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The indefatigable, the defiant, the man of honour: What it means to be Pon Manickavel

Art collectors, activists, celebrities and industrialists in possession of dubious artefact are in a panic these days. They are in a panic because they do not know how to regularize their artefact and the Idol-Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police has sent shock-waves with their crackdown on entrepreneurs Ravir Shah and Kiran Rao.

Inspector-General of Police of the idol wing CID A.G. Pon Manickavel has issued a crisp stern warning: Produce proof or certificates if they wish to retain the artefact or surrender the undocumented idols. Failure to do any of these would invite criminal action if caught.

Those in possession of undocumented artefact would do well to heed Manickavel’s warning. His track record does speak volumes of his capabilities. Earlier this year in June, two 1000-year old bronze idols of Rajaraja Chola and his wife, Lokamadevi, were recovered by the idol-wing after they were stolen from the Brihadeeswarar Temple 50 years ago and Temple officials allegedly did not report it. It is perhaps the crowning jewel in the illustrious career of Manickavel. During his career, Manickavel has helped crack over 50 cases and recovered 20 idols including the ones mentioned above and continues to be an inspiration to many in the Police force.

Another of his significant accomplishments was busting the smuggling racket in Puducherry. In December 2016, a team of the idol wing headed by Manickavel had raided a house in Colas Nagar and recovered 11 panchaloha idol worth crores. One of the idols recovered was of Lord Nataraja and the antique alone was valued at Rs. 31 crores then. In addition to it, idols of Mahishasura Mardini, Somaskandar, Kalyanasundara, Lord Shiva, Parvathi and Amman were among the panchaloha idols seized from the house.

It appears, however, that considerable attempts are were being made to undermine Manickavel. After a stint at the idol wing, Manickavel was shunted out to as IG Railways but the Madras High Court intervened to retain him in the idol wing. He was eventually given full additional charge as IGP, Idol Wing, by the Tamil Nadu government in September 2017. However, things haven’t been particularly cordial between Manickavel the state government. Despite his excellent track record, the government wanted to transfer all cases which were thus far being investigated by the Idol Wing to the CBI. The Madras High Court, however, had stayed the operation of the government order which was issued in this regard.

During the whole fracas regarding the transfer of cases to the CBI, Pon Manickavel was busy doing what he does best: catching idol smugglers. In a scene that appears to be straight out of a Bollywood movie, a team led by Manickavel chased a car in auto-rickshaws and managed to recover a stolen panchaloha idol of Amman. Four people were arrested as well.

There is a rot within the system as well that Manickavel’s work has comprehensively exposed, despite it being rumoured, that the idol wing was supposed to be a ‘punishment posting’ for him. There is complacency, disregard and complicity involved in the manner in which the idol wing has been treated thus far with inadequate man-power and a lack of proper infrastructure to function efficiently. There is also a sentiment that the state government is dragging its feet when it comes to the persecution of idol smugglers.

Manickavel has also played a significant role in exposing the corruption within the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department for which he had to suffer a severe backlash. In August, a senior official of the HR & CE department was arrested by the idol wing in connection with the misappropriation of funds. According to officials, two idols which were supposed to contain 5.75 kg of gold combined did not contain even a single gram of gold in them.

The HR & CE officials in turn had decided to protest against Manickavel for what they deemed as harassment. “Even before we start interrogating anyone in the case, we are being accused of harassment. In the absence of actual examination of the accused/witnesses, the complaint of harassment by a few is false and malicious. Such an allegation is intentional and is being levelled by some HR&CE officials who could be involved in the wrongdoing,” said a senior officer in the Idol Wing. The matter is currently in the Court.

The HR & CE department has been an object of intense criticism for Manickavel. He has expressed his lack of confidence in the institution on several occasions. Once he said in Court, much to the embarrassment of the officials, “Idols worth several hundreds of crores of rupees are preserved in rooms fitted with locks costing just Rs 250.” On another occasion, after he had informed the Court that idols weren’t being maintained properly by the department, the Court asked, “If the idols are kept locked up without any maintenance, what is the purpose of having such a department?”

Manickavel has also been ruthless with people within the Police force. With a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian who on occasions sends policemen home for being shabbily dressed, it hardly comes as a surprise. In 2008, Manickavel was informed by an idol smuggler himself that Khader Basha, who was Inspector then, and Subburaj, who was Head Constable, had allegedly illegal dealt with six bronze icons which were recovered from him. They were subsequently arrested.

Unsurprisingly, Manickavel has had to deal with his share of allegations of wrong-doing and corruption against him. Thiru S.R.Jangid, IPS, formerly Deputy Inspector General of Police, Chengalpattu Range, had accused him of misappropriation of case properties, involvement in a heinous crime, direct involvement in a case of assault and covering up the case by dishonest means and other related crimes.

The matter was a subject of departmental proceedings. However, the charged memo for the series of events which occurred in 2002 was issued only in 2009. The Central Administrative Tribunal eventually quashed the charge memo. When the decision of the Tribunal was appealed against in the Madras High Court, the Court observed in December 2014, that the Tribunal had reached its judgment based on due consideration of all relevant facts and they deemed the order just and proper. On the matter of an inquiry into the said charges, the Court stated that all inquiry and final orders are not passed within 8 months, the inquiry will be considered dropped.

More recently, in February 2018, a petitioner had approached the Court accusing Manickavel of contempt of a court order. However, he eventually apologized for levelling such serious allegation against the Police Officer and submitted that he was withdrawing all allegations against him.

People who have closely followed the cases of heritage theft in India have nothing but effusive praise for Manickavel. Temple Activist T.R. Ramesh said about him on Twitter, “TN HRCE Officials are ready to face hell in their next births but no possibility of conviction in this birth. Pon Manickavel’s honesty drives them desperate.”

Manickavel has acquired the stature of an icon in the state owing to his numerous exploits. A movie based on him is currently on the works and is titled after his name, ‘Pon Manickavel’. The director of the movie, AC Mugil, has admitted that he is a fan of the Police officer and Prabhu Deva will play the character in the movie. “I have met Pon Manickavel sir in person and I’m a big fan of his honesty. Prabhu Deva plays an upright police officer in the film which also has a few scenes from the real-life incidents but can’t reveal more details as we have just started the shoot”, Mugil told FirstPost.

Manickavel endured a great many hardships during his career and constant attempts were made to undermine his authority and work. Despite everything around him, he persisted with his efforts and achieved significant success and earned the respect of his compatriots and those around him.

He is due to retire in November this year and we can be fairly certain that many people in positions of great power will breathe a sigh of relief when that happens. And that is a true measure of greatness when people you have fought your entire life are glad that you are no longer in the fight.

As the renowned historian, Oswald Spengler, once remarked, “Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.”

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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