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The man who stole gods

Key custodian Thangavel opens the doors of the Kasi Viswanathar temple in Nagalkuzhi village, Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: NARAYAN LAKSHMAN

A merciless sun beats down on the throng outside the Trichy Central Prison in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. Not the best of conditions for a two-hour wait amidst a jostling multitude anxious to meet their kin in the massive jail complex.

Suddenly a man appears, walking through a crowd of inmates in the prison yard. It is clear he is heading for the warden’s office. Clad in a light blue t-shirt and mud brown shorts, he is not in regulation prison wear, which is all white. With his hair a mess of unruly grey, a days-old stubble, and eyebrows scrunched up in a strange expression of curiosity and timidity, 69-year-old Subhash Kapoor doesn’t look the part of a man said to be the kingpin of an international gang of idol thieves.

He hasn’t given an interview for more than five years. But the erstwhile art dealer and celebrity donor who moved around with New York’s swish set opens up, under the watchful eyes of the jail warden.

In the course of a conversation that lasts over two hours, he spins an intriguing, and sometimes confusing, tale of complicity and collusion. The story he tells is of a well-organised racket run by senior police officers who worked hand-in-glove with smugglers to enable the theft of temple idols from all over India, of men in law enforcement who built fortunes through extortion.

High-value prisoner

Media accounts have portrayed Kapoor as a smooth-talking criminal mastermind. In person, he was anything but that. He appeared tired and old and kept complaining about his multiple illnesses — early-stage cancer, diabetes, lupus. But there were no external signs of any grave ailment.

Kapoor bemoaned the fact that Tamil Nadu’s criminal justice system would not let him get even an MRI done to detect the true extent of the cancer. In court, he had to argue his case for medical treatment himself, which meant that language was another barrier to better care.

And yet, for the multi-nation, multi-agency teams investigating the global idol-smuggling network, Kapoor is a prize catch. He was first detained in Germany in 2011, after the Interpol issued a Red Corner alert. Subsequently he was extradited to India.

 

His deviant roots, however, seem to go back farther, or should we say, to his father, Parshotam Ram Kapoor. The older Kapoor was reportedly tried on allegations of art theft in the 1970s.

Affinity for idols seems to run deep in the Kapoor gene pool, for other family members flushed out of the illegal trade include Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen and daughter Mamta Sager. Despite the heat faced by antique smugglers worldwide, Kapoor’s brother Ramesh runs Kapoor Galleries, located close to Subhash Kapoor’s infamous gallery, Art of the Past, which was raided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in January 2012.

Other reported associates of Kapoor include the Kerala-based Sanjeevi Asokan, an alleged kingpin of a gang of idol thieves; Paramaspry Punusamy, Kapoor’s former ‘girlfriend’ from Malaysia; Deenadayalan, a Chennai-based gallery owner and art dealer; and Khader Basha, a former Inspector in the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police, who is under investigation.

While some among these, including Punusamy and Deenadayalan, provided useful information upon interrogation, others walked free due to the legal complexity of proving guilt in a court of law for such transnational criminality.

Crackdown on idol traffickers

Kapoor first came under direct suspicion in February 2007, the day a shipping consignment marked ‘Marble Garden Furniture’ arrived in New York. Authorities in Mumbai and in the U.S. had been tipped off that it actually contained antiques under false documentation. The shipment was seized. But no one came forward to claim it.

Also read: The murky trail of stolen antiquities

Meanwhile, Kapoor disappeared, but not for long. Under the supervision of Special Agent Brenton Easter, ‘Operation Hidden Idol’ of the Federal Bureau of Investigation pursued the leads generated by the abandoned shipping crate. It had made substantial progress in the case by 2009. In 2011, the evidence it had amassed led to an Interpol notice, which closed the noose around a fugitive Kapoor in Germany’s Frankfurt airport.

Meanwhile, in the distant Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu, police were grappling with a rash of idol theft incidents. These included daring raids to steal a priceless 800-year-old Nataraja bronze statue from Suthamalli in 2008 and a 900-year-old statue of the dancing Shiva from Sripuranthan in 2006. The latter was eventually found to be in the possession of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and was returned to India in 2014. Investigators suspected Kapoor’s hand in both these cases.

Following a rash of idol thefts, numerous village temples in Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu, now keep idols under lock and key.

Following a rash of idol thefts, numerous village temples in Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu, now keep idols under lock and key.   | Photo Credit: Narayan Lakshman

 

With Kapoor in custody, the responsibility to prosecute has now fallen on the Tamil Nadu police, which is pressing charges related to the theft of idols from Suthamalli under Sections 411 (knowingly receiving and retaining stolen property), 465 (forgery) and 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating) of the Indian Penal Code.

