Kerala: Contraband Gold Emerges Biggest Threat to Pinarayi Govt's Popularity

As protests erupt across the state, the LDF's spike in popularity owing to its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak stands diminished.

Kochi: A week ago, Asianet News, a prominent Malayalam television news channel, along with research organisation ‘C fore’ conducted a survey predicting that the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) would get 77-83 seats in the 140-member assembly if elections were conducted immediately.

The survey, criticised by many as untimely, underlined that popularity the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government has risen due to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But just a day or two later, the mood in the state changed, thanks to seizing of 30 kilograms of gold smuggled from Sharjah under the guise of diplomatic baggage to the consulate of the United Arab Emirates in Thiruvananthapuram.

The key accused in the case, Swapnaprabha Suresh or Swapna Suresh, not only had personal ties with one of the top bureaucrats of the state, M. Sivasankar, the Principal Secretary to the chief minister, but she also held the position of the operations manager of the space park project under the information technology department, as employed by an independent contractor.

Sivasankar, who was also the secretary of the information technology department, and Swapnaprabha were immediately removed by the government, but the damage was already done.

Kerala gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair (both in middle) after they were arrested by the National Investigation Agency in Bengaluru, Karnataka, Saturday, July 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

Swapna’s alleged connection with the principal secretary was more than enough for the Congress-led opposition which had been struggling to keep its head over water for long. Protests erupted all over the state, where the United Democratic Front (UDF) and BJP workers defied even those restrictions placed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. They immediately trained their guns on the chief minister, forcing him to remove the principal secretary, who went on leave immediately after.

“As there are allegations raised against Sivasankar in connection with the woman in question in the smuggling case, he has been removed from the post. These allegations against him might not hold legal validity, but since these have been raised in public, it is not right that such a person sits in the CMO,” said Pinarayi Vijayan.

As the opposition and the BJP hit the streets demanding a CBI inquiry into the case, the ruling LDF was not left with any other option but to pass the ball into the Centre’s court. The chief minister wrote a letter to the prime minister requesting him to hand over the investigation to a central agency, which the Centre gleefully accepted. It entrusted the National Investigating Agency with the case.

Not satisfied with this development, the opposition has demanded a CBI enquiry with the activities of the chief minister’s office included in the terms of reference.

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“The Chief Minister’s letter to the centre is just an eyewash. Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF government failed to file even an FIR against the culprits behind the gold smuggling case as they wanted to save the tainted former IT secretary M Sivasankar and the second accused, Swapna Suresh,” said Ramesh Chennithala, the opposition leader.

The BJP state unit President K. Surendran also came down heavily on the state government accusing the chief minister’s office of shielding the culprits. “There is no scope for a probe into the case when Pinarayi Vijayan is continuing as Chief Minister. If he has ethics, he should resign from the post and face a probe into the case,” said Surendran.

The diplomatic angle

The smuggling of gold from a West Asian country is not worthy of a page one story anywhere in India as the quantity of influx of the yellow metal amounts to 1,000 tonnes a year – a quarter more than official figures indicate. A 2019 study by Impact, an international non-government organisation has put India at the heart of a web of the illicit trade of gold, with threads spanning the globe.

This study which holds various economic policies of India responsible for incentivising smuggling and the illicit trade of gold, categorically says that illicit gold entering the country is not only absorbed into the legal market but is also often financed through hawala. The smuggling, through airports in Kerala, has become routine, except for some big catches which attract the attention of the central agencies like the CBI. A case involving a top customs official of the Thiruvananthapuram airport is being investigated by the CBI.

However, this time the case stuck out as a sore thumb because of its sensitive nature since it involved the diplomatic channel. The gold, worth around Rs 15 crore, was camouflaged inside a diplomatic courier and a seize of this nature is the first of its kind in the country. The customs officials were treading cautiously given the immunity that the cargo had under the Geneva Conventions. The baggage, intercepted by the customs officials at the airport on June 30 and opened on July 5 by the customs preventive commissionerate officers, contained 30244.9 grams of 24-carat gold along with some food items sent to Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqri Al Ashmia, the chargé d’affaires of the UAE consulate.

A case was registered on July 5 as it involved the consulate of a friendly country and hence needed the approval from the Ministry of External Affairs. The next day customs arrested a man named P.S. Sarith, who had been the public relations officer of the consulate of the UAE until December 2019. Sarith was to receive the parcel on behalf of the consulate, even though he didn’t work there anymore.

Police personnel produce Sarith, accused in gold smuggling case, at a special court in Kochi, Thursday, July 9, 2020. Photo: PTI

In the remand request submitted in the court, the customs commissionerate categorically states that the bill entry for the cargo claiming Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqiri Al Ashima, the chargé d’affaires of the UAE consulate as consignee had some discrepancies. The supporting documents for the bill claiming benefits of exemption from payment of customs duty were not in the prescribed format under notification 3 of 1957 and were not signed as stipulated under rule 3 (1) of the Foreign Privileged Persons (Regulation of customs privileges) Rules, 1957. There was reason to believe that the goods liable for confiscation were secreted in the said consignment.

This lead to the subsequent enquiry and the arrest of Sarith who, according to the customs, the Charge d’ Affairs of the UAE had ‘used Sarith for odd jobs’, even after his resignation as the PRO of the consulate. “From the evidence gathered so far it appears Swapna Suresh is pivotal member of a gang engaged in smuggling of large quantities of gold to India by defrauding Government agencies and customs department using the cover of diplomatic protection,” the customs commissionerate said in its written submission before the Kerala high court, opposing Swapna’s bail plea.

