For an action plan

Print edition : January 24, 2014

A.G. Ponn Manickavel, DIG, Idol Wing, Tamil Nadu Police. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

THE Idol Wing of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Tamil Nadu Police has sought the immediate repeal of amendments made in 1993 to four sections in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which diluted the terms of sentences in grave crimes such as temple burglaries.

After the burglaries at the Varadaraja Perumal temple and at Suthamalli village in Ariyalur district and the Brahadeeshwarar temple at nearby Sripuranthan village, in which antique bronzes had been stolen, the Idol Wing, in a crime advisory to the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) of the Economic Offences Wing (EoW), Tamil Nadu Police, Prateep V. Philip, came out with a charter of suggestions to prevent burglaries at temples and to upgrade the icon safety measures.

While the trial is under way in the Suthamalli case, the charge sheet is yet to be filed in the Sripuranthan case in view of the pending Letters Rogatory sent to Germany and Australia for their consent under Section 21 (c) of the Indian Extradition Act, 1962, to prosecute the art dealer Subash Chandra Kapoor.

Cases under Sections 457(2), 380(2), 465, 468, 471, 411, 414 r/w 120 (b) of the IPC have been registered against him. The Idol Wing believes that even if he is convicted, he could get off “lightly” owing to the amendments that diluted Sections 380, 454, 457 and 411 of the IPC dealing with the offences such as theft and house-breaking by night. [As these penal sections in law do not specifically include the word temples, temple burglaries are brought under the ‘house-breaking’ clause.]

For instance, Section 380 (theft in dwelling place) originally entailed a maximum seven-year imprisonment with fine for an offence of theft by house-breaking during the day. But the amended section prescribes imprisonment for a minimum of two years and a maximum of three. It further provides discretionary powers to the magistrate to impose a punishment of less than two years.

Section 454 (lurking house trespass or house-breaking in order to commit intended offence of theft) ensured a maximum sentence of 10 years. But the amendment reduced this to three years, with the magistrate having the discretion to impose a lesser term than that.

Section 457 (lurking house trespass or house-breaking by night for theft) originally entailed a maximum of sentence of 14 years in prison. Its amended version provides a minimum of 10 years. The magistrate can use his discretionary powers to award less than three years of imprisonment.

Section 411 (dishonestly receiving stolen property) awarded a maximum jail term of three years with a fine for the offence of dishonest receiving of stolen property. The amended version ensures imprisonment for a minimum of two years and a maximum of three.

“These amendments introduced in 1993 for reasons unknown have diluted the penal provisions reducing terms of sentences unmindful of the crucial fact that the corpus delicti in these offences are more than a 1,000-year-old, the value of which in the international market is enormous,” said Idol Wing DIG Ponn Manickavel.

“The discretionary powers to magistrates awarding the punishment should be withdrawn. As in the Prevention of Corruption Act, a new provision should be introduced to try offences of idol burglary under summary trial,” he added.

It is proposed to ask the government to declare these offences in places of worship as offences that need to be tried exclusively by Sessions/Additional Sessions/Fast Track courts. “The bulk of our investigation in idol thefts discloses that the receivers of antique idols are the principal offenders. They instigate local thieves to commit the crime. Hence, the penal provisions in Sections 411 and 457 have to be strengthened to try the principal offenders,” the DIG said.

It is also suggested to the government that it appoint two special judges and two prosecutors, in Madurai and Villupuram, to try the offences, instead of the existing two Chief Judicial Magistrate Courts at Srivilliputhur and Kumbakonam, which are overburdened with cases. Or else, they can be tried in the existing special vigilance and anti-corruption courts in districts.

At present, the bulk of idol theft cases are tried in regular jurisdiction courts at various places, reducing the possibility of a quick trial and conviction. The Idol Wing needs to be strengthened in every police range to expedite the investigation in idol theft cases.

Art historians have urged the Union government to amend the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, pending since 2003, to make the Act more stringent to curb trafficking in antiquities. The then Union Minister of Tourism and Culture, Ambika Soni, in a written reply in Parliament in 2007, said the amended Act would make the punishment severe, make the trading in stolen antiquities a non-bailable offence, and restrict the making of unauthorised replicas of antiquities.

