KT Jaleel, according to analysts, is well known to take a religious line when in trouble
Controversy is not new to Kerala’s Higher Education minister KT Jaleel. From interfering in the affairs of autonomous universities to awarding extra marks in the name of helping students to pass examinations, he has done it all.
Political observers believe that most times the CPM’s poster boy in Malabar region had got away with his excessive controls and misappropriations due to lack of prosecutable evidence.
But this time round, his luck might finally be running out. In the holy month of Ramzan in May, the minister accepted a contribution from the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram which, as per the Minister’s own revelation, were sponsorships for a thousand Ramzan kits amounting to just above Rs 5 lakh, in favour of a couple of institutions in his constituency of Thavanoor in Malappuram.
This was then distributed, as pictures reveal, to CPM party sympathisers inside the party office in the minister’s constituency.
Apart from this, 32 boxes arrived from the UAE Consulate to a government supported firm (Quran boxes & food boxes as per the WhatsApp chat that the minister had with the Consul General) and from there travelled to north Kerala, all under government watch.
What raised eyebrows in the whole episode is that the entire transaction was coordinated by none other than Swapna Suresh, the kingpin of the gold smuggling case in Kerala and who is presently in judicial custody.
While Jaleel’s role in this issue came to light when his phone call records revealed that he had called Swapna more than a dozen times during his transaction with the consulate, with Swapna acting as the go-between, what puts the minister in the dock is an entirely different thing.
By accepting the sponsorship for Ramzan kits from the UAE Consulate, for which a bill was raise by the Consumerfed, an apex body of the Consumer Cooperative stores in the state and controlled by the government, the minister has directly violated relevant sections of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010, a serious offence that could even get him a prison term if proved guilty in a court of law.
The Lede has accessed the WhatsApp conversation the Minister has had with the Consul General of the UAE Consulate where he strikes the deal with the Consul General who then tells the minister that Swapna Suresh will coordinate it.
That Swapna Suresh had tremendous influence at the UAE Consulate and individually with the Consul General himself are revelations that had already come out as part of the ongoing investigation into the gold smuggling case.
Legal experts that The Lede talked to in the last few days, are of the firm opinion that the minister, by accepting such a gift from an agency of a foreign country functioning in India, has clearly violated FCRA regulations which clearly prohibits any such transaction between an elected representative of a legislature and any agency of a foreign country.
“The law is very clear on this. As per the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 any member of any legislature cannot accept foreign contribution of any kind. The Act strictly prohibits this unless a prior clearance is obtained from the Union government. Also, the Act clearly mentions what are the items which come under the preview of foreign contribution. Clearly the minister has violated the law and if proved in a court of law can even invite a jail term of up to five years,’’ senior Supreme Court Lawyer Renjith Marar told The Lede.
The moment KT Jaleel got an indication of the illegality that he may have landed himself into, he posted an emotive note on his Facebook page saying that it was several copies of the holy Quran that he had accepted for distribution along with the Ramzan kits meant for the poor of his constituency given by the UAE consulate as per the directions of the Consul General.
“The only mistake I did is to distribute some kits provided by the UAE Consulate to the poor students of my constituency which also included the holy Quran. What is wrong in it? Is the Quran banned in India? Let Narendra Modi hang me for distributing the holy text if so,’’ Jaleel added.
Before this outpouring on Facebook he had told media persons that his interaction with Swapna was all about assisting in procuring and distribution of the contribution from the Consulate. At that point he had given another twist to the whole transaction labelling it as ‘Zakat’. In Islam Zakat means ‘alms giving’ where a portion of your wealth is given off as charity.
“Isn’t this very clear? I was interacting with Swapna simply because the consulate had deputed her to do it. There is nothing else to that interaction,’’ reiterated Jaleel in front of the media.
The Quran angle was a later addition, and many believe it was perhaps done to get away from the gross illegality that Jaleel had landed himself in by engaging with the UAE Consulate beyond all protocols. From Zakat to Quran, Jaleel was desperately using the religious brush to paint his actions right.
As per Jaleel’s claims, apart from the kits, all the 32 boxes contained copies of the holy book. But as per a video that the minister himself circulated among news outlets in Kerala, only one box out of the 32 was seen to be opened and checked.
