Kerala gold smuggling case: Crossing the line

Print edition : August 14, 2020

P.S. Sarith, one of the accused in the gold smuggling case (green mask), being taken to the apartment complex near the Kerala Secretariat by the NIA team, in Thiruvananthapuram on July 20. Photo: S. MAHINSHA

The NIA team taking Swapna Suresh (face covered) to her flat in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: by special arrangement

M. Sivasankar coming out of the Police Club in Thiruvananthapuram after being questioned by the NIA in the gold smuggling case. Photo: S. Mahinsha

A gold smuggling case being investigated by Central agencies, with alleged links to terror financing, kicks up a political storm in Kerala.

Fact, fiction and media frenzy have merged once again to stir up a political controversy in Kerala.

The furore that has followed the seizure of 30 kilograms of gold from baggage addressed to an officer of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consulate in Thiruvananthapuram on July 5 has ingredients that are all too familiar and capable of rattling ruling parties and unsettling governments.

A senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer in the Chief Minister’s office, with an unblemished service record, suddenly found himself at the centre of a political storm because of his personal association with a woman suspected to be a key facilitating link in a murky smuggling network.

The network, using the UAE consulate as a cover and the woman’s status as a former employee there as a tool, was a flourishing one, with a chain of facilitators, financiers, black gold traders, money movers, jewellery owners and many more. At the very end, it may also have had ordinary folk in Kerala and their non-resident Indian relatives long used to sending and receiving money through the more gainful hawala “tunnels”, rather than through regular banking channels. The network could well be a cover for terror financing, if the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) remand note filed at the NIA Special Court in Kochi seeking the extension of custody of some of the accused is any guide.

The woman, Swapna Suresh, now the darling of rating-hungry television channels in Kerala and an accused in the Customs/NIA cases, seems to have had a chequered life and career. Born in Kerala and brought up in the UAE where her father was employed, she worked in a few travel agencies in Thiruvananthapuram for nearly a decade after returning to the State in 2000. She was then employed as an HR executive with AISATS, the ground and cargo handling agency for Air India. It was a controversial stint when she is alleged to have used a fake degree certificate to gain employment and to have later engineered a false complaint against some colleagues.

In 2016, she found work at the UAE consulate as an executive secretary and soon became a regular presence at important events, including VIP visits and iftar parties at the consulate. Then, even while continuing to work for the consulate on a “need-to basis”, she is alleged to have used the fake degree to find contract employment in government through a little-known placement agency, Vision Technologies, which worked on behalf of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), an international consultant firm employed by the State government.

She was thus hired on contract as an Operations Manager at Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited’s (KSITL) Space Park, a new State initiative based at Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram, meant to offer services and products for space missions and to support companies that require “geospatial applications”. While many knew Swapna Suresh as the high-profile executive secretary to the UAE Counsel General, soon she also became well known as Space Park’s representative and event hostess/manager at two major conclaves organised by the government: The “Kochi Design Week, 2019”, held in December 2019, and described as the largest design festival in India; and, Space Technology Conclave at Kovalam in February.

M. Sivasankar, the IAS officer who had held several key posts in the State and had earned a reputation for being one of the most trusted officers of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, was removed from the key posts of Principal Secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office and IT Secretary following media reports about his alleged association with Swapna Suresh and acquaintance with some other accused in the gold smuggling case.

Later, after an inquiry by a committee led by Chief Secretary Biswas Mehta, the government also suspended him from service. The suspension order said that “while inquiring into the allegation on contractual appointment of Operations Manager/ Junior Consultant in the Space Park project under Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd., Sivasankar had “made a reference” to appoint a person (Swapna), who was working at that time as Secretary to the Counsel General, UAE, to the post of Operations Manager/Junior Consultant for Space Park.”

The committee had found that “prima facie, Sivsankar’s conduct in this regard constitutes a violation of the All India Service Conduct Rules, 1968, and such association and frequent contacts with a foreign consulate official in violation of the above rules, and on both these counts, departmental action should be initiated.”

The order said that “in view of the wider ramifications of this case”, the committee recommended that Sivasankar be placed under suspension with immediate effect “pending completion of disciplinary proceeding”. It also said that the government finds that Sivasankar violated Rules 3(2) and 3(2B) iii, v, vii and x of All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, and Government of India Miscellaneous Executive Instructions regarding Contact of members of All India Services with foreign national/missions.

Pinarayi Vijayan later said the recommendation to suspend Sivasankar was based on the finding that “his conduct was unbecoming of a civil servant”, that the committee’s report also had focussed on “service-related issues” and that “other matters”were being probed by the State police (initially).

The suspension was announced even as the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched agitations in all districts of the State demanding Sivasankar’s ouster and the Chief Minister’s resignation, ignoring a spurt in COVID-19 clusters in the State. (The Kerala High Court later banned all agitations in the State until July end.)

All through this, there was feverish media coverage and speculation about the smuggling case, particularly as to whether it had terrorist links. There were reports, prompted by the statements of UDF and BJP leaders, about Sivasankar’s links with Swapna Suresh and her family, his “frequent visits” to their flat and his role in finding them accommodation near his own spare flat, close to the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.