National Mission

But the proposal remains on paper. Besides, the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, formed in 2007, was given the ambitious mandate of preparing a National Register of Antiquities by documenting them from primary and secondary sources. This would help check the trafficking in antiquities by creating public awareness.

The mission was also tasked with setting up State-level databases for better management of such cultural resources. The mission, according to informed sources, has identified eight lakh artefacts, including idols, in places of worship across the country for creating a centralised database. “We have approached the HR & CE Board in Tamil Nadu to profile ancient artefacts, including bronze icons. Though we have Jain and Buddha bronzes in the north, temples in Tamil Nadu are a rich repository of bronzes, which need to be registered. We need the cooperation of the Tamil Nadu government,” said a senior officer in the Mission. In the absence of trained persons in archaeological studies in Tamil Nadu, the evaluation of the antiquity of bronze images had become a difficult task, he added.

The Idol Wing wants a central digitised data bank of antique idols and artefacts in temples after classifying them on the basis of antiquity as more than 100 years to 300 years, 300 years to 700 years, 700 years to 1,000 years, and 1,000 years and above. “As on date, no such authentic data is available. We have requested the government to prepare an audio-video electronic recording of all old and neglected temples and idols with their physical, historical, metallurgical and cultural characteristics for future verification and preservation,” said the DIG.

These could serve as the “proof of antiquity” of idols and other cultural artefacts and relics, along with their special identifying features such as engravings. metallic inscriptions and broad descriptive notes such as age, historical period, name, weight, height, width, metal, panchaloha, stone, antique or non-antique. Almost all antique idols in temples managed by the HR & CE Board, the DIG said, were not registered with the jurisdiction Registration Officers of the Archaeological Survey of India in the State.

The Temple Protection Force is not only inadequate but proved a misfit to safeguard the cultural heritage of temples. The police report says that the majority of the personnel are 60 years of age and above. “Hence, the system itself is self-defeating and disappointing. For the time being, it is proposed to detail male home guards below 40 years of age to provide temple protection security between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.,” Manickavel said.

Antiquity certificate

In fact, as per Government Order No.772 (May 24, 1995), the HR & CE Board has been empowered to issue “Antiquity Declaration Certificate” with regard to panchaloha and stone idols in temples of more than 100 years old. But, unfortunately, to date no such “Antiquity Declaration Certificate” has been issued by the Board. Hence, it was suggested that an officer in the rank of Deputy Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner in the HR & CE Board should be nominated as the “Competent Authority” for the issuance of antiquity certificates.

Manickavel said a clearance certificate from the Department of Handicrafts was not sufficient enough to decide the question of antiquity of an idol since idol lifters smuggled priceless pieces showing them as newly made. “The Tamil Nadu government should form a panel of experts, comprising officials from the HR & CE Board, the Idol Wing and experts from the State Archaeology Department to decide the question of antiquity of an idol. Until such time, a Joint Clearance Certificate from the Idol Wing and the HR & CE Board should be made a procedural pre-requisite for the export of idol handicrafts,” Manickavel said.

The Idol Wing also said that many of the 19 icon centres created at various places in the State by the HR & CE Board to safeguard ancient artefacts, including idols of unguarded temples in the neighbourhood, lacked adequate security.

But P. Dhanapal, Commissioner of HR & CE Board, which manages 36,451 temples, 56 mutts and 57 mutt temples, denied the charges. While accepting that rare pieces of art in temples need to be safeguarded, the Commissioner pointed out that the government had focussed special attention on temples and icon centres, which are being upgraded.

“The Chief Minister has sanctioned an additional 12 icon centres so that idols and other valuables of ancient temples can be safely guarded,” he said. Temple burglary in Tamil Nadu was a thing of past, he claimed. “Nearly 98 per cent of ancient artefacts and icons of 100 years and above antiquity have been registered with the State Archaeology Department. We are working on the profiling of ancient idols and valuables now,” he added.

On forming a temple protection force, he claimed that the initial strength sanctioned for it (2005-2006) was 1,000 Grade II constables and an additional force of 3,000 ex-service men. But the local police used to redeploy them for works other than temple protection. The exercise of roping in village youths as volunteers had failed because they were uninterested in such non-remunerative tasks.

“We will, however, study all aspects again and find ways to strengthen the security especially of ancient temples that fall under our jurisdiction,” the HR & CE Commissioner said.

R. Ilangovan

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor