JAMMU: Two-time Lok Sabha member and three-time MLA in Jammu and Kashmir Lal Singh was formally arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) from a house in Chowadi locality on the outskirts of Jammu city on Tuesday evening.
Former Jammu and Kashmir minister was arrested hours after a Special Anti-Corruption Court dismissed his anticipatory bail application in a money laundering case, officials connected with the case said.
Lal Singh was under investigation by the central agency as part of the case lodged under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) against an Educational Trust run by his wife and former MLA Kanta Andotra, the official said.
Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Party chairman, Lal Singh was arrested from a house in the Chowadi area of Sainik Colony, on the outskirts of Jammu city in the evening, an official said.
The official also said that the former minister tried his best to “dodge” the agency and “evade arrest”.
On hearing the news of Singh’s arrest, a group of his supporters, led by Kanta Andotra, gathered outside the ED office in Narwal and tried to enter but were prevented by CRPF personnel, posted there for security of the office.
Some reports said that Kanta Andotra started crying, asking for permission to meet her husband.
Police reinforcements were rushed to the scene to maintain law and order, officials said.
Lal Singh shifted from the Congress to the BJP in 2014 and was also a minister in the previous PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir which collapsed in June 18, 2018 after the BJP withdrew support to the government.
Three months before the fall of the PDP-BJP government, Lal Singh resigned from the BJP and floated a new political outfit, the DSSP following a controversy over his participation in a rally held in support of the accused in Kathua rape and murder case involving an eight-year-old Nomadic girl in January 2018.
He claimed that his participation was necessitated to “defuse the situation” arising out of rallies being taken out in some Kathua towns in support of the accused.
Lal Singh’s bail application was rejected by the Special Anti-Corruption Court in Jammu, but his wife and their daughter Kranti Singh were granted relief as their interim anticipatory bail was extended till November 30 with a directive to cooperate with the investigation agency without fail.
Special judge Bala Jyoti passed three separate orders after hearing the arguments put forth by Special Public Prosecutor Ashwani Khajuria, appearing for the ED, and advocate Rajesh Kotwal for the applicants.
Lal Singh, his wife and their daughter moved separate applications in the Special Court on November 1, 2023, seeking pre-arrest bail for the alleged commission of offences under the PMLA. The court had then granted them interim bail and sought a detailed response from the ED.
Lal Singh was interrogated by the ED on Saturday and Monday. Scores of his supporters led by his wife held protests outside the agency headquarters on both days and against the BJP, claiming that he was being framed deliberately in the case.
In October, the ED had conducted searches in Jammu and its adjoining areas as part of the money laundering probe against the Educational Trust of Kanta Andotra and a former government official in connection with alleged irregularities in land purchase to set up the trust.
The central agency had raided about eight locations in Jammu and Kathua and Pathankot in neighbouring Punjab on October 17 in the case against the RB Educational Trust, its chairperson and Ravinder Singh, a former revenue official.
The money laundering case stems from an October 2021 charge sheet filed by the CBI in this case which alleged criminal connivance in the acquisition of land between January 4 and January 7, 2011, without mentioning details in respect of violation of the ceiling limit of 100 standard Kanals imposed under Section 14 of the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act, 1976, thereby giving undue pecuniary advantage to Trust.
Based on this, the Trust acquired multiple pieces of land of about 329 Kanals through three gift deeds executed on January 5 and January 7, 2011, the CBI charge sheet claimed.
Agreeing with the arguments of SPP Khujuria, the judge said, “Having heard and regard to the nature of allegations and gravity of the accusation and stage of investigation, to my mind the investigating agency must be given sufficient time in conducting an analyzed and effective investigation.”
“Thus in view of the above, said applicant/petitioner (Lal Singh) is no more entitled to concession of bail at this stage as the same would hamper the ongoing investigation. It must be reminded that pre-arrest bail was granted to the applicant for a limited period on certain conditions including extension of co-operation to the investigating agency,” the 10-page order read.
The Special Court said the PMLA gives unfettered powers to the ED for search, seizure and investigation as “evil of money laundering is a curse and has its diverse impact on the society and its citizens. Money laundering is a serious threat not only to the financial system of our country but also to the global economy at large which is required to be dealt sternly”.
Dismissing the bail application of the former minister, the judge said the allegations being grave and serious in nature against the petitioner, this court is not inclined to grant privilege of bail which stands rejected being devoid of any legal force at this stage.
With regard to the application moved by Kanta Andotra, the court said the petitioner already is on absolute bail in the CBI charge sheet which is the fountainhead of the predicate offence.
