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On Friday morning, soon after chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced several measures as per Rule 110, Congress legislature party leader K R Ramasamy brought up the issue of IG Pon Manickavel. The police officer had submitted to the Madras High Court that its directions regarding inquiry into idol theft were not being followed. The court had earlier overruled the government’s decision to transfer him from idol wing and directed that he should continue to probe idol theft cases.

After Ramasamy, DMK’s M K Stalin took up the issue. He said the High Court had warned against the chief secretary and DGP from transferring officials serving under Pon Manickavel without court permission.

Intervening, the chief minister defended the AIADMK government’s record. He said only 29 personnel was working in the idol wing, but, a total of 325 members had been appointed additionally to the department as per the Madras High Court order. All the facilities and infrastructure for his office had been provided in Tiruchy.

The government had sought the services of a police official who is part of Manickavel’s team but did not insist on of it when Manickavel refused to transfer him. He then said Manickavel had stopped attending monthly review meetings of senior officials and indicated this was breach of discipline. Speaker P Dhanapal brought the discussion to an end saying too much time need not be spent on discussing one official’s functioning.

The importance that Manickavel has acquired in the public domain may well be a direct outcome of the profile that idol theft cases have acquired in recent years. The case of Manhattan-based gallery owner Subhash Kapoor who was extradited and is facing trial in Tamil Nadu has brought out their international dimensions as investigators and even journalists across the world have started to track down stolen Indian temple idols in museums and private collections. Museums are under pressure to acknowledge that the temple idols they purchase and display are not private property but were stolen from temples – religious idols are not meant for private ownership in Tamil Nadu.

Manickavel has been investigating idol theft cases for many years now. In 2010, during the DMK rule, he had tried to bring back stolen idols of  Raja Raja Chola and Lokamaha Devi housed in a private collection in Gujarat. But the effort at that time was unsuccessful though recently he succeeded.

Pon Manickavel is investigating some 530 idol theft cases. The idols that have been restituted during his watch are worth more than Rs 250 crore in the world art market.

Pon Manickavel is investigating some 530 idol theft cases. The idols that have been restituted during his watch are worth more than Rs 250 crore in the world art market.More recently, he has taken on the Palani idol case in which the court has taken keen interest.

For many years, devotees to the Palani temple – the most popular shrine for pilgrims in Tamil Nadu – have suspected the quality of the abhishekamurthy Muruga idol that was replaced in early 2000s. There have been fears that the replacement was triggered by attempts to smuggle out and sell the old idol in the international market. Getting into the act, he has organized metallurgical testing of the idols. The idol’s sculptor as well as several temple and senior HR & CE officials are facing charges in the case.

On Friday, at the Assembly, the opposition was taking up cudgels on behalf of Manickavel. The government side said it was doing its duty even while tamping down any individual glory that Manickavel has acquired in recent year. Chief Minister Palaniswami said it was Jayalalithaa who had given Manickavel charge of the idol wing. And the Raja Raja Chola idol restitution happened during its tenure. Police sources say that if the Palani idol case progresses more heads may roll, proving to be an embarrassment for the government.

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