Kerala Gold Smuggling Case: Why Minor Fire That Broke Out At State Secretariat Is A Matter Of Concern
Opposition parties in Kerala allege that politically-relevant secret files with regard to foreign tours had been destroyed in the fire that broke out at the secretariat.
Both BJP and Congress have hinted at sabotage.
A minor fire broke out at the Kerala Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram yesterday (25 August), triggering outrage from Opposition parties led by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have alleged foul play.
The fire is reported to have been caused by a short-circuit and broke out in the General Administration Department (GAD).
It is because of the fire breaking in the GAD that the Opposition parties suspect foul play by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM).
The GAD handles many sensitive files, including that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate-General in Thiruvananthapuram.
The UAE Consulate is currently caught in the controversy over the Kerala gold smuggling case.
Gold had reportedly been smuggled over a dozen times in the last one year through diplomatic baggage meant for the UAE Consulate, with two of its former employees turning up to be prime suspects.
The gold smuggling case came to light after the Customs Department seized 30 kg of gold in diplomatic baggage meant for the UAE Consulate.
Since the Union government suspected that the smuggling could imply terrorist links and a compromised national security, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been asked to thoroughly investigate the case.
The NIA has made rapid progress in the case arresting nearly 15 persons, while the role of two ministers in the State is also under scrutiny.
The gold smuggling case has extended up to the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office with now suspended principal secretary M Sivasankar trying to help one of the prime suspects in the case, Swapna Suresh.
The GAD also had details of State ministers who have dealt with various consulates or diplomatic missions across the country.
Opposition suspicion has been further raised with Swapna and Sarith Nair, another prime accused in the smuggling case, allegedly having links with officials in the GAD.
Allegations against GAD officials are that they had been invited for UAE consulate functions by Swapna over the last three years.
They had also been showered with expensive gifts, including high-end mobile phones.
In particular, the Protocol Office in GAD is being monitored by NIA in the gold smuggling probe.
The Customs Department releases diplomatic baggage only after the diplomatic missions produce a confirmation letter and duty exemption certificate from the State Protocol Department.
Mission officials should submit an application letter, along with the list of materials being imported, to the Protocol Office to get the letter and certificate.
However, the Kerala Protocol Officer has told the NIA and Customs Department that his office has not issued any such certificate or letter in the last two years.
This has led to the suspicion that documents were forged to bring in so-called diplomatic baggage.
The concern over the fire at GAD is that all the files are kept in physical form (paper) in view of their sensitiveness.
The allegations of sabotage have surfaced since the NIA has asked the State Secretariat to hand over footages of CCTV also for investigations in the gold smuggling case.
The fire broke out around 4.30 pm when no official of the department was present as an official seated near the department tested positive for novel Coronavirus.
Since all the GAD officials were in touch with the Covid-19 positive officials, they were asked to quarantine themselves.
Senior Opposition and Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala alleged that the fire broke out in three sections and politically-relevant secret files with regard to foreign tours had been destroyed.
Chennithala made the charge after visiting the section of the Secretariat where the fire broke out.
Union Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, alleged that the fire was orchestrated by the Chief Minister’s Office to destroy crucial evidence in the gold smuggling case.
Kerala BJP leader K Surendran stormed the Secretariat with his party cadre, while the Congress staged a demonstration at the northern gate of the secretariat.
They were all cleared by the police after the Chief Secretary, Vishwas Mehta, assured them of an 'impartial probe' into the incident.
He has also set up a five-member expert committee to probe the fire incident and look into whether it was sabotage.
The crime branch police will conduct a parallel inquiry into the incident.
On its part, the Opposition met State Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and sought a probe into the incident.
State government officials, though, have said no important file has been destroyed in the fire.
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