Even though, the initial documents submitted in the court by customs states that the consular charge d’ affairs was not aware of the contents and shipment of the diplomatic cargo, highly placed sources in the commissionerate maintain that he cannot be left off the hooks without proper inquiry. On the other hand, Swapna Prabha’s bail application holds him responsible for the cargo she had tried to release from the airport. The sensitive nature of the issue has put the central government in a fix, as questioning a foreign diplomat could cause a major embarrassment in the ties between the two countries.

“We cannot call it diplomatic baggage. It’s a personal cargo came for a diplomat. A diplomatic baggage is an official package sent from any country in official manner. Here some person had sent a parcel to a person with diplomatic immunity. On the airway bill it was written diplomatic baggage. The person who came to receive the package was not having requisite papers,” said V. Muraleedharan, the Minister of State for External Affairs. Technically what the minister has maintained is correct and would make questioning the diplomat necessary for the investigating agencies.

“Diplomatic privileges are different for embassies and consulates. Diplomats in the embassies have full immunity against criminal prosecution, but consular officers have immunity only for action carried out in their line of duty. The privileges are subject to good and careful conduct by those who enjoy the privileges. The sending state can even waive immunities and privileges in the case of gross violations of local laws,” said T.P. Sreenivasan, a former diplomat and foreign affairs commentator.

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However, customs, perhaps out of precedence, had been treating it as diplomatic baggage right from the beginning.

“Those trying to create a smokescreen of controversies while the investigation is on by the by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) are aiding the real perpetrators,” CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said.

“It is not a petty matter that a clearing agent, who is a Sangh Parivar trade Unionist, intervened and tried to clear the diplomatic baggage. He also tried to put pressure on the customs officials to send the bag back after realising that the bag won’t be cleared. Now V Muraleedharan is making confusing statements about the diplomatic baggage. This intervention could lead to the master brain and those behind the conspiracy of this gold smuggling case. There is doubt whether Muraleedharan’s statement was to cover up this intervention,” Kodiyeri added.

In the FIR filed in the designated court in Kochi, the National Investigation Agency said that the gold was camouflaged in the diplomatic baggage – not as diplomatic baggage – from UAE. This is exempted from inspection as per the Vienna Convention. The minister of state V. Muraleedharan however did not agree with this.

The CPI(M) is maintaining the stance that the real beneficiaries of the smuggling should be brought to be book and the chief minister’s office has nothing to do with entire the business. On the other hand, the opposition and the BJP are pressing for the chief minister’s resignation, pointing out the proximity Swapna had with the CM’s office, especially with M. Sivsankar. Now the NIA is investigating whether Sivsankar had any involvement in the illegal activities undertaken by Swapna. Sources close to the chief minister indicate that Sivsankar could be suspended pending an inquiry by the state chief secretary.

After the NIA took over the case, it has been sailing on the wonted route with the usual suspects and their known associates on the radar. It is learned that they are focussing on the possible ‘extremist connection to the smuggling’. With Swapnaprabha and Sandeep Nair, the fourth accused arrested, the coming days will be rife with revelations, fresh clues and breaking stories on the media.

Kerala gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair (both in middle) after they were arrested by the National Investigation Agency in Bengaluru, Karnataka, Saturday, July 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

The third accused who is named Fazil Fareed by the investigating agency is yet to be identified. Nothing but his name is known so far. A video of a young man in Dubai involved in the business of gymnasium and fancy car accessories, surfaced in the media, but the man later himself appeared on a TV channel and claimed that he had nothing to do with the case. His clarified that even his name was not Fazil Fareed, but Faisal Farid.

“There are ‘strategic leaks’ happening as usual from the agencies, a couple of days back, we got a story from our reporter that the smuggled ‘diplomatic ‘baggage contained instructions for the distribution of the gold as well, and it suggested some extremist outfits based in Hyderabad. There is no such a thing in any customs documents, submitted in the court, yet the reporters are getting these ‘information’ from ‘sources,” said a top editor of a popular Malayalam television news channel. “This time I managed to halt it, but with the mounting pressure for TRPs, it won’t be possible every time,” he added.

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“The ‘non-stop media coverage’ as always stoops to new low every time a woman is being accused of. This is nothing but another criminal activity. Swapnaprabha should be punished if found guilty but, the media is focusing on her as a sexual object and thereby letting the big fish get away,” said C S Chandrika, a Malayalam author and researcher.

Interestingly all the political parties in Kerala welcomed the NIA investigation, which seems kind of unusual for many, though the opposition parties demand an additional CBI enquiry including the chief minister’s office in its purview. Only a few political commentators are wary of the control the centre has on an NIA investigation.

BJP workers during a protest against Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair, accused in Kerala gold smuggling case, in Kochi, Sunday, July 12, 2020. Photo: PTI

“The way the Congress is refusing to even acknowledge (the fourth accused) Sandeep Nair’s affinity to BJP shows how dangerously clueless the party is. The leaders of UDF should realise this: when the Centre weaponises this NIA investigation against the state, they would want to target two groups of people — the Communists and the Muslims of Kerala. By targeting the Communists on this, and by closing their eyes to the Sangh Parivar’s doings, the Congress is playing with fire. The BJP in Kerala is already insidiously alleging that the gold smuggling could have funded anti-CAA agitations” said Charmy Harikrishnan, a Delhi based journalist and political commentator.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.