On Tuesday, 7 July, the Kerala government removed senior IAS officer M Sivasankar from his post as Secretary to the Kerala Chief Minister’s Office, over his connection to one of the key accused in the the gold smuggling case that came to light on Sunday.
Sivasankar, who also holds the post of IT Secretary in Kerala, had appointed Swapna Suresh, who is now absconding, as an operations manager at Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITL), which falls under the IT department of the state. Sivasankar is chairman of KSITL.
Opposition parties in Kerala have accused Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who heads the Left Democratic Front government in the state, of being involved in the gold smuggling racket as well because of the Sivasankar connection. Vijayan has denied the allegations, saying that Suresh was appointed to KSITL without his knowledge.
But what is this controversy about? How did the smuggling racket come to light? And what are the accused alleged to have done?
HOW DID THE GOLD SMUGGLING COME TO LIGHT?
On Sunday, 5 July, customs officials at Thiruvananthapuram airport seized gold weighing over 30 kg from diplomatic cargo addressed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Kerala. The officials caught Sarith Nair, a former public relations officer at the Consulate, using a fake ID to collect the baggage with the smuggled gold, trying to pass himself off as someone who could enjoy diplomatic immunity with respect to the cargo.
Diplomatic cargo normally cannot be checked by customs officials, but the customs officials had received sanction from the government to examine the cargo here, Customs Commissioner Sumith Kumar told the press, according to the Indian Express. The customs officials were tipped off that gold might be hidden in the cargo, and suspect that there is a ‘well-organised syndicate’ behind the smuggling racket, the newspaper reported.
The gold was smuggled in cylindrical form inside steel pipes, door locks, air compressors and iron rods, according to The News Minute, and was addressed to an officer at the Consulate. It is valued at around Rs 15 crore, according to customs officials.
WHAT ROLE IS SWAPNA SURESH SUPPOSED TO HAVE PLAYED IN THE SMUGGLING RACKET?
During his interrogation by the customs officials, Sarith Nair is reported to have said he was friends with Swapna Suresh, and that she was involved in the gold smuggling operations. Suresh had also worked at the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, though both of them had stopped being employees around 6 months ago.
According to Malayala Manorama, customs officials say it is Suresh who forged the documents that would allow them to claim diplomatic immunity over the cargo. Suresh has been in the crosshairs of investigating agencies prior to this as well, including a crime branch investigation into a false case against an Air India employee, LS Shibu, during her time as a trainer with Air India Sats, the airport services company.
In that case as well, she was suspected of being involved in forgery, reports Manorama – which also claims that the police were put under pressure to release her during their interrogation of her.
Manorama also reports that the tip-off about the gold smuggling came from their investigation of another case where Suresh is reported to be involved. Actress Shamna Kasim had filed a complaint of extortion, during the investigation of which one of the accused had mentioned a ‘deal woman’ who was involved in gold smuggling.
HOW IS THE KERALA GOVT SUPPOSED TO BE INVOLVED IN THE CASE?
M Sivasankar, the Kerala IT Secretary who has just been removed from his post as CMO Secretary, is the connection between Swapna Suresh and the Kerala government.
Sivasankar appointed Suresh as operations manager at the KSITL Space Park after she left the UAE Consulate. According to a statement by the residents association of Suresh’s flat in Thiruvananthapuram to the press, he was a regular visitor there.
Suresh was removed from her post when her role came to light, and she is now absconding.
Sivasankar was removed from his position as Secretary to the CMO on Tuesday, replaced by IAS officer Mir Muhammad Ali. The Congress leader of opposition in the state, Ramesh Chennithala, is reported by the Indian Express to have said the Chief Minister has only done this because “he fears the case will reach him too”. Demanding a CBI probe in the case, Chennithala argued that if a secretary of a minister takes a decision, the minster is responsible for the same.
CM Pinarayi Vijayan has refuted any connection to the case and said he was not aware of the circumstances of Suresh’s appointment. BJP state president K Surendran dismissed this denial, noting how this was similar to the solar scandal during the previous Congress-led government, when the then CM Oommen Chandy had said he did not know the main accused.
Surendran also posted a photograph from an event in 2017 where Suresh can be seen standing alongside Vijayan. Supporters of the chief minister have argued that this photograph doesn’t prove the CM knew her, as it was an official event involving the UAE, at a time when Suresh was an employee at its consulate.
Connect the dots and it leads you to the @vijayanpinarayi's office. Swapna Suresh has powerful patrons. A crime of this nature cannot be executed without the support of higher ups. pic.twitter.com/wOSHjLTIMA— K Surendran (@surendranbjp) July 6, 2020
(With inputs from The Indian Express and Malayala Manorama.)
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