I G Pon Manickavel
Snapshot
  • The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of Tamil Nadu is notorious not only for its own malfunctioning but also for preventing other agencies from doing their job.

The early 1980s witnessed a spurt in the theft of panchaloha (five-metal) idols in Tamil Nadu. It left people agitated, resulting in the setting up of Tamil Nadu Idol Wing Police. The wing was set up under the Crime Branch’s Criminal Investigation Department, and in 2000, it was brought under the Economic Offences Wing (EOW).

The idol wing, comprising 30 police personnel, was a low-profile one until 14 July 2012. That was the day when Subhash Kapoor, a New York-based antique dealer behind idol thefts and smuggling, was handed over to the idol wing.

The wing was then headed by Pon Manickavel, now Inspector General of Tamil Nadu Railway Police, who has been given additional charge of the idol wing by the Madras High Court in July 2017. Since then, the idol wing has gone about its job professionally and is giving sleepless nights to many idol smugglers and thieves. More importantly, some of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) officials in Tamil Nadu, besides a few police officials and bureaucrats, are not able to breathe easy, given their complicity in some of the idol theft cases.

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The arrests of Kapoor and, subsequently, a few others like Khader Basha, Sanjivi Ashokan, and Deenadayalan in the last few months have led to a standoff between the police and HR&CE Department, with the public backing police efforts to retrieve stolen and lost idols.

The idol wing’s progress in the theft and smuggling cases can be gauged by the fact that since 2012, it has recovered 878 idols, prevented the smuggling of over 850 idols abroad, and arrested over 100 accused.

One of the most important idols to be recovered is the 900-year-old dancing Shiva idol, stolen from Sripuranthan in 2006. This was handed over by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited New Delhi in 2014.

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The description of efforts at idol recovery thus far may make it look like it’s all been smooth sailing until now, but, in fact, the Tamil Nadu idol wing is one of the organisations that has come under severe pressure. Making its job tougher is the strange behaviour of the HR&CE Department.

Take the case of the charge sheet against M Kavitha, HR&CE Assistant Commissioner, arrested for her alleged involvement in the Kanchipuram Ekambareswarar Temple idol case. The idol wing has sought a few details from the HR&CE Department and even a month and a half after a notice was served, it didn’t get any response. More importantly, when a government official is arrested, he/she should be suspended if the detention exceeds 48 hours. In the case of Kavitha, it took nearly 41 days before she was suspended, and that, too, after the Madras High Court questioned the inaction.

“When the government servant (HR&CE Assistant Commissioner) was not suspended after 48 hours, the HR&CE Commissioner should have been suspended by the government. Has anyone bothered?” wondered an official source, not wanting to identify the department.

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In the Kanchipuram Ekambareswarar Temple idol theft case, orders were placed to make idols of Somaskandar, which weighed 50 kg, and Ezhavarkuzhali, weighing 76 kg. While there was no proper reason to commission the Somaskandar idol, for Ezhavarkuzhali the reason was a minor damage—again, a specious one. The idols, made with donations from outside, weighed far more than the original one. The new Somaskandar idol weighed 67 kg and the Ezhavarkuzhali, 101 kg. The idol wing sought the help of Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) to examine the idols’ contents. It turned out that not a single gram of gold was found in any idol.

“You can understand if the gold makes up 3.5 or 4 per cent against the required 5 per cent of the materials used in the idols. But, how can it be zero?” the source wonders, adding that the case has seen the idol wing under pressure like never before.

When the idol wing police went to arrest her, Kavitha reportedly flaunted her proximity to the late J Jayalalithaa’s aide, Sasikala Natarajan. In order to influence Manickavel, a senior state minister of his community tried to stop him from arresting the HR&CE official. An additional director general of police almost fell at the idol wing chief’s feet, saying he had been asked by a top bureaucrat in the state to prevent Kavitha’s arrest.

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When all this failed to move Manickavel, the Tamil Nadu government passed an order the very next morning, transferring all idol cases that were being investigated by the wing to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Subsequently, the Madras High Court stayed the transfer, and the CBI has said it would be unable to conduct the probe as it is short-staffed. This battle of the idol wing continues in the court.

Another high-profile case handled by the idol wing was the one relating to irregularities committed in making the Palani Dandayudhapani Temple idol. A political observer said the Tamil Nadu government wanted to make a new idol on the advice of a Kerala astrologer to Jayalalithaa. The astrologer told Jayalalithaa and Sasikala that the Navabashana idol should be changed to improve their political fortunes.

To make the idol, the Palani temple authorities got 5 kg of gold from the Thiruthani Murugan Temple. “Records with Thiruthani Murugan Temple are clear that it donated 5 kg of gold to the Palani temple to make the idol,” says the observer, adding that the gold was never used in making the new panchaloha idol.

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“As a result, the Murugan idol soon turned dark,” the observer said.

Official sources say the retired HR&CE commissioner P Dhanapal, who avoided his arrest for quite some time before surrendering at a local court, was the major player in this scam.

“Further, at Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple, an idol had gone missing. The official in question, who is now an assistant commissioner of the HR&CE, says she wasn’t aware of the missing idol some years ago as no one complained to her. The official, who is one of the suspects, told the idol wing police that she had never visited the sanctum sanctorum of the temple despite her office being just 100 yards from it when she was the executive officer. She maintains, during interrogation, that it is not her job to file a complaint on her own and check to see if things are in order,” official sources said.

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If these were not enough, the idol wing is now put in charge of recovering antiques and idols from the residence of Ranvir Shah, a businessman. Shah’s defence counsel himself put up his hands in the court while seeking bail, saying he couldn’t respond to a very convincing case the idol wing had come up with. Industrialist Kiran Rao of the KCP Group is also a suspect in the case, and both had to produce Rs 5 lakh surety bond to the court for obtaining bail.

These are just a few cases that the idol wing has been investigating. The official source said more trouble is on the cards for some of the government servants, who have connived with idol smugglers and thieves.

“At least three senior police officials and four bureaucrats could be arrested in these cases,” the source said. Some politicians have also indirectly supported these elements. All eyes are now on how the Madras High Court bench comprising Justice R Mahadevan and P D Audikesavulu responds to the situation when Manickavel is set to retire in November this year.

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“In the last five-six years, especially after the arrest of Subhash Kapoor, idol smugglers and thieves have been keeping a low profile. They are all itching to get back and make up for all the time they have lost,” the source said. This would mean that if Manickavel is not given extension to take the pending cases to their logical conclusion, all hell can break loose.

The idol wing’s dilemma is that some of the accused, mainly some priests, have been trapped without really realising the implications. Efforts are being made to turn them approvers for two reasons. One, it will strengthen the idol wing’s cases, and two, it will not send wrong signals that priests are being targeted.

As the events have played out until now, the HR&CE comes out with its image badly tainted. The idol wing’s task is an unenviable one—fighting against all odds.

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This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor—you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

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