Tamil Nadu police’s former Idol Wing chief, Pon Manickavel, rightly takes credit for much of the recent momentum behind the Kapoor investigation in Tamil Nadu. In an extended interview with The Hindu, he said that Kapoor would have gotten away with a “flea-bite sentence” — a three-year sentence at most — if only the provisions of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, the governing statute on antiquities, had been applied. To avoid such an eventuality, Kapoor was also being charged under Section 457, entailing “lurking house-trespass,” for which a conviction could lead to a 14-year jail sentence if the intent of theft could be proved.

Apart from Kapoor, two other notable arrests include that of Deenadayalan, in 2016, and of Basha last month.

Deenadayalan’s arrest led to the discovery of around 250 idols stashed in his house in Chennai’s posh Alwarpet area. Official complicity first came to light in the summer of 2017 when investigators unearthed evidence pointing to the involvement of Basha. Though the cop absconded for a few months, he was nabbed in September. Another police officer, Special Sub-Inspector and erstwhile Head Constable Subburaj, was also taken into custody. Some more arrests of officers under suspicion are likely.

Conspirators within?

Kapoor spoke at length about the role played by each of these individuals in the idol-smuggling racket. The Hindu has cross-checked his allegations with independent sources. What emerged was a disturbing picture of India’s cultural heritage being plundered by an organised network of traffickers emboldened by a venal police force.

In particular, it was Khader Basha, Kapoor said, who regularly smuggled and sold idols from a number of temples. Apparently, the cop often did it under the guise of taking them to a central storage facility for “safekeeping from idol thieves”.

The man who stole gods
 

According to Kapoor, in most cases where some sort of a paper trail or inventory could not be avoided, the stolen original would be replaced by a sophisticated fake. If this was indeed the practice of the antique thieves, then it means that every single storage facility for idols, including the Government Museum in Egmore, Chennai — the site where the 250 statues seized from Deenadayalan’s Chennai home are being held — would require inspections and inventory analyses.

Conversations with investigators in other branches of the Indian government, and in the U.S., make it abundantly clear that they are frustrated with the plodding pace of the probe in Tamil Nadu, especially after Kapoor’s arrest.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, some officials admitted to being wary of passing on too much information to the Tamil Nadu police. In 2015, a team of American investigators visited India – as they had done the previous year – to take the Kapoor case forward through discussions. But their counterparts in Tamil Nadu police were either unprepared – or unwilling – to facilitate the interviews. The Americans returned home from Mumbai, without setting foot in Tamil Nadu.

Why did this happen? What was the exact role of the Tamil Nadu police in the investigation? Was Basha a rogue agent of Kapoor?

In Kapoor’s own words, it was the idol “inventory” of Deenadayalan that Basha actively targeted in the mid- to late 2000s. When Kapoor visited Chennai in 2006, he was told by certain Bangladeshi dealers that Basha was “looking for him.” The following year Basha reportedly threatened Deenadayalan with the arrest of his family members unless the latter paid him for getting two idols, reportedly the Nataraja and Parvati of Srivilliputhur, restored by Punusamy.

Punusamy is a Singapore-based antiques dealer who some officials consider to be Kapoor’s girlfriend. But Kapoor’s lawyer, Kingston Jerold, blames her for maligning Kapoor. Jerold said that after the two fell out over certain transactions, Kapoor sued her for business liabilities to the tune of S$3.5 million.

Not surprisingly, Kapoor did not dwell on the fact that it was he who had introduced Punusamy and Basha to each other. In any case, around 2010 or 2011, Basha went to New Delhi to collect money from a dealer. Here too, in what seems like a textbook case of extortion, he used the threat of arrest to extract payment. (The names of the individuals involved are being withheld owing to the sensitivity of the case.)

Kapoor blamed Basha for implicating him in the idol theft racket because, he said, he refused to pay Basha a bribe. While conceding that Manickavel was not involved in these nefarious activities, he asserted that the police officer seemed to believe too easily every one of Basha’s allegations. Manickavel, during an interview, would not talk about Basha, except to predict his eventual arrest.

Fact-checking

Are Kapoor’s claims credible? When The Hindu cross-checked his account with senior intelligence officials not associated with the Tamil Nadu government, it became evident that the information about Basha taking money from Kapoor was passed on to the Tamil Nadu police as early as 2012. This evidence had been gathered via electronic surveillance by one of the teams that was tracking the Kapoor case closely.

