Ground Zero Kerala

How the law caught up with an artful dodger in Kerala

“The petitioners ran out of patience as Monson’s claims turned even more outrageous — as he even invoked the Prime Minister to sell his story.” The house in Kaloor where Monson Mavunkal was staying.   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

It was around 10 p.m. on September 25. After celebrating their daughter’s engagement, the Mavunkal family got ready to retire for the evening at their house in Vallayil in Cherthala municipality of Alappuzha district. Suddenly, the police rushed in — some plain-clothed and others uniformed. They went over to the patriarch of the family, 52-year-old Monson Mavunkal, and handcuffed him. Bouncers in Monson’s house, dressed in body-hugging tights, jumped in to save their master. They flexed their biceps and puffed out their chests but retreated meekly when the men and women flashed their IDs. Some took to their heels, eyewitnesses say.

“I was about to shut my shop when I heard the commotion. I saw a few young men running. I stopped some of them — they had had lemonade at my shop earlier — and asked them what was happening. But they were too flustered to reply,” says Prashanth whose shop is about 50 metres from the Mavunkal household.

How the law caught up with an artful dodger in Kerala
 

Monson’s arrest didn’t make it to the next day’s newspapers as the Crime Branch (CB) managed to keep it well under wraps. But a day later, headlines flashed everywhere in Kerala about the man who had allegedly swindled tens of people of hundreds of crores; a fabulist who had wilfully blurred the line between fact and fiction for personal gain.

Seller of ‘antiquities’

“Monson had moved in more than a decade ago and came across as a perfect gentleman. He would sponsor both the local church and temple festivals. He created the impression that he was a hotshot antiquities dealer. So, you can imagine how his arrest came as a shock,” says John Varghese, Monson’s immediate neighbour in Cherthala.

The drama then shifted some 45 km from Cherthala to Kaloor in the heart of Kochi city as CB sleuths raided Monson’s rented house, the size of a mansion. This house had doubled up as his private museum and stored what he had claimed were rare antiquities.

Also read | Tale of deception triggers political face-off

Monson boasted that his collections included the Staff of Moses, silver pieces received by Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus Christ to Roman soldiers, the throne of Tipu Sultan, a copy of the first edition of the Holy Bible, books and parchments from the libraries of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji, the original and hitherto unknown works of Raja Ravi Varma and Pablo Picasso, and crores worth of chemicals that were used for a rocket launch and were certified, he claimed, by a scientist from the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Monson managed to pass off the majority of these cheap knockoffs as rare antiquities. He even got them showcased by media houses. He successfully made people believe that he was an antiquities dealer — by the time he was arrested, after six of his victims jointly petitioned the Chief Minister, he had allegedly cheated people of crores of rupees. The six petitioners said he had cheated them of ₹10 crore.

Also read | Petitioners against Monson allege threat to life

Monson told everyone that his bank account had been credited with ₹2.62 lakh crore from selling antiquities abroad, and had been frozen under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) since July 2010. He showed bank statements, Finance Ministry papers and even Reserve Bank of India documents — all forged — to his victims to convince them to fund his (non-existent) legal fight to get his funds released.

While his collection of ‘antiquities’ and nearly two dozen premium cars showcased his wealth, his connections with the police, politicians, civil servants, film stars, and business fraternity were shown by countless photos and videos. These further convinced his victims of Monson’s influence.

 

“Whenever we asked for our money, he organised a mediation by these influential people and kept fleecing us,” says Anoop V. Ahammad, one of the petitioners who allegedly gave Monson nearly ₹6 crore in less than four years. Monson allegedly once organised a meeting in which a senior Congress MP from Kerala agreed to mediate on his behalf through the Public Accounts Committee, constituted by Parliament, to expedite the release of his funds.

One of Monson’s immediate neighbours, who wished to remain anonymous, in Kaloor recollects how the narrow lane along his house was often choked with the vehicles of visiting celebrities.

Monson even took some of the petitioners to Delhi, where he reportedly got them to exit through the green channel at the airport and arranged a three-star vehicle, purportedly allotted to senior police officials, to shift them to a premium hotel to further prove his influence. He gave away premium vehicles and rare ‘antiquities’ to placate the petitioners at various points.

 

Then, some eight months ago, the petitioners ran out of patience as Monson’s claims turned even more outrageous — he even invoked the Prime Minister to sell his story. “That was when we turned really suspicious and started gathering evidence against him and cross-verifying his claims. We wanted to bind him to something legally tenable. We insisted on an agreement to get our money back,” says Anoop.

