Observing that conduct of public figures must be beyond reproach, the Calcutta high court on Friday ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a preliminary probe into the Narada sting operation in which some Trinamool Congress leaders were seen allegedly taking money.
The court also directed the CBI to register an FIR, if required, after completion of the preliminary enquiry and initiate formal investigations thereafter.
Reacting to the order, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the Trinamool Congress and her government will challenge it before the Supreme Court. "The TMC will fight the order both politically and legally."
She termed the court order to stop the Kolkata Police investigation into the matter as "unfortunate".
The Opposition parties in West Bengal seized upon the judgement and demanded immediate removal of "tainted" ministers from the state Cabinet.
A division bench comprising acting Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre and Justice T Chakraborti directed the CBI to take possession of all material and devices related to the sting operation within 24 hours and to conclude the preliminary enquiry within another 72 hours.
It said that given the persons against whom allegations have been made are ministers, MPs and other senior leaders from the state, it would be just to direct the CBI, and not a state agency, to conduct a preliminary enquiry.
The court also observed that the CBI was the most suitable agency for conducting an independent probe into the matter.
The Narada sting tapes, which were released to different news organisations before the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal, showed some leaders allegedly taking money.
The division bench noted that a report by the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Chandigarh, had said that the tapes were untampered.
Mathew Samuel, editor of Narada News, had told the court that the recordings were done using an iPhone, which were transferred to a laptop and were then stored in a pendrive. All these devices were taken possession of by a committee set up by the high court.
Three petitions had been filed before the high court seeking independent probe into the sting tapes after examining the genuineness of the recordings.
The division bench also directed the state government to initiate disciplinary action against IPS officer S M H Mirza, who was allegedly seen in one of the tapes.
Concurring with the judgement, Justice Chakraborti observed that corruption is a reprehensible crime and that it shakes the confidence of the people.
Adding to the judgement read by acting Chief Justice Mhatre, the brother judge observed that society at large has a stake in the investigation.
Samuel had told the high court that the tapes made in 2014 were released in March 2016.
Banerjee, who stood by her ministers Subrata Mukherjee, Sovan Chatterjee and Firad Hakim, alleged that the sting operation was staged and the video released at the BJP office.
"Of course our party and government will go to the Supreme Court for justice. If we think we have not got justice, we have the right to go to the higher court," she told reporters.
Opposition parties welcomed the verdict.
"We welcome the verdict of the honourable court. The state government and Trinamool Congrss had tried to hush up the matter by misusing the police administration.
We demand that the tainted ministers should be immediately removed from the cabinet and the TMC MPs purportedly seen taking money in the video should resign," BJP secretary Rahul Sinha said.
Leader of opposition Abdul Mannan said, "I would like to ask the chief minister whether she would help in conducting the CBI investigation or again hit the streets on this issue. The TMC which claims to be a symbol of honesty has turned into a symbol of corruption," Mannan allged.
Communist Party of India-Marxist state secretary Surya Kanta Mishra too welcomed the court's order but hoped that the "political match fixing" between TMC and BJP would not halt the progress of the investigation.
"We welcome the high court verdict to conduct CBI inquiry on the #NaradaString. The TMC-BJP nexus must not be an impediment to conduct proper enquiry," Mishra tweeted.