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Subhash Kapoor, the notorious art thief, was at long last convicted in the case involving the Udayarpalayam burglary and illegal export of 19 antiques by a trial court in Kumbakonam and sentenced to a 10-year jail term on November 1, 2022.

The owner of the Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan, USA, Kapoor was arrested at the airport in Germany in October, 2011 and extradited to India on July 14, 2012 on an assurance from India of launching criminal proceedings against the accused.

The Indian-American who has headed a massive heritage racket ring involving thousands of artefacts estimated to be worth at least $ 143 million, including those dating to the Chozha era stolen from the temples in Tamil Nadu, has for a decade been an under-trial in the Tiruchi prison. The most notable theft the kingpin committed through his accomplices including Asokan Sanjeevi  was the 2008 heist on a temple in Tamil Nadu from where an 11th century Chola-era bronze statue of a dancing Shiva was stolen and sent to the National Gallery of Australia for $5.6 million.

In the saga of arrest and prosecution of Subhash Kapoor, the India Pride Project’s role is no less notable. Co-founder of art enthusiasts on the trail of criminals in the murky world of heritage trafficking, S. Vijay Kumar shares his long-time experiences with inmathi.com.  In 2018 he wrote a book The Idol Thief, a whodunit chronicling his adventurous hunts for idol thieves including Subhash Kapoor and his investigations that led to recovery of several Indian heritage icons including a 12th century Buddha statue stolen from India in 1961 and redeemed from the U.K.

S Vijay Kumar, India Pride Project

How does Vijay Kumar, a shipping professional-turned-art sleuth, feel about the conviction of Kapoor? Quote expectedly he said he welcomes it.  He is happy that at least now, the conviction of an art thief has happened – a thing that will not happen that easily in India rife with official negligence and corruption. But Subhash Kapoor case is just a tip of the iceberg.  There are more incidents of clandestine plundering of Indian heritage, particularly, the Chola-era idols and artefacts.  Vijay Kumar’s passion for heritage, especially Chozha-era temples, was triggered by Kalki’s novel, Ponniyin Selvan.

Also Read: Idol hunter’s book promises to be a major exposé; he says shifting cases to CBI is a move to bury them

Vijay Kumar pointed out that the conviction of Subhash Kapoor has happened only due to pressure of Germany which has reminded India of the latter’s promise. Nearly 10 years have passed since the extradition and yet no major legal action seemed to have been taken against the accused, Germany said. This would have been a diplomatic issue during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit next month, he said.

The fact that Kapoor has been in the Tamil Nadu jail for the past 10 years, that is from his age of 62 to 72,  has given us a shot in the arm for our tireless hunt for antiques stealers and dealers, Vijay said. But Vijay warned that Kapoor, though sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment, may ask for release because he has been an undertrial for more than 10 years now. If he is released, he may need to be deported to the US where there are cases pending against him. But those will be treated as financial cases and given his age he may not go to jail but be slapped with a hefty fine. Having looted at least a hundred million dollars worth Indian heritage, he may well be warming up to retired life in America.

Kapoor, though sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment, may ask for release because he has been an undertrial for more than 10 years now

The delays in punishing Kapoor can be attributed to the insufficiency of our laws regarding theft of idols, which is still covered by burglary laws, Vijay said, adding that way back in 1993, Tamil Nadu brought an amendment to the burglary law so as to cover idol theft. But it is not taken seriously by the enforcement agencies.  It is just a mockery of justice when an idol thief is penalized with a three-year jail term and a fine of Rs.3,000 when the enormous wealth he has earned is lost forever. The idol theft network, being massive and clandestine, such cases are not so vigorously pursued probably for fear of more skeletons tumbling out of the cupboards of high level connections, he said.

Whenever an idol theft case is booked, it is normally only the small fries who have no major role in the racket that are booked. After all, they are fall guys. But the big shots operating the scam stay safe and secure. But this trend has been somewhat reversed by the conviction of Kapoor, Vijay said, exuding an air of triumph.