When Prateep Philip, Additional Director-General of Police of the Tamil Nadu police and erstwhile superior of Manickavel, was informed of the connection between Kapoor and Basha in June 2016, reliable sources confirm that he seemed genuinely unaware of this link. But shortly after, Basha was removed from the Deenadayalan case.

Additional clues, all confirmed by intelligence sources, suggest that Basha was deeply involved in the network of idol smugglers. One such indicator was the fact that despite pressure from other agencies, the police team led by Basha was initially unwilling to raid the Indo-Nepal Gallery in Mumbai. It was suspected that stolen idols held by two antique dealers, Vallabh Prakash and his son Aditya Prakash, were stored at this gallery.

Apparently, it was only after it became clear that other investigators may raid the location that the Idol Wing finally moved, and in November 2016, secured around 13 sixth century idols stolen from the Sri Narambunatha Swamy Temple of Pazhavoor, Tirunelveli district.

The Nataraja bronze statue from Suthamalli that was in possession of the National Gallery of Australia.

The Nataraja bronze statue from Suthamalli that was in possession of the National Gallery of Australia.   | Photo Credit: AP

Senior officials familiar with the case said that it was impossible for Basha to have not been aware of the pivotal role played by the Indo-Nepal Gallery in the idol-smuggling network. Another major clue was that after Kapoor’s arrest in 2011, some stolen statues that had not yet been shipped out of India were mysteriously and anonymously ‘surrendered’ to the Tamil Nadu police. It is said that an American investigating officer who was also working on the case was “aghast” that such a transaction could be engineered by certain elements within the Tamil Nadu police.

Manickavel’s account is not as much at odds with this narrative of complicity as one might expect. Without naming any suspects, he agreed that the practice of replacing real idols with fakes, and selling off the originals at astronomical prices in the West, was a regular occurrence.

However, he emphasised that such thefts were more common in the cases of abandoned temples than with those in active use, and this was why, he said, the records were often incomplete and details so scant on what idol had been stolen when.

But it is also possible that in numerous cases, the temple “inventory” lists, which are typically maintained by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, are suspect. The Hindu is in possession of one such register for the Suthamalli Varadaraja Perumal temple, where the original list of idols stated to be in the temple premises varies from a second list that seems to have been randomly tacked on at a later date.

Endgame for Kapoor

So what are the options when it comes to recovering more idols and busting other branches of antique smuggling networks that are still in operation? Officials speaking off the record said that the evidentiary standards were relatively high in the U.S. and therefore it is harder to obtain arrest and search warrants for other members of the Kapoor clan.

The same is true of persons unrelated to the Kapoor family, including alleged smuggler and Indian-American businessman Vijay Nanda. He was arrested in Mumbai earlier this year but his New York City gallery could not be raided. Thus, all that the prosecutors are left with are Kapoor and, since September 2017, Basha.

The man who stole gods
 

While it is too early to expect further arrests, the million dollar question one is left with is this: does it still make sense to pin the entire operations of the criminal network on Kapoor?

Besides, idols continue to be stolen from temples even after Kapoor’s arrest. So why is the primary case against him being dragged on in this fashion? Is it because he is a convenient scapegoat for Indian authorities, who would be forced to show results if they closed the cases against him and returned him to the U.S. for prosecution?

Interestingly, though he’s been in prison for five years, no case against Kapoor has reached the conviction stage. Jerold said that the charge-sheeting of Kapoor in another case (the Pazhavoor idols case in Sriperumbudur), and his transfer out of Chennai’s Puzhal jail, were both in violation of the agreement that the Indian government had made with Germany. Manickavel disputed this on the grounds that under Section 21(c) of the Extradition Act of India (1962 Amendment), there is no bar against charge-sheeting a suspect, only against trial.

Demand and supply

Moving back from the Kapoor case to the bigger picture, investigators are gradually coming around to the view that a two-pronged approach is necessary to halt the steady outflow of high-value antiques from India.

First, it is vital to tackle the supply side by honing law enforcement methods that target idol thieves and their hidden institutional collaborators.

Second, develop new methods to blunt the unceasing demand for antiques from deep-pocketed museums and galleries across the developed world, with a special focus on institutions where rigorous vetting of idol provenance is not being done. Given that document forgery is the grease that keeps the wheels of the underground antiques market in motion, no effort must be spared in cracking down on this aspect, experts say.

Meanwhile, as Kapoor makes his way back to his cell, he cuts a forlorn figure, lost in a realm of misery that couldn’t be further removed from the luxurious cocktail parties where he introduced New York’s gallerists to the aesthetic delights of south Indian temple art.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 1:41:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-man-who-stole-gods/article19891536.ece

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