Nepal also considered the possibility that if central authorities were approached for permission to arrest her—essential for arresting an Indian in a foreign country—Juhi would come to know through her sources and hide. Whether or not she was involved in the trafficking racket is another matter.”
Juhi’s lawyer argues that if she was not at her home or even in the country, it does not legally imply that she was absconding. “The CID or police did not leave a summons for her. She is a political figure and moves around a lot. She could only be declared absconding if she was contemptuous of a court or police summons, which she was not doing.”
Political parties have been quick to distance themselves from the child trafficking scam. The BJP has removed Juhi from the post of district general secretary of the Mahila Morcha. Two of the seven arrested were part of the district administrations of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri (Moloy Ghosh and Sasmita Ghosh, who were both in charge of child welfare departments in their respective districts, and were supposed to scrutinise activities of all homes and orphanages). This, according to the CID, is a mark of their “politically neutral, decidedly impartial” investigation. A district magistrate was also transferred and demoted.
In the meantime, the families of those arrested wait around the CID camp office at Siliguri’s Pintel village—where the accused in custody are brought at regular intervals for interrogation—for a chance to meet them. “I cannot imagine that he would do that,” says the distraught wife of the doctor who was arrested for allegedly issuing false birth certificates for a cut, among other allegations. She has brought a bag full of freshly-washed shirts and home-cooked food for him. “He is not a criminal. We have a 15-year-old daughter and she is completely shattered. I work at a reputed company. Our family’s reputation is completely destroyed,” she says, holding back tears.
“After years of investigating crime,” a veteran CID official tells Outlook, “it is my observation that almost 99 per cent of crime is not committed by hardened criminals, but by ordinary people who cross that imaginary line called conscience.” To many, it would seem that this is one commodity still at large in this sordid affair.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta