Conserving heritage is literally a job fraught with risks in Tamil Nadu. Here is how the latest episode in that saga played out.
Seldom has the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department come under pressure as it has been in the last couple of years. The Dravidian ecosystem is so well entrenched in the department that there is an all-out effort to save the corrupt officials and staff of the department, who seem to have the blessings of the politicians.
Tamil Nadu Law Minister C Ve Shanmugam is the latest to join the system that is trying to scuttle the investigations into idol thefts and smuggling in Tamil Nadu, one of the banes of the HRCE Department. On Thursday (20 December 2018), the minister sought to know details of detection and arrests made in the temple idol thefts case, especially by the Crime Branch-CID Idol wing police led by Inspector General Pon Manickavel.
The minister himself should be aware of the details when he is out to hold brief for those who are under the scanner and pressure. Shanmugam has also charged Pon Manickavel of not obeying the government and functioning with ulterior motives.
Shanmugam’s outburst, is the latest this week after 21 police officers complained against Pon Manickavel earlier this week. The policemen, led by additional deputy superintendents of police K Elango and S Kumar, complained to the Director General of Police (DGP) T K Rajendran that Pon Manickavel was harassing and intimidating them. The policemen also sought the transfer from the CB-CID idol wing police.
The very fact that the policemen chose to address the media before they made their representation to the DGP is a enough indication of the fact that there is more to the case than meets the eye. If the police officials were keen on being transferred, shouldn’t they have gone to the DGP directly and submitted their request?
Before approaching the DGP, did these officials make such a request with Manickavel, through who the transfer plea should actually be channelled? Why was this not done and why hasn’t anyone questioned this indiscipline on the part of these policemen?
Second, why hasn’t any department action been taken against the policemen for going to the media even before they took up their alleged grievance with the DGP? Why hasn’t any minister or leader of Dravidian parties leaders question this?
There is more to the whole issue. As Manickavel told the media on Tuesday (18 December 2018), not a single policeman among the 21 who have gone to the DGP seeking transfer has filed any first information report (FIR) in the last 14 months. Nor has any one of these arrested any person.
Manickavel has asked them to show if they had filed any FIR or chargesheet in the last 14 months. The most surprising aspect of the alleged grievance of the policemen against Manickavel is its timing, which could be a dead give-away of the forces scuttling the idol wing police investigations.
The policemen’s representation to the DGP came within 24 hours of the arrest of N Thirumagal, the HRCE additional commissioner. Thirumagal was arrested in connection with a missing peacock idol from Chennai Kapaleeswarar temple 14 years ago.
When the idol wing began investigations, Thirumagal refused to cooperate. She told the police that she wouldn’t take cognisance of anything missing from the temple until the priests or employees told her. This despite the fact that her office as executive officer then was less than 100 feet away from the spot from where the idol went missing, and this was seen as something murky.
Also, records pertaining to this were tampered by HRCE staff when the investigations were on. This led to the Madras High Court calling for a strict action against those behind these acts. The fact here is that an effort was made to save Thirumagal at any cost but it seems to have failed.
The action of the policemen, aimed at scuttling the investigations in the Kapaleeswarar temple idol theft as also in other temples, only strengthens the argument that led by the ruling All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), efforts are on by Dravidian forces to ensure that the status quo continues in the corrupt HRCE department.
The policemen’s action only reminds us of what the Tamil Nadu government did when the idol wing police, led by Pon Manickavel, arrested another HRCE Additional Commissioner, M Kavitha, in the irregularities in making idols at Kanchipuram Ekambareswarar temple.
The HRCE department and other temple authorities went for making the idols of Somaskandar and Ezhavarkuzhali without any need for it. An examination by a team from Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) showed that not a single gram of gold was present in the new idols made despite the authorities recording use of gold.
When confronted with this piece of evidence, Kavitha tried to wriggle out by flaunting her political connections. Manickavel would have none of it and despite stiff opposition from government circles, including a senior police official and a senior minister, he arrested the HRCE official.
Within 24 hours of Kavitha’s arrest, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu transferred all the idol theft and smuggling cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This was done despite the Madras High Court hearing a slew of petitions on idol thefts and monitoring all investigations by Manickavel.
In the end, the CBI said it did not have resources to carry out the investigations, while the High Court quashed the government order besides initiating a contempt of court case. The Madras High Court has also ensured that investigations into idol thefts and smuggling will be carried out without any hindrance by giving extension to Manickavel’s service after 30 November, when he was to retire.
This time, when Thirumagal was arrested, the government couldn’t do what it did after Kavitha’s arrest. So, it resorted to the next best course: trigger a mutiny among the wing to put the entire investigations on the back foot.
There is a saying that “you should not only be smart but also be seen as one”. Unfortunately, those at the helm of the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu are neither smart nor seem to be one. Otherwise, why would they hurry their moves to scuttle the investigations that the objective becomes so obvious?
Opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), on its part, took part in a protest targeted at the HRCE department in September led by its president M K Stalin.
DMK and Stalin even had the word “Hindu” dropped from “Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments” department to take part in the protests! Surprisingly, it was the atheists and non-believers who dominated the protests.
Unfortunately for the Dravidian parties, the policemen who were encouraged to revolt against Manickavel, do not have an unblemished record. ADSP Kumar, for example, hadn’t reported to the idol wing for nearly 250 days.
If a policeman doesn’t report for work for 21 days, he is categorised a deserter and if the absence exceeds 60 days, he is a confirmed deserter. Isn’t then, as Manickavel says, he a deserter?
How did the Tamil Nadu government post him in the vigilance department despite his absence from work for over 250 days? So far, the DGP has issued transfer to only one police official, though it has not been implemented as the High Court will have to clear it.
When this is the case, how suddenly 21 police officials turn up before the DGP with a grievance? As a former CBI personnel J Mohanraj, who has filed a couple of petitions on the irregularities being committed in temples, says, the court should confiscate the mobile phones of these policemen to find out who instigated this mutiny.
As regards Law Minister Shanmugam’s questions, since 2012 the idol wing has recovered 878 idols, prevented the smuggling of over 850 idols abroad, and arrested over 100 accused.
The problem for the idol wing police, in general, and Manickavel, in particular, is that be it the ruling AIADMK or the opposition DMK, no one wants the HRCE department to be probed.
The department, with over 38,000 temples in Tamil Nadu under its wing, is like a goose laying golden eggs. Some temples have been demolished to give way to commercial buildings, some temple properties have been sold off illegally, some similar properties are illegally occupied, temple lands and properties aren’t getting proper or market rent.
The irregularities have been committed with the blessing of the political entity, be it the DMK or AIADMK that have been in power for nearly 51 years now in the state. Temples have been milked, looted and plundered by those very forces that don’t publicly believe in Hinduism or its gods.
Thankfully, the Madras High Court is hands on in this issue and the judges have been unsparing in their criticism of the how the HRCE department is functioning.