When you fight the good fight: tracking down stolen idols

In times when WhatsApp has been looked down upon as the purveyor of fake news, S Vijay Kumar, a Singapore-based shipping company manager and his friends at India Pride Project have been using it to fight crime.

Led by Vijay, a network of history buffs and heritage junkies is sharing every Indian antique sculpture or idol they come across, be it in temples, art galleries or museums, on the social media platform. This is done through groups divided by State and country, and in the process they are creating a digital archive of India’s idols. All this to prevent temple pillaging.

In his new book, The Idol Thief —The True Story of the Looting of India's Temples (Juggernaut), Vijay describes how one of the country’s biggest idol trafficker, Subhash Kapoor was chased down by law enforcement authorities of two countries.

When you fight the good fight: tracking down stolen idols

“We’ve been working against organised lifting mafia since 2008, helping out task forces and custodians worldwide, in terms of digging out evidence and securing criminal prosecutions,”says Vijay, whose work with the Interpol helped arrest the New York-based art dealer in 2011.

“The book is divided into two sections. The first describing how we chased down Subhash, and the second about the difficulties we faced in getting a prosecution — there were moles within the department,” he says. The Idol Thief also goes on to list idol trafficking networks still active in India.

Vijay’s most recent success came on the eve of India’s 72nd Independence Day, when a bronze statue of Buddha, excavated from Nalanda, Bihar, was returned to its rightful place 57 years after it was stolen. It was handed over by the UK’s Scotland Yard to India, after Vijay noticed that the Buddha on sale at The European Fine Arts Fair (Tefaf) in Maastricht, the Netherlands, was the stolen one and alerted the authorities.

“When we started out in 2008, people didn't take us seriously because we hadn't established credibility yet. But once people recognised we are fighting the good fight, international agencies and media started to help us out,” he says. “The tide really changed with the US and the UK coming to a realisation that ISIS was being funded by an illegal antiquity network. The pipeline for smuggling was the same as that for the Indian artefacts, so they realised that they couldn’t selectively go after ISIS, leaving out the traditional antiquities market alone.”

When you fight the good fight: tracking down stolen idols

As more idols were being “gifted” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visits overseas, says Vijay, people began taking note of their efforts. “First, we should stop saying we were “gifted” these idols, the museums overseas are only returning what was unfairly stolen from us,” he remarks. Vijay says he doesn’t believe museums are the place for idols at all. “Unless they were excavated at an archaeological dig, idols should not be kept at museums and they should be returned to the temples they were taken from. At the very least, they should go back to the State they are from,” he says.

At the same time, Vijay also questions people of the community who turn a blind eye to the thefts. “If you have any details at all, you have to report the theft, you have to file an FIR. People need to appreciate the idols as works of art, rather than just as stones they worship,” he says.

Which is why, in his decade of crime-fighting Vijay has built up a library of idols around the country. “Our job is to make sure stolen idols find their way back to the country, for which we are parallelly working on creating an image archive for research work,” he says, inviting everyone to join them in this effort. “Just keep clicking pictures of them, and share. That’s the easiest thing to do,” says Vijay, who adds that he probably gets his meticulous nature from his father. “My father still has the admission records from when my mother had to go to hospital to give birth to me.” he laughs.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 12:47:44 PM |

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