Talking about how idol theft cases are not ably cracked in India, Vijay pointed at Vaman Ghia, a Kapoor-like idol thief charged with stealing about 10,000 artefacts in Rajasthan, was finally acquitted for want of evidence by the High Court in that State.

He narrated how he once detected an idol theft in a temple in Arapakkam, a village in Kancheepuram district in Tami Nadu, and the case is still remaining unresolved. The idol is in New York now. He recalled how the people of Punnainallur near Thanjavur appreciated him and his team for having brought back a stolen idol back to the famous Mariamman temple in the town.

Talking about the craftiness of Subhash Kapoor, Vijay said when the idol thief was in the custody of the Interpol, he secretly instructed his sister Sushma Sareen in a note sent through his lady-love to hide four Chola-era bronze idols which he had stashed away in the cupboard in his house. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office charged Sushma Sareen on this count. The four idols were among 14 originally stolen in Feb. 2008 from the Varadharaja Perumal temple in Suthamally village of Tamil Nadu, the complaint said.

Kapoor’s sister was released on a $410,000 bond.

Vijay said that states such as Andhra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and so on had not seriously pursued the idol theft cases. But the situation in Tamil Nadu is better.  Now Kapoor’ conviction bears this out, which is just a “token” success of our offensives against idol hunters. When cases of idol theft are unable to stand the court trials, all our efforts will be undone, he said.

Taking a dig at the enforcement agencies, Vijay said Asokan Sanjeevi, an understudy of Kapoor, was arrested in 2009 and again in 2016. But the sleuths projected his arrest in 2016 as a major breakthrough in the high-profile idol theft case. They said that they had caught an aide of the kingpin – an aide who had been evading the police scanner for about 28 years.  But the following questions remained unanswered: How was an accused arrested in 2008 let off? Where actually had he been till the 2016 arrest?

Also Read: Should all Indian artefacts in foreign museums be retrieved?

The Indian investigation system, as far as idol theft cases are concerned, is beset with confusion, inconsistencies and lack of transparency.  So is the administrative system. For instance, though idols stolen from India and exported to the museums abroad are traced and retrieved, they have been dumped at the offices of our High Commission. They are yet to be transported back to India for various reasons including economic and administrative.

Citing Italy as an example of a country with a strong network of hunters of idol thieves, Vijay said the country has trained even members of the public, advocates and art enthusiasts and volunteers. We can emulate the example, but we are hamstrung by budget constraints, he noted.

It is just a mockery of justice when an idol thief is penalized with a three-year jail term and a fine of Rs.3,000 when the enormous wealth he has earned is lost forever

Asked about the resurgent interest in Ponniyin Selvan and the Chola-period artefacts, idols and icons, Vijay Kumar said that they are our proud heritage.  He appealed to the makers of the film and also the artistes involving in its production to visit at least once the Udayarkudi temple which has a historic epigraph that mentions the names of the assassins of Aditha Karikalan – Ravidasan, Soman and  Parameswaran. Actually the epigraph Kalki went by while writing his novel talks about the confiscation of the assets of all the assassins and their relatives.  It is an important artefact which must be preserved and also the temple must be preserved from ruin. He talks about how the copper inscriptions that describe Rajendra Chozha’s maritime exploits are in France, available for study to researchers.

Before signing off, Vijay Kumar said crisply that we have to be on vigil against theft and ruin of our heritage. It is imperative to step up our efforts, institutional and individual, to bring back our numerous artefacts that have found their way into foreign institutions and museums. As an instance, Vijayakumar cited what is generally billed as ‘Leiden Plates’. They were indeed royal charters engraved in copper and issued to the Buddhist Vihara in Nagapattinam by king Raja Raja Chola-I. The plates lost from Tamil Nadu about 300 years ago are still preserved in the Leiden University, the Netherlands.


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