As the demand for a refund got shriller, Monson even sent two of the petitioners to West Asia to generate funds through the sale of antiquities, convincing them that he could not accompany them as there was a travel ban in place. When they demanded ownership documents of the antiquities, he instead gave them police documents calling for high security for his ‘rare collections’.

 

As persuasion no longer worked, Monson apparently turned to coercion. He flashed the three guns he had and even invoked his connection with the gangster Dawood Ibrahim. He weaved a story of how he killed a person and hung the body from a metro pillar in Mumbai using his connections. He even showed injury marks on his body as proof of his rough life.

Nevertheless, the petitioners got him to agree to return the money within three months earlier this year. At the same time, they started digging into his past.

The lies unravel

Monson was one of four children of a family from a humble background in Cherthala.

“Though he carried his father’s family name, he wasn’t in contact with the Mavunkal family. He grew up at his mother’s place in Chaaramangalam in Cherthala. He moved to Idukki after getting married. Then he moved to Vallayil and built a home on the land he got as his share from his father more than a decade earlier. To be honest, we had suspected something fishy as he turned up escorted by premium cars and bodyguards,” says Jose Mavunkal, a relative.

Monson’s life in Rajakumari, Idukki, where his wife got a job as a schoolteacher, remains largely unknown. He reportedly used to deal with used cars and electronic equipment.

 

“He was a very decent bloke who did pretty much everything. He was mostly in Ernakulam even then before he left the place permanently after his wife opted for voluntary retirement,” says Joshy, a wiring worker who was very close to Monson during his days in Rajakumari.

But Aji Nettoor, his driver for over 10 years, does not speak of Monson glowingly. Instead, he has some damning things to share about his former employer. “I left him eight months ago after I found that he had transacted over ₹2 crore through my account without my knowledge. He had opened bank accounts in the names of his employees using his address and had also handled the passbook, chequebook, and ATM. I confronted him when he asked me to lie about a transaction made through my account and left him soon after that,” he says.

It emerged then that Monson had a case registered against him at Panthalam police station in Pathanamthitta in 2020 for cheating a man called Rajendran Pillai of Sreevalsam Group of ₹6.27 crore using the same FEMA plot.

“We were promised an interest-free loan of up to ₹100 crore to tide over our financial crisis once his frozen funds were released. But then we realised that he was a fraud and registered the case,” says Shahul Hameed, manager of Sreevalsam Group.

As a counter, Monson registered a case alleging that the group didn’t pay the remaining lease running into crores for using his 20-odd premier vehicles kept at the group’s yard. Despite the alleged high-level police intervention to stop it, the Alappuzha District Crime Branch took over the case and found it to be without basis. Now 19 of those vehicles, which Monson had claimed included the one used by Bollywood actor Kareena Kapoor, remain in the custody of Cherthala police.

In another case, Rajeev Sreedharan, a resident of Pala in Kottayam district, allegedly lost ₹1.72 crore after falling for Monson’s offer to get 500 acres of an estate at Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad which was on lease to the Madhya Pradesh government.

Monson is also accused of blackmailing a sexual abuse victim with the footage of the abuse to withdraw the case in which his friend was the perpetrator. Ernakulam South Police registered a case in this regard earlier this year and has sent his mobile phone for forensic examination.

Also read | Congress MP Behanan alleges global racket behind ‘antique cheating’

The Monson saga keeps throwing up names along the way. These include Anitha Pullayil, a Malayali expatriate with Italian citizenship, whose association with the accused and the high echelons of the State Police made headlines. Pullayil has since then gone on record saying she came to know Monson through the Loka Malayali Sabha, which consists of Malayali expatriates. She admitted to having recommended, as an acquaintance, Monson’s private museum to a former State Police chief but claimed to have distanced herself from him after being warned of his fraudulent ways. She even warned the petitioners about Monson.

Monson used his multiple self-styled profiles to his advantage. Besides claiming to be a German-trained cosmetologist and having an honorary doctorate, he claimed to be the managing director of Kalinga Kalyan Foundation, patron of the Pravasi Malayali Federation and allegedly impersonated the chairman of TV Samskara channel, a charge which is now being investigated by CB.

A storm in Kerala

Monson’s arrest and the pictures and videos that bombarded social media from then also triggered a political storm. Detractors of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president K. Sudhakaran found it a perfect weapon to attack him as he was mentioned in the petition. Sudhakaran’s photograph at the alleged trickster’s house went viral. Sudhakaran denied any association with Monson, but this did not cut any ice with them.

