Gold Standard Falls
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The Kerala government finds itself mired in a high-profile controversy for the third time in as many months. The dust had just begun to settle on the Sprinklr data privacy and PwC e-mobility project rows when allegations of impropriety and criminality were again raised against the information technology department—this time in a gold smuggling case.

Given oxygen in the absence of a uniform statewide lockdown, protests and violence broke out in pockets even as the NIA rounded up the main suspects—after 30kg of gold, valued at Rs 14.82 crore, was seized from a diplomatic bag at Thiruvananthapuram airport on July 5. The haul reportedly connected to terrorism financing.

Well before her arrest from Bangalore this past Sunday, much of the Opposition’s attacks focused on Swapna Suresh, one of the chief suspects and a former executive secretary at the UAE consulate-general in the state capital. Suresh and Sarith P.S., a former spokesperson at the embassy, are thought to have used forged diplomatic credentials in at least six prior smuggling attempts. Customs raids reportedly turned up six bags with the diplomatic stickers partially removed from the homes of the suspects. Also on that list are Sandeep Nair, who reportedly has ties to the BJP and arrested in Bangalore, and Dubai-based businessman Fazil Fareed. The intercepted bag was said to be addressed to the charge d’affaires at the consulate, although both the consular officer and the mission has disavowed knowledge of its contents besides a handful of personal items.

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accused Swapna

The spotlight fell too on IT secretary M. Sivasankar, who was dismissed from the post and his role as principal secretary to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on July 7, despite reports of his purported links to Suresh being short on detail—overlooking red flags in her resume and flouting of recruitment norms being two allegations. During the Sprinklr issue, Sivasankar’s public mea culpa media offensive was credited by the Opposition as having served to deflect the blame from Vijayan, who also holds the IT portfolio. In this instance, the CMO can’t shield itself by having Sivasankar “take the fall”, the Opposition has contended—holding up old videos and photos (including an allegedly morphed image) of Vijayan interacting with Suresh and consulate representative at official functions as evidence of his involvement in a “smuggling nexus”.

Speaking to Outlook, a former customs official notes that the “role of well-connected insiders, both in the UAE and in Kerala” could not be ruled out. Among the other pertinent questions that remain unanswered are the intended end-use of the gold as also how Suresh and Nair were able to leave Thiruvananthapuram, in the second week of a triple lockdown. Leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala, and BJP state president K. Surendran suggested they had help from “higher powers”, like the CMO. During his daily media briefings, Vijayan said he “had nothing to fear since the truth will come out”.

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