Return of the gods

The busting of yet another idol-smuggling racket and the return of the stolen artefacts from the US are good signs, but a lot more needs to be done

  • The challenge before the idol wing and the ASI now is to unearth the entire smuggling network, though they are hampered by a shortage of manpower and infrastructure.

A focus on heritage & culture... I thank the US government for the return of the precious cultural artefacts to India,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Loretta E. Lynch, attorney general of the United States, returned to India the 1,000-year-old bronze statue of Ganesha and the Prathiyangira idol at the cultural repatriation ceremony held on June 6 in Washington, DC. Even as the US initiated the process of returning to India over 200 stolen artefacts, estimated to be worth 0670 crore, the idol wing of the Tamil Nadu criminal investigation department busted a racket headed by G. Deenadayalan, an 84-year old art smuggler from Chennai.

21THEWEEK THE WEEK's cover story on idol theft

On May 31, the idol wing arrested three alleged agents who sold the stolen items in Mumbai. Searches held in two godowns and a handicrafts gallery in Chennai led to the recovery of over 254 ancient stone idols, 151 antique artworks on canvas, 54 metal idols, 28 antique wooden artefacts and Thanjavur paintings and ivory statues, worth over several million dollars. Deenadayalan, who was on the run, surrendered on June 10, two days after the artefacts were returned by the US.

The busting of the racket and the return of the artefacts may have been a coincidence, but together they have sent a chill down the spine of art smugglers and associated museum and gallery owners and private connoisseurs. “Gods Forsaken”, THE WEEK's cover story dated April 3, 2016, which exposed the illegal trade of artefacts in India, had explained how investigating agencies in India were ill-equipped and lethargic in nailing the smugglers, citing the case of international idol smuggler Subhash Chandra Kapoor. The Deenadayalan case, too, has raised similar questions.

20Ponmanickavel The right message: Inspector-General of idol wing, A.G. Ponmanickavel, with the seized idols | R.G. Sasthaa

Deenadayalan, who had been dealing with artefacts for many years, was arrested only at the fag end of his career. He was in close contact with Kapoor and his associate Sanjeevi Asokan. Asokan was arrested in 2009, while Kapoor was picked up from Germany two years later. A letter sent by Asokan’s Selva Exports to Kapoor’s Nimbus Import and Export Inc. in USA, dated January 18, 2007, made it clear that Deenadayalan was also part of the network. THE WEEK has a copy of the letter, in which Asokan gave Kapoor Deenadayalan's bank account details for remitting $11,400. According to sources in the Tamil Nadu police, the idol wing had a copy of the letter even before Kapoor was arrested, but it failed to move against Deenadayalan. “The idol wing knew about the network and Deenadayalan’s connections. But there was a delay in getting him arrested,” said a senior IPS officer. He said the return of the idols from the US probably spurred the present action against Deenadayalan.

“The 200-odd artefacts returned to India is just a portion of the idols seized by US investigation agencies under Operation Hidden Idol. More than 2,800 artefacts were seized from Kapoor’s warehouse in Manhattan alone,” said S. Vijayakumar, a Singapore-based private investigator and blogger. His blog “Poetry in stone” explains how such high-profile returns are few and far between, compared to the extent of the loot. “Thousands of artefacts are smuggled out each year. But the lack of effort shown by the investigating agencies in going after the thieves and prosecuting them is disturbing,” he said. For instance, the trial in Kapoor’s case started only recently although he was arrested in 2011.

Deenadayalan's arrest, however, seems to have conveyed a message that India has become serious in its pursuit of idol thieves. The police have got hold of computers, pen drives and documents from Deenadayalan’s gallery in Chennai. A native of Andhra Pradesh, Deenadayalan started off as a businessman dealing in handicrafts. He soon started managing a well-connected network of people stealing idols and statues from religious sites. His assistants Kumar, Rajamani and Mansingh collected the idols, which were sent to Deenadayalan’s bungalow in Adyar, Chennai. These were then taken to his godown near Alwarpet, packed in wooden boxes and sent to Mumbai. Here, the idols were put in huge containers labelled as handicrafts and were shipped out to the US and Europe. The authorities are now busy unravelling the working of the Deenadayalan network, trying to plug loopholes in the antiquities law, which were exploited by idol thieves.

21smugglerDeenadayalan Smuggler Deenadayalan

Sources said tip-offs against Deenadayalan turned out to be false all these years. The police registered a case against him in 2005. “He was the prime accused in an idol smuggling case. But he jumped bail and escaped to Bangkok. He later resumed his business in Chennai,” said Vijayakumar.

Ponmanickavel said Deenadayalan had a perfect buyer-seller relationship with Kapoor and his team. The challenge before the idol wing and the ASI now is to unearth the entire smuggling network, though they are hampered by a shortage of manpower and infrastructure. While the ASI and the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) have initiated steps to improve the security in temples, the investigating agencies are handicapped by the fact that there are no official records available on the idols and artefacts in many of the old temples in south India.

The ASI, Chennai circle, has decided to rope in the Central Industrial Security Force to guard monuments under its purview. Presently, it maintains 251 protected monuments in Chennai and Puducherry, including world heritage sites like Mamallapuram. HR&CE has launched a survey in 4,000 temples in the districts of Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri to identify the missing idols. The team of officials undertaking the survey has so far found 26 missing idols. Sources said the survey would soon be expanded to other districts.

Slowly, but steadily, the Indian gods are returning home.

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Topics : #Tamil Nadu | #crime

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