Why Tamil Nadu Government Wants The Idol Wing Clipped

Why Tamil Nadu Government Wants The Idol Wing ClippedI G Pon Manickavel
Snapshot
  • The Tamil Nadu government wants to see the back of I G Pon Manickavel of the idol wing of Tamil Nadu police despite his accomplishments in recovering stolen pieces of heritage and temple idols. We explain why.

An inspector general of police (IG) gets into an autorickshaw, chases a car, and tracks down smugglers who were getting away with a stolen panchaloha (five-metal) idol of a goddess that was to be sold for a whopping Rs 50 lakh.

Sounds like something right out of a blockbuster movie? This is the doing of I G Pon Manickavel of the idol wing of Tamil Nadu police, whom the state government is keen to take off these cases.

They recovered an Amman idol, weighing around 20 kg, and 1.5 ft tall, which is said to have been stolen from a temple in Tiruvallur district, as reported by the Deccan Chronicle.

But the Tamil Nadu government not only fails to see such accomplishments; it also wants to hand over all idol theft cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Madras High Court has, however, stayed it.

“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,” the government had told the special bench of the Madras High Court, hearing the cases earlier this month.

The court thankfully didn’t sanction a transfer, which is why the officer is doing what he does best – recover stolen pieces of heritage and temple idols.

Hearing a petition, filed by advocate “Elephant” Rajendran, that sought the quashing of the government order, the court on 8 August lambasted the Tamil Nadu government for its “hurried” action on a pending matter.

It also granted bail to Additional Commissioner of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) M Kavitha, whom the idol wing had arrested on 30 July, on charges of her involvement in the issue of two orders that granted permission for the collection of gold and cash for making the idols of Shiva, Parvati, Skandar (Murugan), and Ezhavarkuzhalamman in the Ekambareswarar temple case.

Alleging that Manickavel was hand in glove with Hindu outfits that want to malign the image of the department in order to take over the control of temples, the HR&CE federation protested the arrest, calling it an attempt to malign the officer.

On 22 August, the Tamil Nadu Temple Executive Officers Federation moved a petition seeking to be impleaded in the case, essentially asking to be heard in the case.

The HR&CE and the idol wing have been at loggerheads for sometime now. But if numbers are anything to go by, one wonders why the custodian of these temples would object to the actions of one who is up against the plunder of the heritage, of which these temples are treasure troves.

As reported recently by the Hindu, a total of 2,145 icons and 478 idols have gone missing from 803 temples from 1920 to 2017, of which 390 are untraceable. This, despite having a body of around 1,000 people that works for the “upkeep and maintenance” of the temples.

Formed in 1983, the special unit, called the idol wing, which is the only such unit in the country, was brought under the economics offences wing in 2000. It has recovered 60 idols so far. And Manickavel is the one responsible for many a stolen idol finding their way back to where they belong.

Manickavel has helped crack over 50 cases and recover 20 idols, including the two 1,000-year-old Chola bronzes that had been missing for over five decades. The idols of Rajaraja Chola and his queen, Lohamadevi, which went missing from the Brihadeeswarar temple at Tanjavur, were retrieved from a private museum in Ahmedabad.

On 31 May 2018, Manickavel and his team managed to get the idols back from the Calico museum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, within 90 days of registering a complaint. These statues were estimated to be valued at over Rs 100 crore in the international market. And the idol wing had accused temple officials of being complicit in the theft of the idols and the sale of the statues to Gautam Sarabhai for several crores.

But why does it look like the government would be glad when Manickavel retires this November? Why has the government been trying all the tricks up its sleeve to get the officer off the idol-theft probe? Why was the capability of the man and the team that brought the notorious antique smuggler Subhash Kapoor to book being questioned?

Having served the intelligence unit, and the crime branch, previously, Manickavel was moved out of the idol wing once before and handed charge of the railways, before he was reinstated by the special bench in the idol wing. His last transfer, though, was rumoured to have been a result of the political scenario in the state that saw the ouster of V K Sasikala, aide of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, whom the said officer is alleged to have connections with.

One of the allegations against Manickavel is that he had passed on a copy of an intelligence report, when he was heading it, to Sasikala. His critics point to this instance to say he is associated with Sasikala. On getting to know about it, Jayalalithaa had shunted him out of the department.

But in order to expedite the case related to the smuggling of antique idols, Pon Manickavel, then IG, railway, was once again entrusted with the probe in the pending cases of temple idol thefts by an order of the Madras High Court to the state government in July 2017. But it is only in September that the state government issued orders entrusting Manickavel with additional charge as IG of CB-CID Idol Wing to probe the cases.

Soon after, the DSP of Tiruvallur, Khader Basha, who had been on the run since February 2017 and accused of idol smuggling, was apprehended at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district.

In January this year, the HR&CE commissioner, while discussing the issue of Manickavel’s dissatisfaction over the quality of CCTV cameras installed in the strong rooms of the temples, conceded that idols were stolen. Three-hundred seventy-two stone idols and 832 icons belonging to 387 temples were reported as stolen and, out of more than 1,200 thefts reported, only 56 had been traced – in only 18 cases were the possession restored to the temples.

Even worse, the official had also said complaints were closed with the item being declared as not traceable in the theft of 385 icons/idols from 33 temples.

Since then, arguments between the idol wing officer and the HR&CE, many of whose officials, too, have been named in various cases, have only been getting louder. The officers, out on conditional bail, include one former commissioner, an additional commissioner, a couple of executive officers, and a senior sthapathi (the one who makes the idols).

The HR&CE’s mishandling of temples is best demonstrated in the Ekambareswarar temple and Palani temple cases, which were both being probed by Manickavel, who arrested key members of the administrative setup. Ekambareswarar temple case best demonstrates why the the department needs to be quickly relieved of its primary duty of administering Tamil Nadu’s rich temple ecosystem, as theft and corruption have caused untold damage to cultural and religious artefacts, and even considerable financial loss.

In March this year, renowned sthapathi Muthaiah was arrested in connection with the Palani idol scam on charges of misappropriating gold while casting a new idol for the Dhandayuthapani Swami temple in 2004 for replacing the “damaged” statue of the presiding deity.

In July, the court pulled up the Tamil Nadu government for deliberate delay in the implementation of its orders relating to the safety of idols in temples. After which, the state finally began working on the strongrooms. The court had also asked the government what action it had taken against the officials allegedly involved in such thefts.

No wonder, then, that the government tried to move the case to the CBI, citing reasons which the court luckily dismissed. Names of too many officials had begun to be mentioned in various idol-theft cases. And its attempts to take the dutiful officer off the charge had failed because the judiciary was backing his efforts and had not just reinstated him, but also warned the government not to attempt any act of contempt.

In this situation, the only way to get this off their hands would be to hand it over to a central agency which takes the entire process back to square one and spares the government the horror of having to be answerable for its fallacies.

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