The Centre is of the belief that the gold smuggling racket that was busted at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport on July 5 was carried out through the diplomatic channel, rejecting the repeated claim of Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan that the gold was not smuggled in diplomatic baggage.
In a written answer for unstarred questions by Lok Sabha members Anto Antony, Dean Kuriakose and N.K. Premachandran, Union Minister of State for Finance Anurag Singh Thakur said the MEA was informed of the suspected gold consignment in a diplomatic baggage during the month of July and the ministry had provided the clearance to intercept the baggage addressed to a diplomat of the consulate general of UAE in Thiruvananthapuram.
“During July 2020, the Office of the Commissioner of Customs (Preventive), Cochin, informed the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the suspicion of gold consignment in a diplomatic bag. Following due procedure, (the) MEA provided clearance to Customs authorities to intercept the consignment containing gold which was addressed to a diplomat of (the) consulate general of UAE in Thiruvananthapuram. Customs authorities and NIA have launched the investigation and the department of Customs has seized 30,244.900 gram of gold and booked a case under Customs Law and arrested 16 persons. (The) Directorate of Enforcement (ED) has also initiated Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) investigations in two gold smuggling cases related to Kerala. (The) ED has also taken up investigation in five cases under the provisions of Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), 1999, all over India. It was reported to the court that one of the prime accused was influential; however, (the) government is taking effective steps for fair and proper investigation. Disclosure of further details of cases may not be in a larger public interest as the same may impact the cases,” read the answer.
The question by the members, however, was specific about the nature of smuggling. The fourth of the six questions by the three members read: “Will the Minister of Finance be pleased to state whether it has also come to the notice of the government that gold smuggling is carried out through the diplomatic channel and, if so, the details of involvement of diplomatic persons therein along with the action taken in this regard?’
MoS Muraleedharan had on multiple occasions gone on record saying the smuggling was not done through diplomatic baggage. He had even ridiculed Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for ‘not understanding the English language.’
Initially, the NIA, too, had submitted in the court that the gold was smuggled in as diplomatic baggage, but later they changed it and adopted a stand that was in line with what Muraleedharan was saying.
The controversy over the diplomatic status of the smuggled baggage did not die after that. Swapna Suresh, one of the key accused in the case, in her statement to investigating agencies, alleged that Anil Nambiar, the coordinating editor of Janam TV, a channel backed by Sangh Parivar organisations, had advised her to make the UAE Consulate General release a statement saying the bag with gold was not a diplomatic bag.
The ruling CPI (M) was quick to pounce on the opportunity and demanded the Union minister’s ouster. “The minister of state, V Muraleedharan, has violated the oath of office and has no right to continue,” said a media release by the party’s state secretariat. “From the very beginning of the case, V Muraleedharan has been maintaining the stand that the smuggling was not carried out through the diplomatic route. He has to be probed for his involvement in the smuggling case. The smuggling through the diplomatic route became a daily affair after Muraleedharan assumed office,” alleged the CPI (M) media release.