Idol Wing’s powers called into question

HC says only Centre-authorised officers can make seizures

November 17, 2018 01:01 am | Updated 08:00 am IST - CHENNAI

Chennai, 11/4/2008:  Madras High Court  in Chennai on Friday.  Photo: V. Ganesan.

Chennai, 11/4/2008: Madras High Court in Chennai on Friday. Photo: V. Ganesan.

The Madras High Court on Friday questioned the authority of Idol Theft Wing CID officials to conduct searches and seize antiques when the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 empowers only officers authorised by the Centre to do so and produce the seized articles before the jurisdictional court.

A Division Bench of Justices R. Mahadevan and P.D. Audikesavalu raised the question during the hearing of an anticipatory bail application filed by Chennai-based businesswoman Kiran Velagapudi (Kiran Rao) in a case booked against her pursuant to seizure of 23 stone sculptures from her residence here recently.

Finding force in the submissions of senior counsel R. Shunmugasundaram, the senior judge in the Bench wanted to know under what authority the Idol Theft Wing CID was seizing antiquities when Section 23 of the Act, aimed at preventing smuggling and fraudulent dealings, confers the power only on officers authorised by the Centre.

‘Exercising the Cr.P.C.’

Inspector General of Police A.G. Ponn Manickavel told the court that his team was fully empowered to conduct searches and seize antiquities by exercising powers conferred on the police under the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.). He said even a Grade II police constable was empowered to do so.

“When we get credible information of a cognisable offence having been committed and when there are materials to suspect that stolen idols of Hindu deities are buried or concealed, we can search and seize,” he said. When the judge asked, “Who decides that they are stolen idols,” the IGP replied: “I decide.”

He claimed that in the present case he had concrete information of stolen idols having been buried underground.

The IGP also stated that his team draws its powers only from the Cr.P.C. and it looks up to the 1972 Act only for reference. However, the Bench directed him to put his submissions in writing and adjourned the hearing to November 22.

Earlier, senior counsel, representing Ms. Rao, pointed out that the Idol Wing CID in its written objections to the advance bail plea had categorically conceded that the sculptures seized from Ms. Rao were actually purchased by her from one Dheendayal of Aparna Art Gallery even as per his confession and not stolen by her.

“Once it is admitted that they are not stolen sculptures what remains is mere omission to register them with the competent authorities and such omission will not be an offence,” Mr. Shunmugasundaram said.

He also claimed that the investigating authorities had miserably failed to prove that the seized sculptures were antiques.

He pointed out that as per Section 24 of the 1972 Act, antiquity of an object could be determined only by the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India or an officer nominated by him/her. However, in the present case, Idol Theft Wing officials had obtained an opinion from a retired Director of ASI and such a course was impermissible, he said.

Directive to Centre

Later taking up writ petitions filed by advocate ‘Elephant’ G. Rajendran and activist ‘Traffic’ K.R. Ramaswamy against the State government’s decision to hand over the investigation into all idol theft cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the judges directed the Centre to make its stand clear by November 22.

Advocate General Vijay Narayan told the court that though CBI was not inclined to accept the cases, the State government had furnished information related to all 113 pending cases to the Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions on Friday morning.

After recording his submissions, the judges directed a Central Government Standing Counsel to ascertain the Ministry’s stand in a week.

“Your department is not under your control. The CBI has already said it is not inclined to investigate the cases. Anyway, we will call it on November 22 and see what happens,” he said.

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