Kerala Minister and CPI(M) leader KT Jaleel is not new to controversies. If there were charges of nepotism against him in 2019 (for appointing his relative as the general manager at Minorities Development Finance Corporation), it is the gold smuggling case this year. However, in this case, the allegation against him has almost landed him in serious legal trouble. Two agencies are probing whether the Minister committed the offence of accepting gifts from a foreign government agency during Ramzan, by circumventing protocols and thus violating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 or FCRA.
According to legal experts and Indian diplomats, it is not illegal to accept gifts from foreign agencies ‚ÄĒ in this case, food kits and copies of Quran from the UAE Consulate. However, it is the nature of these transactions that makes it questionable. Being a member of the state legislative, Jaleel needs to either seek permission from the Union government or intimate the Kerala Protocol Officer about these transactions.
Jaleel gives multiple labels to these transactions
Jaleel reportedly received 32 packets of Quran copies and 10,000 food kits (worth Rs 5 lakh) from the Consulate. In the screenshots of the WhatsApp conversation between him and the Consul General (which Jaleel himself shared), the Minister arranged for the food kits, which were supposedly sponsored by the UAE Consulate, via Consumerfed, a state-run apex body of consumer cooperative stores. He also later said that the vehicle of the Kerala State Centre for Advanced Printing and Training (C-apt) was used to transport these religious texts to two religious institutions at Edappal and Alathiyoor in his home district of Malappuram.
Screenshots of the WhatsApp chat between KT Jaleel and UAE Consular General
Jaleel gave the transactions multiple labels. In July, he termed the transaction ‚Äėzakat‚Äô (alms-giving), which is considered a religious obligation in Islam. Jaleel told the media that he had accepted the sponsorship for food to be distributed as ‚Äėzakat‚Äô.
The food kits with UAE AID printed on the covers
‚ÄúAs part of the custom, UAE has been donating religious texts to those in need for years. If those in power are in opposition to this, the Customs will return all Quran copies, save one, to the Consulate,‚ÄĚ he later said in a Facebook post.
What diplomats say
While Jaleel called it an annual custom by the UAE government, a source from the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi said that such transactions are not government-initiated, but are personal decisions.
‚ÄúIt differs from person to person. Some officials may give the Quran as a gift, some may give other religious books as well. In this case, probably a UAE Consulate official or a foreign minister could have gifted the Quran,‚ÄĚ said the source.
While Saudi Arabia has the religious practice of sending religious texts to other countries via its Consulate, it is unclear if the UAE has such a policy.
A former diplomat who has closely worked with an Indian Consulate in the Gulf told TNM that it is neither unusual nor illegal to send Quran. ‚ÄúThis has been happening for years," he said.
What the law states
Although Jaleel may not have accepted currency from the foreign government agency, and only distributed the Quran and food kits to associations, it may still stand in violation of the FCRA. This can also depend on whether the consignment was meant for Jaleel or he was merely the distributor.
This is what section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 says: ‚ÄúWhoever 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.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBesides, the FCRA clearly bars a member of a state legislature, among other entities, from accepting foreign contributions in any form. Once the person is a public servant, he or she cannot accept contributions even in a personal capacity. Prior permission must be sought from the Union government,‚ÄĚ explained Pavan Narang, a litigation counsel expert in economic offences.
According to the state protocol officer, the Protocol Wing was not informed about these transactions.
‚ÄúAs per the manual (of the General Administration Department), these items can be transferred by paying tax, which means through proper, legal channels. Only Customs can have clarity regarding that, we are not aware of it," state protocol officer Sunil Kumar told TNM.
He also added that the department did not issue any Customs Duty Exemption Certificate for such a consignment.
While the mode of receipt of these goods ‚ÄĒ diplomatic channel or otherwise ‚ÄĒ is unknown yet, advocate Pavan said, ‚ÄúThe tenor of the WhatsApp chat shows that the goods were locally sourced and paid by the Consulate. Thus Customs has no role to play in this transaction. The Consulate is a foreign entity and thus squarely comes under FCRA.‚ÄĚ
The Quran distribution
Jaleel maintains that he was not the ‚Äėrecipient‚Äô of the Quran and was only distributing it. In an interview to journalist KK Shahina for The Federal, Jaleel said that the Consulate had directly distributed more than 200 packets of Quran copies (each containing 1,000 books) to religious establishments in Kerala. Due to lockdown, they could not distribute 32 packets. The Consular General approached Jaleel, who is also the Minister for Welfare of Minorities, Wakf and Haj, and requested to distribute the copies. ‚ÄúAccordingly, I arranged the C-apt vehicle to take the packets to some religious establishments in Malappuram,‚ÄĚ he said.
Per these statements, the Minister said that he was not a direct party to this transaction between the UAE Consulate and the religious establishments and that he only made arrangements for the Consulate during the lockdown.
If true, does this absolve him of the offence under FCRA?
‚ÄúIncidentally, the screenshot of the WhatsApp messages does not talk about the lockdown. Besides, the photograph of him distributing the packets in the party office to the party members will come within the definition of the Act,‚ÄĚ said advocate Pavan.
KT Jaleel distributing food packets at a CPI(M) party office
The advocate argued that the Consulate could have easily coordinated with any cooperative store/agency to prepare the packets and there was no requirement of logistics support of the government to move these articles.
‚ÄúIf prosecuted, he may get acquitted but he will have to face the trial. Even otherwise, the Ministry of Home Affairs will first have to conduct an inquiry and then forward the report to the Central Bureau of Investigation or the designated agency to register the first information report (FIR),‚ÄĚ he explained.
At the press meet on July 14, Jaleel had stated that the UAE Consulate had been directly distributing food relief kits to various religious organisations as part of their relief work during Ramzan. This year, he said, due to the lockdown, they could not procure or distribute food kits during Ramzan in May.
‚ÄúThat is when the Consular General messaged and asked if there is any requirement for food kits, and if yes, how could this be arranged. Since there were requirements for food kits during the lockdown, I agreed to arrange for food kits through Consumerfed and gave the bill to the Consulate. So, the Consulate transferred the money for the food kits to the Consumerfed,‚ÄĚ Jaleel said.
Watch: KT Jaleel's press meet on July 14