Chennai: Left red-faced, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) may have ordered an internal inquiry over the disappearance of 103 kgs of gold worth Rs 43 crore earlier this year, but the mysterious case of the gold, seized in the presence of witnesses and put in a vault, that went missing from a warehouse here, has put a big question mark on the probe agency.
After the emergence of this news, top echelons of the government have expressed concern at the haphazard handling of such an important case where gold amounting to a king’s ransom has disappeared.
The case of the disappearance of 103 kgs of gold came to the fore last week after the Madras High Court ordered the Tamil Nadu Police’s CB-CID to register a case of the disappearance of gold from the agency’s custody after rejecting its plea that “the prestige of the CBI would come down if the investigation is done by the local police.”
The High Court asked the CB-CID to register an FIR saying: “It may be an ‘Agni Pariksha’ for the CBI, but that cannot be helped. If their hands are clean, like Sita, they may come out brighter. If not, they would have to face the music.”
The court also rejected the CBI’s request for a probe by the CBI state branch or National Investigation Agency (NIA) instead of the state police. To which Judge P.N. Prakash said, “The court cannot subscribe to this view, because the law does not sanction such an inference. All policemen have to be trusted and it does not lie in the mouth of one to say that the CBI have special horns, whereas, the local police have only a tail.”
How the gold was seized
The CBI had seized the gold in connection with a case dated June 2012 filed over allegations that officials of Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation of India (MMTC) in Chennai had shown undue favours towards Surana Corporation Limited, which dealt in import of gold and silver.
After conducting searches, the gold amounting to 400.47 kgs, in the form of bars and ornaments, was seized by the CBI from the office building of Surana in Chennai and locked and sealed in its vaults.
The CBI also claimed that it had handed over the 72 keys of the safes and vaults to the Chennai principal special court for CBI cases. Though no date regarding submitting of keys was mentioned in documents.
However, in September 2013, the CBI registered another case, saying that while the seized gold was not wanted in the 2012 cases, it had found that Surana had imported the same in violation of the Foreign Trade Policy (FTP).
The CBI, hence, requested that the seized gold be transferred from the first case to the fresh one, following which the court allowed the transfer of about 400 kgs on record.
“But there was no physical inventorisation by the court” as the gold was already in the vaults of Surana.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the CBI filed a closure report in the second case that it registered in 2013 stating that “there is no adequate evidence forthcoming.”
Following the closure report filed by the agency, the CBI Special Court accepted the same but directed that the seized gold be handed over to the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT).
This order was later set aside by the Madras High Court on Surana’s petition, as it approached the court for the custody of gold.
Subsequently, the State Bank of India (SBI) which along with several other banks had lent money to Surana, initiated proceedings against it over non-payment of dues.
The bank claimed that Surana had pending loans amounting to Rs 1,160 crore and approached the Special CBI Court seeking the custody of seized gold.
But later the SBI and Surana entered into an agreement and filed a compromise memo before the Special Court to hand over the gold weighing 400.47 kgs for settlement of dues.
Meanwhile, the CBI opposed Surana’s petition, backed by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (under which the DGFT falls).
However, in December 2019, the National Company Law Tribunal, which had been approached by the SBI, ordered that the gold be handed over for distribution to the six banks owed money by Surana.
But when the CBI opened the vaults in the presence of the bank representatives in February this year, the gold was found to be 103.864 kgs short.
The CBI Inspector informed the High Court that they had used a weighing machine at Surana’s office to arrive at a figure of 400.47 kgs for the gold after the seizure, and the seals affixed by it on the vaults were intact. It argued that the CBI could not be held liable for the missing gold.
The CBI counsel also informed the court that there could be a discrepancy in the weight because gold chains were weighed collectively at the time of the seizure in 2012, while in February this year, each item was weighed individually, using more sophisticated machines.
The court rejected these claims of the agency and said, it was “unable to fathom as to how there could be a discrepancy of more than 100 kgs as it will not diminish in weight like ganja by efflux.
On Saturday, CBI spokesperson R.K. Gaur in a statement said: “It searched building of Surana and prepared a search list. The search list mentioned that 400.47 kgs of gold has been inventorised and was kept in safe and vaults of Surana, sealed in presence of independent witnesses and the MD of Surana Corporation and its officials.”
He said that as per the directions of the High Court, the vaults were opened in the presence of official liquidator, officials belonging to six banks and independent witnesses and inspected from February 27 to 29 this year to hand over the gold to the lender banks of Surana Corporation.
“The seals affixed on the vaults were found intact. However, gold weighed only 296.66 kgs,” Gaur said.
He said, “As the discrepancy between the quantity mentioned in search memo and as per the weight came to notice, CBI promptly ordered an internal inquiry by a senior officer to look into the role of its officials, if any.”
“It is clarified that the inventorised gold was not kept in Malkhana of CBI. Rather it was in premises of Surana only under the seal,” Gaur said.
“While the enquiry was on, a petition was filed in the high court and accordingly the court passed an order. CBI’s internal enquiry continues and if any adverse role of any CBI official surfaces, strict action will be taken against them,” he added.