Kerala IT Secretary M Sivasankar was removed as Secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday, in the backdrop of the gold smuggling controversy, where the role of a former woman employee of the IT department is being probed.
In a brief statement on Tuesday, the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) said Sivasankar has been removed and replaced by Mir Mohammed, another IAS officer, who will hold additional charge. Sivasankar is likely to continue as IT Secretary.
Sivasankar told Manorama that he had written to the chief secretary asking for long leave but had not received a reply.
This is the second time in three months Sivasankar has found himself caught in a controversy. During the Kerala government’s contract with Sprinklr to collate COVID-19 data in the state, Sivasankar was questioned by the Opposition and the media on his choice of the firm which he claimed to have made without the chief minister’s knowledge.
The smuggling controversy
The gold smuggling case made headlines after customs officials on Monday arrested a man in connection with the seizure of gold worth over Rs 15 crore from a “diplomatic baggage” at an airport in the state. The man claimed himself to be a former employee of a UAE’s consulate in Kerala.
Gold weighing over 30 kg had been seized on Sunday from a diplomatic baggage that had landed by air cargo at Thiruvananthapuram international airport recently.
The Customs said it suspected a smuggling syndicate had misused the name of a person who enjoys diplomatic immunity.
On Monday, Customs personnel said they were looking for a woman named Swapna Suresh, who claimed to be a former employee of the consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, in connection with the case.
The opposition Congress and BJP alleged the woman now worked at the state IT department and sought a CBI probe as they targeted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the portfolio.
Officials said Swapna Suresh forged documents of the UAE Consulate to obtain diplomatic immunity and smuggle gold, Manorama reported. The report also said that there was already a crime branch investigation against the woman in connection with another case.
Manorama reported that the connection came to light after actress Shamna Kasim filed an extortion case against her.
Vijayan said he was unaware of the factors behind the appointment of the Swapna Suresh in the IT department and would look into the matter.
Customs officials said the man arrested on Monday appeared to be involved in the “illegal trade” and “handled fictitious kinds of documents” in connection with the case.
According to them, the man did not cooperate with the agency in the investigation, which is a criminal offence.
Officials said the man had not been working for the consulate for at least one year. “Prior to that he claims to be an employee of the consulate. He had some fake, old identity card. But during the process he had been operating on behalf of the consulate, misleading people. He even had called senior officials using his fake ID,” official sources told Press Trust of India.
A senior customs official, who spoke to PTI on condition of anonymity, said on Monday they were also investigating how unauthorised people can be associated with the clearance of the cargo.
The investigation would also look into the possible role of any employee of the consulate, the official added.
Noting that suspected smuggling of gold worth over Rs 15 crore was not by “a small chain”, the official said it was very clear that the cover of diplomatic consignment was being used for the purpose. “Even then they had done deep concealment. Without information no way we could have made the seizure”, the official said.
After the seizure, Customs Commissioner (Preventive) Sumit Kumar had said: “We suspect scammers have used the name of the consignee with diplomatic immunity... it is understood the syndicate operating behind this has filed the papers for the consignment in the name of a person with diplomatic immunity.”
In Thiruvananthapuram, senior Congress Leader Ramesh Chennithala sought a CBI probe into the matter alleging that the Chief Minister’s Office had “become a den of criminals”, a charge rejected by Vijayan.
Chennithala wrote to PM Narendra Modi saying Kerala government officials had colluded to misuse diplomatic immunity at the UAE consulate.
State BJP chief K Surendran claimed the customs authorities had received a call from the CMO soon after the seizure.
The IT department is under the Chief Minister and his Principal secretary M Sivasankar holds additional charge of Secretary of the department also.
When the media sought his response to the charges of the opposition leaders, the Chief Minister said he was not aware about the factors behind the woman’s appointment and the matter would be looked into.
“This was a major haul that happened in the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. I would like to congratulate the Customs team that monitored the smuggling activity and seized the gold. It seems like they have details of those involved in the matter and the Customs will act soon,” Vijayan said.
Dismissing the BJP chief’s charge that the CMO was involved in the matter, Vijayan said his office had never entertained anyone involved in any sort of corruption and the people of the state know that.
He also said that those involved would not be able to escape and would be brought to justice.
Chennithala alleged the Chief Minister’s Office tried to interfere in the matter.
“A criminal gang is operating in the CM’s office. The chief minister should clarify about the persons from his office who allegedly tried to interfere in the investigation.
“The IT department is directly under chief minister. How does a person facing a crime branch probe get a job in the department? I demand a CBI probe to bring out the matter,” Chennithala said.
The BJP chief sought to know how the woman had been appointed in the IT department.
(With PTI inputs)