Three Months After Kerala Gold Smuggling Incident, NIA Struggles to Establish ‘Terror’ Link

Some media reports said the Islamic State was involved in the gold smuggling, but the NIA has not succeeded in providing any evidence.

Kozhikode: When the National Investigation Agency (NIA) began its probe into the infamous gold smuggling incident in Kerala in July, both the NIA and a section of the media argued that the incident was linked to ‘terrorism’. However, three months after the NIA began its probe, the way the case is being viewed has changed dramatically. It has become a ‘politically sensitive’ case from a ‘terror linked’ one.

While beginning the probe, the NIA had said that the case “amounts to a terrorist act as stated in section 15 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967”. The NIA statement further added that, “… as the initial enquiries have revealed that the proceeds of smuggled gold could be used for financing of terrorism in India, NIA has taken up the investigation of the case”.

The central agency also invoked Sections 16 (punishment for terrorist activities), 17 (funding terrorist activities), and 18 (conspiracy for terrorist activities) of the UAPA in the case.

However, the NIA investigators recently had a tough time at the trial court, which has sought clarification from the agency on the terror charges it invoked in the case. The NIA investigators have so far not succeeded in proving their claim that the case is related to terrorism.

Now, according to reports, the NIA seems to be changing its arguments on the ‘terror link’ in the case. The NIA argues that gold smuggling itself is a terrorist activity, as it could destabilise the country’s economic security. This is a significant shift from its earlier argument that the smuggled gold was intended to finance terrorism in the country. However, the NIA’s latest argument is also being challenged by some of the accused, who question the lack of the same ‘terror’ allegation in other similar smuggling cases. “After this case was detected in July, around 50kg of gold was seized by the Customs from various airports in Kerala alone. Has NIA registered an FIR in any of those smuggling incidents?” asked a lawyer of a key accused.

Also read: How the Modi Government Has Used – and Dropped – the ‘Terrorism’ Bogey

There are also doubts on whether the NIA was under pressure to portray this particular case as a case of terrorism from the very beginning. At the initial stage of the probe, some reports had said that the NIA had to invoke the UAPA and terror charges in this case because the agency usually doesn’t probe smuggling cases. “Given the oddity of a smuggling case being handed over to India’s premier counter terror agency, the NIA has also taken pains to justify why it is proving the matter,” the Indian Express had reported.

Agencies more directly linked to financial crimes, like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Customs Department, are already probing the case.

Probe with political purpose?

Even though gold smuggling and its seizure was not rare in the state, the latest incident became particularly controversial for several reasons, such as involvement of a foreign diplomatic mission and the alleged complicity of top state government officials in the crime. Senior IAS officer M. Sivasankar, who was principal secretary of the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, was removed from his post after he faced serious allegations in connection with the case.

However, the NIA probe is also creating political controversies in the state. The state government faced criticism from the opposition parties after the NIA questioned K.T. Jaleel, the state minister for higher education and minority welfare. However, when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) also took over another case in the state, the ruling CPI(M) broke its silence and criticised the BJP for “misusing” the central investigation agencies for political gains. Recently, the CPI(M)’s Kerala state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said that his party “will resist any move by BJP to intervene in Kerala politics using central agencies”.

The allegations raised by the state’s ruling party are serious in nature, particularly given the recent controversies around the actions of the NIA and other central agencies. Kerala remains an impossible task for BJP even after it made inroads to several new states, including the left bastion of Tripura.

With the BJP is being accused of misusing the central investigation agencies for its political gains, there is a growing concern, both within and outside the ruling CPI(M) that the central agencies may be also used to target the state government and help the BJP.

Issues with media coverage

Not only the NIA, a section of news media in the state also contributed to portraying the gold smuggling incident as a terror-linked one.

In Kerala, just like elsewhere in the country, the media debates on the ‘threat’ of Islamic terrorism continue to be problematic, because they are hardly supported by concrete evidence. In Kerala, such media narrative ostensibly suggests that the state is an Islamic terror hub with the help of foreign funding.

For example, in the gold smuggling case, Malayalam Manorama, a leading news organisation in the state, published a report saying that “the intelligence got the information that a terror group called Islamic State is involved in the smugglings to Kerala”. The report further said, “the probe being carried out by the National Investigation Agency (NIA)…is mainly looking at the ‘extremist’ connection of the smuggling”. However, three months after the NIA began its probe and arrests and questioning of several persons, no such connection has emerged.

Also read: Explainer: Here’s How Handing Over UAPA Cases to NIA Affects the Federal System

Kerala witnesses similar media coverage on ‘Islamic terrorism’ with regular intervals. Recently, there was a flood of such reports after the NIA arrested three migrant workers from the state, along with six others in Bengal, on terror charges.

Soon after the arrests, human rights groups, minority organisations, individual researchers and journalists raised questions on the NIA’s version of the arrests.

While a leading human rights group in Bengal alleged that “the NIA could be acting in the political interests of the BJP”, a Muslim youth organisation in Kerala warned the media against “blindly believing NIA versions”. A joint fact-finding team of human rights groups later revealed several issues related to the arrests, including “false media propaganda”.

However, several news reports published in Kerala after the arrests blindly supported the official version. One such report declared that “presence of Al-Qaeda is growing in the state”. Interestingly, there was no follow-up report on this “growing Al-Qaeda presence” in the state.

There are apprehensions that such baseless fear mongering and ‘othering’ of Muslims, and promotion of Islamophobia in different forms, could eventually help the BJP making electoral gains in the state.

A very likely outcome of the ongoing gold smuggling case is it becoming yet another example of how baseless terror allegations are being raised by investigative agencies and sections of media in certain cases. This trend and such allegations have ruined several innocent lives in the recent past, as described in here and here.

Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist based in Kozhikode, Kerala. He can be reached at sabith.muhemmad@gmail.com.