This, many say, might be proof enough that perhaps it was not just the holy book that was being transported given the huge influence Swapna Suresh and her gold smuggling gang had in the corridors of power in the state, something which the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Central Customs and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have all said in once voice over the number of affidavits they have filed in various courts in Kerala.
Whether all the boxes contained the holy book alone is a matter of investigation but dragging the holy Quran into the current mess has certainly exposed the minister’s desperate attempt to divert attention from his illegal actions.
Amid all this the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had been deflecting all queries that the media posed before him about the allegations against Jaleel.
“Jaleel has clearly explained his stand in it. I do not have anything more to add on that,’’ has been Vijayan’s repetitive line over the last one month.
The question is how far has KT Jaleel treaded on the other side of the law while accepting the gifts, whatever be the nature and contents of the boxes that arrived from the UAE Consulate.
Legal experts are firm on this.
Chapter two under ‘Regulation of Foreign Contribution and Foreign Hospitality’ of the FCRA 2010 clearly outlines those individuals and groups that cannot receive any foreign contribution of any kind whatsoever. A member of legislature is one among those.
Section 3 (1) (d) says “No foreign contribution shall be accepted by any member of any legislature”.
Jaleel is not only a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet but primarily an elected member of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly. The illegality on the part of the minister is explicit and glaring.
Not just that. Unlike the 1976 version of the Act when it was first enacted, the latest amendment of 2010 had moved a step ahead by making the provisions more stringent.
While repealing the 1976 Act, the 2010 version moves from regulation to total prohibition for certain individuals and organisations in the need of protecting national interests.
The shift is visible in the title of the ACT itself. If in 1976 it was “An Act to regulate…in a manner consistent with the values of a sovereign democratic republic…”, the present Act of 2010 calls it, “An Act to consolidate law…for any activities detrimental to the national interest.’’
Legal experts say this in itself is enough to understand the extend of the transgression that the minister has committed himself to.
Interpreting the Act the Supreme Court of India in the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) versus Union of India 2020 case articulates very lucidly, “The object sought to be achieved by the Act is to ensure that Parliamentary institutions, political associations and academic and other voluntary organisations as well as individuals working in the important areas of national life should function in an manner consistent with the values of a sovereign democratic republic without being influenced by foreign contributions or foreign hospitality. The long title of the Act makes it clear that the regulation of acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution is for the purpose of protection of national interest.”
Though the amendment had been clearly aimed at regulating the flow of foreign funds to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) there is a blanket ban on any political party or its representative taking foreign contribution of any form.
Hence a minister in a cabinet simply cannot accept any such contribution from an agency of a foreign country which in this case is the UAE Consulate at Thiruvananthapuram.
Pavan Narang is a Delhi based litigation counsel expert in economic offences. He says that by no stretch of imagination can Jaleel get the benefit of doubt in this case.
“The law is crystal clear in this case. The FCRA completely bars any parliamentarian or a minister or a journalist taking any contribution from abroad whatever be the nature of the contribution. There is no debate in this. It’s simply prohibitive. It is not just restrictive, which it earlier used to be. Unlike the 1976 Act it is now a total prohibition on any such contribution,’’ Pavan Narang told The Lede.
The law seems to be finally getting to Jaleel and as per the provisions of the Act, Jaleel could face time in prison too.
Section 35 of the Act says, “Whoever accepts, or assists any person, political party or organisation in accepting, any foreign contribution or any currency or security from a foreign source, in contravention of any provision of this ACT or any rule or order made thereunder, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.”
The Minister while openly and proudly admitting that he has indeed accepted the UAE Consulate’s offer, meanwhile has tried to make a case by saying that two organisations had accepted it directly and that he merely facilitated it from the Indian side.
But as per the provisions of the Act quoted above, it is very clear that even an assisting person is as culpable as the person who had directly accepted the contribution.
What could also make matters worse is the fact that it was Swapna Suresh who has acted as the go-between and as per the minister’s claim she was deputed by the Consul General to coordinate things.
While the entire issue is matter of investigation, the prime facie illegality which has been proved beyond doubt along with the phone call records which show that the Minister and Swapna had talked 14 times only makes the Minister’s position highly untenable.
