Stealing Hindu Gods: A Madras High Court Judgment Shows The Way Out

Stealing Hindu Gods:  A Madras High Court Judgment Shows The Way Out


The smuggling of Hindu idols cannot just be seen as a crime in law. It is about destroying Indian heritage, one idol at at time. 

A recent judgement of the Madras High Court can be used to build a campaign against this loot of India’s heritage.

“While visiting a museum in Washington DC, I saw a centuries old idol from Tamil Nadu. I took a picture without thinking much of it. When I went back to the village and showed it to a few people, an octogenarian gentleman started sobbing like a child. He told me he hadn’t seen the idol for ages, and it felt like his mother had come back home.”

The incident was recalled by Elephant Rajendran, advocate and activist in the effort to reclaim stolen idols that goes with the hashtag #BringOurGodsHome. Idols, or more correctly murtis, are not merely pieces of metal and art; they are a living embodiment of our civilisation’s past and present, with its vibrant representations of gods and objects of unwavering faith. Being the crown jewels of temples spread across India, it isn’t surprising that Indians hold these idols very close to their hearts, not to mention the pain they suffer when they are stolen and smuggled. It is this pain and angst that pushed Elephant Rajendran to file a petition in the Madras High Court against the lopsided actions and lax attitude of the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu CID and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) department of the state government in tackling cases of smuggling. The judgment of Justice R Mahadevan, which was pronounced last month, becomes important in the entire process of reclaiming our temples.

A Rap On The Knuckles

The judgment not only expressed concern on the condition of idols, but also brought into question the roles of the police, temple officials and bureaucrats.

1. Role of Police: The court underlined the point that the police themselves are a party to the crime. It made scathing comments against police officer Khader Bashaand upheld the charge against him that he was linked to the smuggling of idols. The judgment noted that the police recovered the idols from smugglers and sold them again!

2. HRCE department. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department is tasked with regulating the functioning of temples and manage their secular affairs. The court noted that the department already had overarching control over temples but had not been able to protect them. Its officers were charged with creating false records of smuggled idols, of concealing 10 idols worth crores in the scrap room, and even digging a tunnel in the temple to smuggle idols!

3. Complacency: The court observed that no action was taken to recover stolen idols, and even complaints were not lodged. It noted that there is not one remarkable case in India where smugglers were brought to justice.

4. Red Tapism: The court observed that the bureaucracy is creating paperwork and pushing the responsibility onto others. When complainants approached the officers, they used to send them to other officers saying it was not their duty to protect idols.

Overall, the judgment throws light on the grim realities of temple management. GP Srinivasan, a heritage activist, notes: “We have been waging a battle for the last 21 years to save our temples. The Madras High Court judgment by Justice Mahadevan is a landmark judgment in preserving our temple icons and Vigrahas”. Indeed, the High Court has exposed the entire sorry state of affairs of the government machinery. The judiciary has now become a ray of hope at a time when the legislative and executive organs have faltered in their duty to preserve our treasures. However, Tamil Nadu is just one region in the entire business of idol smuggling. The rot is seen pan-India.

Smuggling Of Idols And Other Heritage-Crimes

The Tamil Nadu Idol Wing under IPS officer A G Pon Manickavel tasted success in 2012 when Subash Kapoor was arrested on his extradition from Germany (based on an Interpol alert). He is considered one of the biggest smugglers of idols in recent times. A person of Indian origin, he owned an import company and an art gallery called ‘Art of the Past’ in New York. He has been charged with smuggling antique idols and selling them in the European, American and Chinese markets. Smuggling is also at its peak in states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, chiefly due to the white marble used in making idols.

Looking at the multiplicity of cases, we can safely conclude that smuggling of idols as an illicit trade is as significant as the drug and money laundering cartels that operate across borders. The smuggling cartels work in a coordinated fashion. They visit temples, marking idols to be smuggled. Using local thieves, they steal the idol and keep it in the safe custody of peddlers in India. Meanwhile, fake papers are created about the idol and customers are found in international markets. The idols are then packaged and sent out of India using the fake papers, earning them crores of rupees.

