Antique Idol Smuggling In TN Temples: A Week Of High Drama As Government Battles Popular Police Officer And Judiciary

Antique Idol Smuggling In TN Temples: A Week Of High Drama As Government Battles Popular Police Officer And JudiciaryPon Manickvel
Snapshot
  • “If idols are missing from each and every temple, then we will have to ask the CBI to probe into it. Why should there be a HR&CE department at all?” A Madras High Court judge asked.

The last few days have seen high drama as Tamil Nadu government made attempts to get all the cases of idol smuggling out of the hands of an officer largely seen as honest and fearless. The government informed the Madras High Court on 1 August that it had taken a decision to transfer all the pending cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

This comes barely three weeks after the division bench hearing the cases issued an ultimatum to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department. Justice R Mahadevan had warned Tamil Nadu government that he would be compelled to order a CBI probe if the HR&CE Department did not get its act together.

“It is a very sorry state of affairs in the state. This is totally unacceptable. The petitioner [Mr Narasimhan] has been repeatedly approaching the government officials, but not an inch has moved. If idols are missing from each and every temple, then we will have to ask the CBI to probe into it. Why should there be a HR&CE department at all?” the judge had asked, as reported.

“The decision has been taken since the idol wing headed by inspector general Pon Manickavel is not performing satisfactorily. In the past one year, the wing hasn’t filed a single report to the government on the progress of the idol theft cases. Even cases registered in the future will also be probed by the CBI,” said additional advocate general(AAG) P H Aravind Pandian before the special bench constituted to hear cases of idol thefts in the state.

The court directed Pandian to produce documents pertaining to the policy decision and scheduled the pleas for further hearing to 8 August. It also asked Manickavel to file a status report on the cases.

As reported by the Hindu, the AAG is also said to have told the court that the decision had been taken “to inspire public confidence” and considering the overall circumstances in which “one arm of the government (the idol wing CID) was found to be trying to hurt another arm (the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department).”

It cannot be ignored that this order comes close on the heels of the arrest of a senior official of the HR&CE department on the suspicion of her involvement in misappropriation of funds and gold collected towards the making of two idols at the Sri Ekambareswarar temple in Kancheepuram.

According to reports, the idol wing on Tuesday (30 July) arrested Additional Commissioner (Thiruppani) M Kavitha on charges of being directly involved in the issue of two orders that granted permission for the collection of gold and cash from the public for making the idols of Shiva, Parvathi, Skandar (Murugan), and Ezhavarkuzhalamman. The Ekambareswar case, in fact, is the perfect example of all that is wrong with the HR&CE, whose careless handling of temple properties has lost the nation priceless heritage artefacts.

This latest attempt to disarm the idol wing is not the first instance of the government using the ‘transfer tool’ to evade responsibility. One year ago, the Tamil Nadu government had tried to stall the probe into the piling stack of idol theft cases by transferring inspector general of police A G Pon Manickavel out of the idol wing. The court, taking serious note of the theft of ancient idols and the failure of the HR&CE department to protect the antique idols and valuables, had transferred all cases to a court in Kumbakonam, and put Manickavel in charge of the investigations despite his transfer from the Idol wing then.

After the court reinstated Manickavel as the head of the idol wing and he got cracking on various cases, some even decades old, he had to deal with members of his team being transferred. Last month (July), the HR&CE, while defending its inaction, tried to pin the blame on to Manickavel, accusing him of not attending review meetings called by superiors. This was when there were rumours of Manickavel being transferred out of the idol wing. An emotional Manickavel is said to have accused those in the higher ranks of trying to weaken his team by transferring its members frequently. Justice Mahadevan had asked Manickavel to attend review meetings, assuring him that neither the government nor his superiors could take any major decision without the court’s approval.

Recently, too, in the Palani temple case, within a week of the idol wing starting its probe on the alleged irregularities in the making of the idol, it was transferred out of its hands to that of the Crime Branch CID (CB-CID).

Social media saw people coming out in support of the officer and asking for his appointment to the CBI and to be given charge of the cases. Twitter saw the hashtag #IsupportPonmanickavel trending, with people praising the officer’s arrest and highlighting the government’s inaction simultaneously.

The High Court bench has asked Manickavel to submit his reports on the cases he has been handling so far. It had only last month assured said officer that it wouldn’t let his investigations go to waste and that neither the government nor his superiors could take any major decision without the court’s approval.

The hearing has been scheduled for 8 August.

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