The Opposition has already sharpened its knives. “These phone calls clearly show that minister Jaleel was in close touch with the smugglers. Now should we believe that it was only the holy Quran that were in those packets? How do we know that it was not gold? Quran is anyways printed and available in India. Why bring it from UAE?’’ asks BJP State President K Surendran.
Meanwhile the Kerala Lok Ayukta, the anti-corruption ombudsman body has sent notices to Jaleel last week after a petitioner pointed out the Minister’s illegal actions before it.
The Lok Ayukta has asked both the Minister and the Chief Secretary to file affidavits by August 27 and the minister to submit copies of all communications that he might have had with the Consul General and his office regarding the acceptance of the contribution.
UDF (United Democratic Front) convenor Benny Behanan has meanwhile written to the Prime Minister urging to launch an investigation into the conduct of Jaleel and prosecute him.
While KT Jaleel tries hard to play the victim using the holy book, the fact of the matter is that the Quran does not fit in anywhere in the scheme of things. Rather it would only deteriorate Jaleel’s defences in a big way and anger the average Muslim in Kerala.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) that enjoys tremendous support base in the Malabar region has called it an insult to believers that a serving minister has chosen to hide his illegal actions behind the holy book.
“The cardinal question we should ask is who gives the minister the right to distribute the holy Quran? It is not the job of a minister to distribute any religious texts. The issue here is clearly that of a smuggling gang moving its parcel around. Now Jaleel is trying to give a religious colour to the whole issue so that he can get away with his illegal actions. It is so very shameful that this is being done by a minister of the Left front,’’ KPA Majeed, Kerala General Secretary of the IUML told The Lede.
Majeed, whose party has close relations with the UAE government, also expresses doubts that the Quran could have ever come from that country.
“If it’s Saudi Arabia I would have still believed. They have been doing authentic printing of Quran to be distributed throughout the word. But all these years I have never heard of UAE doing that. I think Jaleel is just making this up,’’ added Majeed.
Jaleel has in the past too tried to flare up religious sentiments to get away when an allegation is thrown at him and many think he is doing the same again.
“Whenever an allegation is thrown at Jaleel, he will throw back religion at you to get away. It has always been like that. See, here again, the go-between is Swapna Suresh, who has been using diplomatic baggage for smuggling gold. In that case should the minister not declare an investigation to find out if in the guise of bringing the holy Quran, had smuggling taken place?’’ asks PK Firoz, Youth League General Secretary. The Youth League had been taking the protest against Jaleel to the streets even in the midst of COVID-19.
Many even believe that with just eight months left for the polls and the minister exposed, he wants to play the minority card to ensure a re-election from his Muslim dominated constituency.
The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which is one of the more hardline Muslim organisations, says that Muslims in Kerala will not fall for this and what is illegal will be called out.
“Even if it is Quran it cannot be brought into this country illegally. Why do you have to do all this when you are printing the Quran here in Kerala itself? There are a number of organisations in the community which does Zakat as well as other activities with money that falls legally under the FCRA. Such attempts by the minister to inflame religious passion will not work because Muslims here are very well aware that if it’s Quran or Zakat it should be done only through a legal way, not illegally,’’ Shaikh Muhammad Karakunnu, Assistant Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Kerala Chapter told The Lede.
Meanwhile renowned social activists like MN Karassery are throwing a word of caution and reiterates the argument that when the Malabar region already has a tradition of printing the Quran why even think of importing it?
“I think we should stop discussing the Quran angle totally because the minister is purposely trying to set a very dangerous precedent which others like him will use in the future. The question before us is the illegality on the part of the minister in breaching all protocols while maintaining relation with a Consulate of another country. Whatever be the nature of contribution the minister received is immaterial. Isn’t that very act illegal? That’s the question we should ask,’’ Karassery told The Lede.
All eyes are now upon the Union Government and specifically on the Ministry of Finance because if sources in the Central Customs in Kochi are to be believed, the agency has already sent a report to the Finance Ministry saying that prime facie KT Jaleel has violated FCRA and needs to be investigated.
Whether the Modi Government would feel comfortable to start an investigation and prosecute Jaleel in an election year in the state vis-à-vis the anti-minority tag that the BJP carries heavily in Kerala is another question, more so when Jaleel has very smartly thrown in the Quran angle to foment trouble.