Fire In Kerala Secretariat Triggers Concerns Over Gold Smuggling Case
A fire that gutted files on a few racks at the General Administration (Political) Department’s three sections in Kerala Secretariat on Tuesday evening, at around 4:45 pm, has triggered tensions and a political row.
Late in the evening, for the first time since COVID-19 pandemic restriction protocols were imposed, protests were organised by political parties in front of the Kerala Secretariat where water cannons also were deployed to disperse the protestors.
The fire broke out in the protocol office, which is under the scanner of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and other central agencies who are probing the diplomatic baggage gold smuggling case.
It is the protocol office that handles visits of VIPs, foreign dignitaries, and diplomats to the state, settlement of bills for the various expenditures incurred by ministers, hospitality expenses, and other miscellaneous expenses. It also handles matters regarding consulates of foreign countries in the state, foreign visit of members of ministers, and state protocol manual.
Since the confiscation of 30 kg of smuggled gold sent from the United Arab Emirates to Kerala through the diplomatic channel on July 05, the national probe agencies are probing the role of the UAE Consulate, Kerala government offices and officials in the smuggling. The smuggled gold was addressed to an official at the UAE Consulate.
In connection with the gold smuggling, Kerala IT department’s Space Park Operations Manager Swapna Suresh and two of her accomplices are under the custody of NIA.
And Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s principal secretary and IT secretary M Sivasankar was grilled several times by different probe agencies for his equation with Swapna. Sivasankar had travelled several times with Swapna to foreign countries.
Interestingly, Kerala Higher Education Minister KT Jaleel is also under the lens of probe agencies for his direct connections with UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. He had received packets of dates and Quran copies, which is a violation of protocol as per diplomatic experts.
It is the protocol office where the fire incident happened, which will be ‘aware’ of protocols connected to UAE Consulate, Shivsankar’s foreign visits with Swapna, and protocol violations of Jaleel.
Last week the Customs had asked the protocol officer to furnish details of all diplomatic consignments that had arrived at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport in the past year, days after Jaleel acknowledged that he had received some parcels of the Quran from the UAE consular office and that he took them to his constituency.
Talking to The Lede, Kerala’s Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, alleged that the files belonging to the three sections, political section, and another section where the foreign trips of the officials and the files about various political happenings were reportedly destroyed.
“There were only very few staff in the protocol department of the Secretariat where the fire broke out. I suspect that there was a deliberate effort to sabotage the evidence where files belonging to gold smuggling cases were destroyed,” he added.
Later in the evening, Chennithala had met Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan at Kerala Raj Bhavan requesting a probe in the fire incident and today, the Opposition is observing a Black Day to register their protest.
Following the fire, the Secretariat premises witnessed dramatic scenes. Chief secretary Vishwas Mehta ‘pushed back’ all journalists from the Secretariat compound who went to report the incident. And police denied permission for local MLA VS Sivakumar to visit the incident site.
Additionally, BJP state president K Surendran, who tried to enter the Secretariat, was arrested and removed.
Surendran told the media that the fire accident was a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence.
“It seems like a cover-up to protect Jaleel and Pinarayi. They are trying to save protocol officer Shine Haq. The forensics department and central agencies should probe,” he said.
Shine is Additional Secretary & Joint Protocol officer.
Meanwhile, V Muraleedharan, the Minister of State at the Ministry of External Affairs, tweeted that first, the “CCTV footage goes missing, now a portion of the Secretariat catches fire at @CMOKerala. All such "coincidental" things happen as the noose on #Goldscam tightens around @VijayanPinarayi. Shame! This Short Circuit seems to be a Shortcut to bury the evidence.”
“Documents or material that could expose @VijayanPinarayi & his cronies seems to have been gutted in the fire. This incident smells foul & exposes the rot in @CMOKerala,” his tweet read adding that a thorough investigation is needed to ascertain claims of this so-called "Short Circuit."
The Kerala government had told the NIA that it was unable to hand over CCTV footage of the Secretariat as the system had become dysfunctional due to lightning in May. The NIA had sought the footage as part of its probe into the gold smuggling case.
Talking to the media, B Sunil Kumar, Joint Secretary, and State Protocol Officer said no important files have been destroyed in the major fire. But Kumar also disclosed that he was not at the site of the fire as he was under quarantine.
“But no important documents have been lost. The images which you saw on TV screens are those of extra copies of government notifications that were stored in the section. But no important documents have been lost,” Kumar said.
However, a source in the Secretariat told The Lede that at least five bundles of files have been gutted.
While the Kerala government had said that ADGP Manoj Abraham will probe the incident, at around 7 am today, police officials were deployed to guard the Secretariat as different political parties have announced protest rallies seeking probe into the fire incident in front of the Secretariat.
On Tuesday, the Opposition had moved a no-trust motion in the Kerala Assembly raising gold smuggling, Jaleel’s connections with UAE Consulate, and other corruption charges. The no-trust motion was defeated by the ruling party.
However, the fire in the Secretariat has re-energised the Opposition to continue its fight against the ruling party.