A minor incident of a fire in the second floor of a building within the Secretariat complex in Thiruvananthapuram sparked fierce street demonstrations and a political controversy in Kerala on August 25, with the Congress and BJP alleging that it was a deliberate act aimed at destroying evidence in the sensitive gold smuggling case.
The fire broke out at around 4.45 p.m. at the General Administration (Political) Department, where the State Protocol office is situated. This office has been the focus of much attention in the context of the probe into the gold smuggling case, with the investigation agencies reportedly seeking some files from there as part of the inquiry. With a couple of employees testing positive for COVID-19, only two persons were apparently on duty in the section during the day. Some files and equipment were destroyed before the fire could be doused by the fire force.
A tense situation prevailed for several hours in the main roads around the Secretariat, and BJP State president K. Surendran and his partymen, who were the first on the scene, were arrested as they tried to enter the building and organise a demonstration alleging that it was an act of “sabotage to destroy evidence in the gold smuggling case”. Chief Secretary Viswas Mehta was there, directing everyone, including the media, to clear out of the Secretariat premises.
Later, with the Congress too joining the protests, it was mayhem on the streets, with the police trying to rein in the demonstrators and some Congress MLA led by opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala demanding to inspect the scene of the fire. They were eventually allowed in. But the police had to use water cannons on the demonstrators belonging to the Youth Congress on one side, and the BJP and the Yuva Morcha, on the other. Demonstrations were reported from many other parts of the State too. Ramesh Chennithala, along with other Congress leaders, then visited the Raj Bhavan, “to appraise the Governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, about the situation”, before announcing that the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) will observe August 26 as a black day throughout Kerala. The BJP has said it will organise a Secretariat march and other demonstrations on that day demanding the Chief Minister’s resignation.
The government has ordered an inquiry by a committee headed by the Disaster Management Commissioner, Dr A. Kousigan, as also by the Crime Branch into the incident, while the UDF has demanded that the NIA should inquire into it.
Following the detailed questioning of M. Sivasankar, the former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, by the three agencies probing the gold smuggling case about his involvement with Swapna Suresh, one of the key accused in the case, the UDF and the BJP have raised a series of allegations against the government, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan as the prime target.
Ramesh Chennithala claimed that the circumstances that led to the fire was quite dubious and was “a deliberate attempt to destroy the files in the Protocol section and important evidence in the gold smuggling case. Can this be taken lightly? Can a Government which is bound to function in accordance with the Constitution do his? The Opposition will submit a detailed representation to the Governor and has sought his immediate intervention in the matter. The probe announced by the Government is not acceptable to us. It is the NIA which should inquire into the incident,” he said.
Some officials are on record as saying that only a few files relating to room reservation at State Guest Houses alone have been destroyed. They also said that e-filing system has been in vogue in the State from 2018, as part of an effort to make government offices ‘paperless’, reducing any chance of loss of files in such a fashion. But the UDF and BJP leaders insist that key files relating to the gold smuggling case have indeed been destroyed deliberately and are set to launch agitations throughout Kerala over it.
The truth of the allegations will only be known after an inquiry. Meanwhile, for the opposition UDF, which lost face with its no-confidence motion against the State government in the Assembly on August 24, and for the BJP, the fire at the Secretariat offers a good opportunity to sustain the smokescreen of allegations against the LDF Government at least till the local body elections that are due soon.
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