A West Bengal businessman facing police probe for illegal coal mining operations was shot dead by unidentified people in front an eatery on NH-2 in East Burdwan district on Saturday evening, police said.
The killing of Rajesh Jha, suspected to have been carried out by professional hitmen, took place around 8pm at Shaktigarh, where around 100 sweetmeat shops and eateries cater to thousands of travellers and truckers every day.
“Eyewitnesses said they heard six to eight loud noises and saw some men leaving in a blue car that sped towards Kolkata. Jha was found in the front seat of a white SUV with critical injuries. His associate, Bratin Mukherjee, was lying injured on the back seat,” an East Burdwan district police officer said on condition of anonymity.
The assailants could not be traced till Sunday afternoon.
The SUV’s driver told the police that they were coming from West Burdwan district’s Durgapur city, where Jha lived, and stopped at Shaktigarh to have some snacks.
The SUV is registered in the name of Abdul Latif, a resident of Birbhum district’s Ilambazar and a suspect in the cattle smuggling case that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing, police said.
Although the CBI summoned Latif several times for questioning, he avoided the agency. During hearings in the cattle smuggling case the CBI told the court that Latif is a close associate of Anubrata Mondal, the Birbhum district unit president of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) who is now in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
“We are examining security camera footage recovered from the crime scene because we have received information that Latif, too, was travelling with Jha but in a different car,” a police officer said.
“The scene of crime was crowded but luckily no bystander was injured. Jha was declared dead at the Burdwan Medical College and Hospital. Mukherjee suffered some injuries in the right arm. The driver was not in the vehicle when the assailants opened fire. It is apparent that Jha’s movements were being followed,” the officer said.
The blue hatchback car used in the crime was found abandoned on Saturday night on the old Grand Trunk Road. Police found that it was registered in the name of a south Kolkata resident who sold the vehicle to a well-known used car outlet in September 2022.
Jha was arrested several times by the state police and the criminal investigation department (CID) in the last few years for allegedly running illegal opencast mines and smuggling coal, a state police officer said.
Jha, who was more popular among his associates as ‘Raju’, joined the BJP before the 2021 assembly elections. Days later, he was remanded in the custody of the CID in connection with a coal smuggling case.
Police officers said Jha had several other businesses such as hotels and a shopping complex.
Dilip Dey, president of the BJP’s Asansol unit in West Burdwan, told HT that Jha distanced himself from the party after the 2021 elections.
“Jha severed links with the BJP after the poll results were declared. He had not attended any party event since then,” said Dey.
The Bengal BJP’s efforts to distance itself from Jha did not stop the TMC from targeting the saffron camp.
Bengal tourism minister Babul Supriyo, who was the BJP’s Lok Sabha member from West Burdwan’s Asansol constituency, alleged in a series of tweets that Jha was inducted into the BJP by former state president Dilip Ghosh and national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya.
Supriyo, who joined the TMC in September 2021 after being dropped from the Union government, alleged that BJP leaders used to stay at Jha’s hotel in Durgapur. He claimed in his tweets that Jha’s presence in the party led to differences among state leaders.
Tweeting photos of Jha taking part in BJP campaigns, Supriyo wrote: “Why won’t the CBI and Enforcement Directorate conduct raids on BJP leaders? Why is there no investigation against members of the coal mafia who joined BJP? Only opposition parties face investigations while BJP leaders seem to go through a purification process.”
Dilip Ghosh denied having any personal involvement in Jha’s induction. Talking to the media, Ghosh said: “Jha was a businessman. Many businessmen joined BJP during the elections. We inducted Jha as a worker. We held meetings at his hotel and the party paid the bills. If he was involved in something, then law will take its course.”
Meanwhile, Union minister Anurag Thakur targeted the ruling TMC and chief minister Mamata Banerjee over the law and order situation in the state. “The murder of the BJP worker exposes the state of law and order situation in Bengal where chief minister Mamata Banerjee is in charge of the home department,” he told news agency ANI in Delhi.