Monson Mavunkal (blue shirt), now in custody. Photo: Special Arrangement

Monson Mavunkal (blue shirt), now in custody. Photo: Special Arrangement  

 

The ruling Left Democratic Front was cornered as well, after top police officers, including then State Police chief Loknath Behera, were found pictured with Monson’s fake antiquities. This even forced Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who also holds the Home Ministry portfolio, to warn the police that they should be careful about their contacts. Behera, now the managing director of Kochi Metro Rail Limited, found himself in a tight spot and he even had to explain that his current leave of absence was not due to the Monson episode, but was for something unrelated.

Monson’s alleged trickery also touched a raw nerve with Malayali society when it emerged that a copper inscription from his collection was used to prove a point in favour of the entry of women into Sabarimala, the hilltop Ayyappa temple, during the violent protests of 2018. A reporter with a television news channel, who is now in the dock for his alleged close connections with Monson, first broke the story, which was later followed up by the CPI(M)’s mouthpiece.

 

The inscription, claimed to be over three centuries old, reportedly stated that the hill shrine had followed a Dravidian ritualistic tradition in the olden days, thus justifying women’s entry. The Pandalam royal family, trustees of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, has sought an investigation into the authenticity of the inscription.

Suresh Kumar, a Thiruvananthapuram-based sculptor, is another of Monson’s alleged victims. He is steeped in debts after he sold nine sculptures worth ₹80 lakh to Monson in 2019 but received only ₹7 lakh. “I had been visiting him at least once every week to get my money. Now, I am left with a debt of ₹30 lakh and live in a single room. I had an open-heart surgery and the meagre pension of ₹1,600 is not even enough to buy medicines,” says the sculptor with 45 years of experience. Investigators have recovered four of the sculptures, which Kumar says were badly redone, probably to pass off as antiquities.

About 70% of Monson’s fake antiquities were bought from a man called Santhosh in Ernakulam who used to rent them for film shoots. Most of his premium vehicles were bought from a Bengaluru-based dealer to whom Monson allegedly still owes a large sum.

“Only three of the eight premium cars in his house in Kaloor were road-worthy. Most of them were registered outside the State and we don’t have the details in our database. Even the details of the three cars in our database will have to be verified,” says Ernakulam Regional Transport Officer P.M. Shabeer.

Also read | SIT probing Monson case expanded

Customs also initially showed some interest in the vehicles but lost interest as none of them were imported in Monson’s name. “In the case of antiquities, the owner is bound to explain their procurement. But in this case, even that didn’t apply as the majority of them were fake,” says a senior Customs official.

Monson also claimed to possess ivory and a number of valuable conches, forcing forest officers to wade in. “The ivory pair and conches prima facie appear to be fake. But we will send them to the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology for scientific assessment nevertheless,” says Geo Basil Paul, Range Officer, Kodanad.

Chasing the money trail

Since his arrest, CB has registered five cases against Monson — four for cheating and one for impersonation. What seems to trouble the investigation team is the fact that he had reportedly collected only part of the money that he had allegedly swindled through bank accounts, and that too belonging to his employees; most of the funds were received by hand. For a man accused of cheating people of crores, his bank account was found to have a balance of merely ₹200. He reportedly spent about ₹25 lakh a month to maintain his lavish lifestyle, including an array of bouncers.

“It will be hard to make the cheating charges stick since there is little money trail through his account. It is too early to say whether he had stacked the money elsewhere,” say senior CB sources.

Also read | Monson fabricated antiquities for govt, says Surendran

With Monson’s alleged frauds growing, State Police Chief Anil Kant has formed a special investigation squad headed by Sparjan Kumar, Inspector General, Thiruvananthapuram Range, to probe the cases against him. Meanwhile, the Kerala High Court has lambasted the State police. It even went to the extent of wondering whether the CB investigation will be effective considering the allegations against officers of various ranks.

Justice Devan Ramachandran asked the State Police Chief why the police gave Monson protection instead of taking action against him when he claimed to be in possession of valuable articles.

Monson, it seems, was arrested in the nick of time, for the petitioners who conducted a parallel probe against him allege that he was in the midst of some new fraudulent activity. He apparently claimed to have sold 93 articles to the Qatari royal family for ₹15,000 crore for display in a museum there.

Going by his strike rate in conning people, Monson would have probably pulled off even that with ease.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 6:54:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/how-the-law-caught-up-with-an-artful-dodger/article37013219.ece

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