M. Sivasankar has been removed as principal secretary to Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan in connection with a gold smuggling case | File photo: ANI
M. Sivasankar has been removed as principal secretary to Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan in connection with a gold smuggling case | File photo: ANI
Text Size:

Kochi: The gold smuggling ring that was discovered in Kerala Monday has taken its first bureaucratic wicket, so to speak. M. Sivasankar, principal secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan as well as principal secretary IT, has been removed for his alleged association with Swapna Suresh, who is accused of being the key figure in the operation.

Sivasankar has now proceeded on leave and also been replaced as IT secretary.

The smuggling racket came to light Monday at Thiruvananthapuram international airport when 30 kg of gold bars (worth around Rs 15 crore) were apprehended in a diplomatic bag intended for the UAE Consulate. The details came from a former PRO of the Consulate, Sarith Kumar, who was arrested and remanded to Customs custody by the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate (Economic Offence), Ernakulam.

It emerged from Sarith’s questioning that Swapna Suresh, his former colleague at the UAE Consulate, was at the centre of this smuggling ring, and that this wasn’t the first consignment that had come into Kerala this way. Swapna, operations manager at the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited, was then sacked.

Then, it emerged that she had close ties to Sivasankar, who was allegedly a frequent caller at her apartment, followed by details about the special status she enjoyed within Kerala’s corridors of power. It also came to light that protocol was not followed in her appointment to the KSITIL, despite a pending crime branch investigation against her for allegedly framing an employee of Air India’s ground handling crew in a sexual harassment case. Swapna is still absconding.

All this has resulted in extreme political pressure on CM Pinarayi Vijayan. The leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, has written to PM Narendra Modi asking for his intervention, despite the BJP being a common enemy of the UDF and the ruling Left Democratic Front in Kerala.

The UAE Embassy in India issued a statement condemning the attempted use of diplomatic channels for smuggling, promised full cooperation with Customs authorities and urged stringent action.

We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.

Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Also read: Gold smuggling on the rise as high prices, higher taxes boost appeal of the yellow metal


Modus operandi

No official details have yet emerged on the modus operandi used for the smuggling operation, but there is much speculation.

One version doing the rounds is that Customs were alerted on 2 July by regular smuggling cartels, which were bypassed for the new operation through the diplomatic route. However, sources familiar with the case debunked this, saying Customs officers were riled by Sarith ticking them off for delaying clearance and approaching them with a letter from the UAE Consulate to release the consignment, which they refused to.

It is also understood that they may have scanned the consignment, declared to be food items, but found the presence of metal.

As the consignment enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Customs wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs, once they got the go-ahead, opened the luggage in the presence of a Consulate representative and found 30.24 kg gold hidden inside.

Swapna Suresh, the woman allegedly at the centre of the gold smuggling ring in Kerala | File photo: ANI
Swapna Suresh, the woman allegedly at the centre of the gold smuggling ring in Kerala | File photo: ANI

The operation was allegedly centred around Swapna, who was raised in Abu Dhabi, where her father worked. She came to Thiruvananthapuram to work with a travel agency, before joining Air India SATS, where she was fired for allegedly framing another employee in a sexual harassment case. Criminal proceedings are on against her.

She then returned to Abu Dhabi and joined the staff of UAE Consulate General as executive secretary, and during this tenure, she is understood to have got familiar with the who’s who in politics and civil services. Her proficiency in speaking Arabic helped her associate with dignitaries from West Asia and Kerala, and later, she was appointed operations manager in the KSITIL, under the IT department where Sivasankar was the top official. She allegedly had direct access to the Chief Minister’s Office.

Opposition’s attack on the LDF govt

Chennithala went hammer and tongs at the CM Monday when the smuggling racket emerged, and has now taken his attack to the next level by writing to PM Modi seeking central intervention.

“I write with utmost concern at the misuse of the diplomatic immunity of the UAE Consulate for the purpose of smuggling gold involving international cartels with the collusion of officials working under the government of Kerala with deep-rooted connections with decision-makers at the office of Chief Minister of Kerala…” Chennithala wrote.

“The main accused Swapna Suresh has been appointed by the government of Kerala, disregarding reports of the state intelligence against her and notwithstanding an investigation against her. It proves her deep-rooted links with the power centres at the office of the Chief Minister of Kerala… In this context, I request an investigation into the matter by agencies like CBI and Enforcement Directorate,” he said.

Kerala Congress chief Mullapally Ramachandran went a step further, requesting the PM not to allow a “whitewash” to save Pinarayi Vijayan. The Congress is planning a series of agitations, despite the Covid-19 situation.

Former CM Oommen Chandy, also of the Congress was terse in his response, saying he was a believer in god, and the truth would emerge sooner or later. He said the case warranted investigation by the CBI.

BJP state president K. Surendran, meanwhile, is convinced the issue will not end with the removal of Sivasankar as the principal secretary to the CM; he has alleged others in the LDF government had ties with Swapna.

However, state CPI(M) secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the party was all for a CBI inquiry, as there was “nothing to hide”.

UAE Embassy statement

The UAE Embassy in India said it “utterly condemns the attempted misuse of diplomatic channels by an individual engaged in smuggling activity”.

“The Embassy firmly rejects such acts and unequivocally affirms that the mission and its diplomatic staff had no role in this matter,” it said in a statement released Tuesday.

“Initial inquiries conducted by the mission revealed that a former locally hired employee of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram was responsible for this act. The employee in question was fired for misconduct long preceding this incident. At this time, it appears that this individual exploited his knowledge of the mission’s channels to engage in criminal activity,” it stated.

“The UAE looks forward to fully cooperating with Indian customs authorities to thoroughly investigate this matter and urges stringent legal action against those involved,” it added.


Also read: Covid is not the only reason why Pinarayi Vijayan could make history in Kerala in 2021


 

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it

You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.

You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.

We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.

At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.

This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.

If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.

Support Our Journalism

2 Comments Share Your Views

2 COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here