The Centre on Thursday allowed the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to investigate the gold smuggling case in Kerala in view of "serious implications for national security," while a foreign consulate's former woman employee, suspected to be involved in the racket, moved the state high court for anticipatory bail.
NIA will probe the case of smuggling, detected by the Customs sleuths, which has also taken a political turn with Congress and BJP targeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan after the woman was found to have been working for the state I-T department, a portfolio held by him, and sacked.
The Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the NIA probe a day after Vijayan, facing demands for his resignation, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his "intervention for an effective investigation" into the seizure of gold worth about Rs 15 crore from a "diplomatic baggage" which arrived at the international airport in Thiruvananthapuram recently.
"The MHA permits the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to investigate the Thiruvananthapuram airport gold smuggling case, as the organised smuggling operation may have serious implications for national security," a home ministry spokesperson said in Delhi.
The gold weighing over 30 kg was seized from baggage, carrying the name of a diplomatic person, that had landed by air cargo at Thiruvananthapuram international airport recently.
The Customs department has said it suspected a smuggling syndicate had misused the name of a person in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consulate who enjoys diplomatic immunity.
On Thursday, India said it was keeping the embassy of the UAE informed about the case and that the mission was extending all cooperation to the Customs authorities examining it.
"The customs authorities, following established protocol and procedure, have seized a consignment sent from abroad in the name of an official working in the Consulate General of the United Arab Emirates in Thiruvananthapuram," Spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs Anurag Srivastava said at an online media briefing.
The anticipatory bail plea of the woman employee, on the run since being sacked from contractual service in the state IT department after her name cropped up in the smuggling case, is expected to come up before the High Court on Friday.
The woman and an alleged accomplice of her are absconding even as an audio clip in which she purportedly claims innocence surfaced.
In a related legal development, the consulate's other former employee, R Sarith Kumar, who has been arrested in the case, was produced before the economic offences court in Kochi and sent to the customs department custody for further probe.
As a political storm erupted over the case, the opposition Congress and BJPin the state stepped up their attack on Vijayan demanding his resignation and a CBI probe alleging "involvement of his office" in the case.
Congress at the national level also sought a CBI probe.
The state government has removed senior IAS officer M Sivasankar, who was the secretary to the Chief Minister and the IT Principal secretary, following allegations that he had close links with the woman suspect in the case. The official has gone on a year's leave.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala on Thursday demanded a CBI probe into the gold smuggling case, alleging the incident involves people who have access to the highest echelons of the state and the Central governments.
Responding to the queries from the media on the resignation demand, Vijayan asked the opposition to desist from "cheap tactics" and "imaginative stories".
"Smuggling affects the economy of the nation and the culprits must be brought before the nation. We have offered all assistance to the central agencies if they require any. We need to identify the big fishes behind this criminal act. It's (up to) the Centre to decide the investigating agency. Not the state government and they are doing it already," he said.
The audio clip surfaced on a day when the Kochi customs wrote to state police chief Loknath Behera seeking certain CCTV visuals of the airport, police sources said. The DGP has directed the Police Commissioner and IG traffic to hand over the footage to the Customs, they added.