In a related development, Arun Balachandran, a former IT Fellow to the Chief Minister, was also removed from his new position as Marketing and Operations Director to the Chief Minister’s High- Power Digital Committee, for reasons not yet made clear officially. Balachandran, who was also an organiser at the Kochi Design Festival, had booked the flat to be taken on rent for a brief period by Swapna Suresh and her husband, by his own account, on Sivasankar’s request.

Sivasankar had allegedly met Swapna Suresh and her husband in this flat too, which, two other accused, P.S. Sarith and Sandeep Nair, also frequented. Sarith, a former PRO at the UAE consulate,continued to run errands for people there even after he was sent out, and,it is presumed that he was the one who collected consignments of smuggled gold that came through the “diplomatic route”at the airport. Sandeep Nair, another important player, thereafter transferred the gold to K.T. Ramees, a middleman financier in north Kerala described by the NIA as one of the “kingpins” in the case. Ramees organised funds locally to be sent to the UAE for purchasing gold, which he later distributed to jewellers (or others?) across the country. The network’s suspected UAE link, Faisal Fareed, a businessman originally from Thrissur, who is believed to have sent the gold to India, was taken into custody by the Dubai police and is likely to be extradited to India.

All the ramifications of the multiple smuggling “runs”made through the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, where gold was sent in the baggage addressed to the Charge d’Affaires at the UAE consulate, Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqri Alshemeili, will be known only after the Central agencies, including the Customs Department, the NIA and the Enforcement Directorate, complete their separate probes. Already, there are reports that such daring attempts to use a diplomat’s baggage as a conduit for smuggling gold could not have worked so well without the help of someone from within the consulate itself. The network is believed to have smuggled gold using the cover of the diplomat’s baggage at least 15 times.

At the end of the foiled attempt on June 5, the Charge d’Affaires at the UAE consulate was called to the airport by the Customs Department. He identified the baggage and confirmed that it was addressed to him and then reportedly disowned its contents. By the time more details of the racket became the talk of the town, he had quietly left the country. It is unclear whether his exit was with the knowledge of the authorities.

Meanwhile, the focus of political attention in Kerala is on the result of the NIA/Customs inquiry into the role of Sivasankar, and answers to questions on whether his roleextended beyond “personal association” with some of the accused; whether he had allowed himself to be a pawn in the hands of a smuggling nexus; or, if he had a part in it even.

Ever since the gold smuggling case came to light and the Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary was found to be associated with one of the accused, leaders of the UDF have been elated. The case must have come as a godsend, falling on their laps right when they were running out of ideas to check the growing popularity of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government following its deft handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the two floods that had devasted the State earlier.

The solar case

Outwardly at least, the smuggling case has many similarities with the infamous Solar case that had rocked the State and proved to be the bane of the previous UDF government headed by Congress leader Oommen Chandy (Frontline, December 8, 2017).

The solar scandal broke out in June 2013 during the early days of the Oommen Chandy government, when the popularity of the Chief Minister was at its peak. Oommen Chandy had just then launched an innovative annual mass contact programme and had won a United Nations award for the “openness and accessibility of his office” and the “transparency in its functioning”.

Despite the Solar case being based entirely on the fluctuating statements of a woman who had been accused of defrauding several people of large sums of money, it helped the LDF, which was in the opposition, to build a political case on the basis of the woman’s links with people in the Chief Minister’s office (and some Ministers and MLAs), and demolish the UDF government’s credibility and push it firmly to the brink.

What is important about the Solar case in the present context is also the way the woman, Sarita Nair, and her (now estranged) partner Biju had operated. The duo had a renewable energy company and used to demand advance money from gullible clients and investors, flaunting their real or contrived proximity to prominent people in government as an endorsement of the credibility of their company and the genuineness of its schemes. Ministers and other leaders were regularly invited to “company programmes” and functions. The company even presented awards to prominent people to gain credibility.

Sarita Nair, who was in charge of marketing and sales of the company, had obviously charmed her way into the corridors of power, including the Chief Minister’s office, and had clearly used her acquaintance with Ministers, MLAs and/or their personal staff and officials to entrap customers to invest sums ranging from Rs.70,000 to Rs.50 lakh in unlikely solar and wind energy projects.

Even after nearly a decade, with an inquiry commission appointed in between, nothing substantial has come of the allegations against Oommen Chandy and his government. But it opened a grand political opportunity for the LDF to hound the UDF government and the then Chief Minister.

In the gold case, too, as in the solar scandal, a woman on the wrong side of the law is hogging the limelight. She too had a high-profile presence at functions attended by many VIPs, including Ministers. She too had access to the corridors of power, especially through people in government. She too met the media’s propensity for scandal with her association with a person in the Chief Minister’s office, in this case, more so, because the one involved is a senior IAS official who had the trust of the Chief Minister.

Opposition UDF leaders know that whatever may the truth of their allegations or the facts of the case or the conclusions of the NIA/Customs inquiry, if they play their cards well, make a ruckus and succeed in portraying it as a case on which the credibility of the Chief Minster’s office hinges on, they may well do a “Solar-like trick” on the LDF government, and seek their revenge.

That is why the Customs/INA inquiry regarding the actions of the IAS official assumes political significance in Kerala. But for Sivasankar’s involvement, it would be just another case of gold smuggling that could turn a shocker only if it is found to have links with terror networks in the country, a proposition that may perhaps be more to the liking of the BJP than the UDF.

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