Missing idols case
While some observers say Pon Manickavel’s legal acumen and lack of fear of government authorities are reasons for his success, others have called his new appointment by Madras High Court as judicial overreach.
Screenshot from YouTube/Thandora

In early November, a month after Idol Wing officials held raids at Chennai-based businessman Ranvir Shah's properties across Tamil Nadu, a heated argument was underway in the Madras High Court. Rangarajan Naramsimhan, a priest from Srirangam was seated at the court hall and watched apprehensively as Shah's counsel argued for anticipatory bail for the idol 'collector'. Shah’s counsel alleged that the Idol Wing's raids were illegal and that they were trespassing on private property. Over 200 idols were seized from Shah's properties and most of them, according to the Idol Wing lack necessary documentation. Yet, the public prosecutor who stood before Justice Mahadhevan to represent the investigating team, seemed out of depths, and was struggling to respond.

"That is when Idol Wing IG Pon Manickavel cut in," recalls Rangarajan. "He came up to the judge to defend his actions and stated that he had the authority under relevant sections of the IPC and CrPC to search the residence of an accused. To this, the judge asked, who decides who is a thief and who is not? And without missing a beat Pon Mancikavel said, 'I do'," says the priest. 

Rangarajan is no mere by-stander in the battle to protect Tamil Nadu's ancient idols. He is in fact responsible for investigations being currently conducted in connection to idols in two temples - the missing peacock in the Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar temple and the damage to the main Perumal idol in the Srirangam temple. He is also amongst Pon Manickavel's harshest critics, having filed a case in High Court over the inordinate delay by the IG in investigating the Srirangam case.

But on that warm November afternoon, even he found himself grateful for Pon Manickavel's presence in court. 

"The Idol Wing chief explained exactly how his action fell under the powers vested by law on the team and in the next hearing on the matter, the court dismissed the argument made by Ranvir Shah's counsel on the illegality of the raid," explains the priest.  

And on Friday, Rangarajan was amongst the experts, admirers, colleagues and even detractors to welcome the appointment of Pon Manickavel as a special investigator in the Idol Wing, on the eve of his retirement. 

 Pon Manickavel 2.0

On what was supposed to be the last day of the Idol Wing chief's police career, a steady stream of visitors queued up to express their gratitude for his work in retrieving the state's stolen treasures. Except by the time evening approached good wishes turned into congratulations. Manickavel was appointed as a 'Special Officer' for a year by the Madras High Court to continue probing cases for the department. What more, he could report his findings directly to the court and had no need to inform the state government of his actions. 

This was not the first time the Madras High Court went out of its way to ensure that he continued to probe the cases without interference. In July, after the government transferred the IG to the Railways, the court ordered that Manickavel should be made head of a special team for completion of trial of all pending idol theft cases. Last month, the court even directed the Tamil Nadu Government to not take adverse action against him or his team without its permission. And finally on Friday, it struck down the government order transferring the idol cases to the CBI, making it clear that Manickavel will be handling them. 

So what make Pon Manickavel indispensable?

"It is his grasp over the legalities of every case," says a senior officer who works with Pon Manickavel in the Idol Wing. In his 28-year stint, the police officer who has often displayed thorough knowledge of different Indian criminal laws gained prominence for retrieving several idols that were decorating the art galleries in different parts of the world. "Retrieving these idols not only required strong investigation skills but once we got them back, we needed to ensure that our case stood up to legal scrutiny. In the last five years, we have registered 113 FIRs and brought 10 idols from abroad. 60 men who were involved in smuggling have also been arrested," he adds. 

This senior official says that over 1000 idols have been retrieved in the last six years and adds that Manickavel is a good instructor too. 

"We are a very small team and are constantly multi-tasking. Pon Manickavel knew how to handle the cases we brought in court and ensure the paperwork was thorough. He actually taught us how to go about the cases as well," he says. "His absence would have definitely created problems for us," he adds. 

In his last six years in the Idol Wing, where he held multiple positions, Pon Manickavel projected himself as a huge threat to smugglers. Arresting high profile art dealers like Subash Kapoor and Deenadayalan added credibility to this image. He also had a hand in arresting some government officials for their roles in robbery of idols.

"He studied the law closely and even taught members of the media which sections apply where," says Subramanian R, principal correspondent with Puthiya Thalaimurai, who has been covering Idol Wing cases since 2005. "There was a stark difference in the way the Idol Wing functioned before and after Pon Mancikavel. Earlier, we just went for press conferences and were informed if any recoveries were made. But after the current IG came, developments were much faster and the rotten apples within the wing were exposed. It was his legal acumen that helped him do this," he adds. 

In 2017, thirteen years after idols from a temple in Tirunelveli district were stolen, the Idol Wings chief reopened the cases suspecting irregularities in the probe. 

"The probe in the case was done by a team headed by DSP Jeevanandham and inspector Khader Batcha," recalls Subramanian. "The chargesheet was filed, trial was over and it was actually judgement time when Pon Manickavel came into the picture. He realised there were irregularities in the investigation and changed the entire case," he adds. 

It was revealed that the DSP discovered idols had been stolen from Narumboonathar temple and hid this fact. He further helped the smugglers take abroad panchaloha idols worth Rs 24 crore. And as a result of this DSP Jeevanandham was arrested and his links to Subash Kapoor are being investigated.

'Not afraid to do his duty'

"His absolute lack of fear in carrying out his duty is what sets him apart, " says advocate 'Elephant' Rajendran, who went to court seeking an extension in the Idol Wing chief's tenure. In December 2017, Manickavel even arrested a top HRCE official M Kavitha on suspicion of involvement in misappropriation of funds and gold collected towards making two news idols at the Sri Ekambareswar Temple in Kancheepuram.

"When her case came in court, I was threatened by an ADGP to say I have no objection to her bail," reveals advocate Rajendran. "But I refused. This is the kind of threats that those retrieving idols face every day," he adds. 

This year, senior staff members of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department threatened to go on long leave, claiming they were fed up with the bullying and arm-twisting by the Idol Wing. They even alleged that they were being made to give confessions implicating co-workers. 

But Rangarajan dismisses this allegation and says Manickavel's inquiries have always been fair. 

"I was present when he questioned Thirumagal, the then HRCE Assistant Commissioner over the missing statue in Mylapore. He was kind but stern in his approach. He even told her not to be afraid and was not intimidating at all. In fact, despite her office being 20 feet from the main sannidhi, she claimed she had never seen the peacock statue. An apparent lie, but he didn't try to manipulate the statement. He was neutral in his approach," says Rangarajan. "He also asked me, the complainant, several probing questions and made it clear that he won't take up the case without clear evidence of wrong doing. It is only after I gave him the necessary information, was he convinced," he adds. 

Despite Manickavel's work so far for the department, experts believe that the Idol Wing's functioning is far from satisfactory. 

"His tenure has been extended but this also means that he has to procure results within a year now," says Vijay Kumar, author of Idol Thief and co-founder of India Pride Project. "The team has to be more diligent in the filing of cases. While Subash Kapoor is in jail, several of the other accused are currently out on bail. In order for this extension to be meaningful, there should be clear deliverables and court should ask him to outline his objectives clearly. There should be a monthly review meeting," he adds. 

Vijay further points out that this extension is an overreach by the judiciary and says that IPS officer Abhay Kumar who was appointed to replace Pon Mancikavel should have been given a chance. 

"By doing this, the court will make it difficult for the Idol Wing to procure support from the government. They could have observed the new officer's work for six months and then taken a call on what to do," he says. 

But advocate Rajendran who fought for this extension, would hear none of it. 

"The whole reason for delay all these years, is because the government is trying to protect its own authorities and the rich smugglers. There was not even a single arrest in any case till Mancikavel took over," he points out. "In this one year, he will achieve even more."