“Besides PMLA terms can be eased for illness and for women…the (interim) bail is extended till November 30 as investigation is still going on and petitioner is directed to co-operate with the investigating agency without any fail,” the order said.
On the same basis, the court extended the interim bail of their daughter Kranti Singh, one of the trustees of the Educational Trust, till November 30 with directions not to flout conditions of the bail that included cooperating with the investigating agency without any fail.
ED Questioning and protests
Singh appeared before the ED officials in Jammu on Saturday at 10.00 AM and was allowed to leave the agency’s office in the late evening.
His questioning triggered protests by his supporters outside the ED office in Jammu, who alleged that this was a vindictive action against him at the behest of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) to force him to join the party as well as to stop him from contesting 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Shouting slogans “Jai Duggar, Jai Dogra”, “Dogra Ekta Zindabad” “Choudhary Lal Singh Zindabad”, his supporters gathered outside the ED office in Jammu and held protests against what they called was vindictive action and a political witch-hunt against their leader. Protests continued throughout the day and dispersed only after Lal Singh was allowed to leave the ED’s office.
“This is just a pressure tactic to blackmail him to join BJP. This case will vanish if he switches over to BJP,” Dr Haridutt Shishu, general secretary of Lal Singh-led DSSP told some newspersons.
He said the questioning of Singh is part of the BJP’s “browbeating tactics” to harass candidates who will pose a threat to the party in 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
He said the Jammu and Kashmir High Court has already stayed the re-investigation of the case by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
It may be recalled that on April 19, 2023, the high court stayed the order of the trial court directing re-investigation of the case.
Lal Singh’s wife, Kanta Andotra, a former MLA, said that BJP is harassing her husband due to fear of their defeat in Lok Sabha polls. “Why are they harassing him? He is neither chairperson nor a trustee of the RB Educational Trust,” she told mediapersons outside ED office on Saturday.
ED Statement on Lal Singh
On October 18, 2023, the ED, in an official handout, said that it has started investigation in the case on the basis of an FIR and subsequent chargesheet filed by the CBI against the RB Educational Trust at Jammu, Ajay Singh, who was the then District Collector at Kathua and other revenue officers.
The RB Educational Trust is headed by Lal Singh’s wife Kanta Andotra, a former MLA.
The ED had claimed that its investigation revealed that the Trust through its chairperson Kanta Andotra, Lal Singh and other trustees in connivance with officials of Revenue Department had “entered into criminal conspiracy during the period 2011 for wrongful issuance of ‘fards’ so as to retain lands to the extent of more than 328 Kanals in favor of her trust beyond the permissible limit of 100 standard Kanals.”
Lal Singh quit BJP to form DSSP
A former minister and two-time MP, Lal Singh has been stirring controversies on different occasions in the past. He was forced to resign as minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government in April 2018 after uproar over his participation in a rally in support of the accused in the Kathua gang rape and murder of an 8-year tribal girl. He resigned from the BJP in 2019 and launched his own political outfit, the Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Party (DSSP).
After reading down of the Article 370 and reorganisation of J&K, he has become a bitter critic of BJP and its policies in Jammu and Kashmir.
He is seeking special constitutional safeguards for Jammuities under Article 371 of the Constitution of India.
Lal Singh started his political career as a student. He was thrice elected as MLA from Basholi assembly segment of Kathua.
He won Lok Sabha elections from Kathua-Udhampur Lok Sabha seat in 2004 and 2019 on Congress ticket. After being denied LS ticket by Congress in 2014, Singh joined the BJP ahead of J&K Assembly polls in 2014. He won the 2014 Assembly election on BJP ticket and was minister in PDP-BJP coalition.
ED’s questioning of other J&K politicians
In the past four years, the ED has also questioned several other politicians and their relatives in J&K.
National Conference president and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who is also head of the Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), has been questioned multiple times by the ED since 2019 in connection with misusing funds of Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA).
Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti and her mother Gulshan Nazir were also questioned by the ED in 2021 in connection with an alleged money laundering case.
ED likely to attach assets of Lal Singh
The Enforcement Directorate is completing legal formalities for attachment of some assets of Lal Singh under PMLA case registered against him in land dispute at RB Educational Trust Kathua.
“The ED is reportedly awaiting certain replies from the office of the Deputy Commissioner Kathua pertaining to the land,” officials connected with the case said, adding that the process for attachment of the property has been initiated.
A local news gathering agency said that only those assets, or part of the assets, will be attached which are established as proceeds of an illegal act.