Breaking India: Hacking A Civilisation, Bit By Bit

Heritage-smuggling is not limited to a mere monetary motive. Anuraag Saxena, the founder of India Pride Project, explains it thus: “In a war, you first bring down the enemy’s flag, because the flag is a symbol of the other side’s sovereignty. In any civilisational conquest, symbols of culture are destroyed first. The jihadistsdestroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. The Nazis destroyed Jewish heritage. Right now, the forces that are breaking India are destroying its heritage.”

What is India if not the sum total of its heritage and ancient symbols of faith? It is our temples, from Sharada Peeth in Kashmir to Meenakshi Amman in Madurai, from Hinglaj Mata in Baluchistan to Kamakhya Devi in Assam, that have kept this country and its civilisation intact. The pluralistic nature of Hinduism is what unites diverse cultures, languages and beliefs, amalgamating it into a way of life. What better way to destroy India than to weaken the forces that unite it?

Recovering the damage done and bringing back the smuggled idols is yet another big job. It involves civil society, Indian embassies and foreign police and foreign governments. Many a time, the smuggled idols land up in museums of international repute, who are clueless about the source of these idols. A UNESCO Convention on Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970, prohibits the illicit transfer and trading of cultural properties, including antiquities. The convention is being used to retrieve stolen objects that surface in foreign countries through India’s missions.

“The challenge with the bureaucrats and the heritage experts is exactly the same”, adds Saxena, “Everyone looks at this as a heritage and culture issue, limiting their efforts to the academic stuff like analysing murtis and debating historical antecedents. It takes us nowhere when self-proclaimed experts have the time to write papers, make speeches and take credit, but are too busy to actually work with the government and High Commissions on correcting this evil. The problem is real. The problem is here. The problem is now. It is almost divine intervention that at least Justice Mahadevan views the larger constitutional implications of the issue.”

Temple Freedom – The Need Of The Hour

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, profession, practice and preaching of one’s religion. However, Article 25(2) states that “Nothing… shall prevent the State from making any law (for) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” Citing the clause as an enabling provision for state interference in religious institutions, various state governments enacted acts like Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959, followed by a Central Act called the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, in 1997. The sole purpose of these acts was to regulate temple functioning, form temple trusts and to manage temple properties, gold and lands. It was under these acts that the HRCE department of Tamil Nadu was set up, tasked with the responsibility to protect and nurture Hindu temples in the state.

Needless to say, these acts were challenged by Hindus several times in courts as violations of Article 25 – freedom of religion – and Article 26, ie, freedom to manage one’s religious affairs. In the famous Bhuri Nath and Others vs State of J&K 1997, the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Act, 1988, was challenged because it abolished the hereditary post of priest in the temple and made provisions for the appointments of priests by the state. The Supreme Court held that the service of priesthood is a secular activity and it can be regulated by the state under article 25(2) of the Constitution. Similar cases were lost for temples like Tirumala Tirupati, the Jagannatha temple of Puri, etc. The State has retained its right to control the temples.

However, with every right comes a responsibility. If the government wants the gold from Tirupati to make its gold monetisation scheme a success, or wants to reveal the quantity of treasures hidden in the Shree Padmanabhaswamy temple, it also has a duty to protect the sacred idols and properties of the temple. The faulty behaviour of the HRCE department of Tamil Nadu shows the indifferent attitude of government agencies that receive taxes from temples but refuse to protect them. Had control of temples been with royal families, hereditary priests, archakasand the local Hindu community, the issue of smuggling would be less severe.

The Madras High Court judgment has paved the way of loosening government control over temples and even exposing the hollowness of the HRCE. In the words of J Sai Deepak, arguing counsel at High Courts and the Supreme Court, “The Court’s categorical finding that the HRCE Department of the State of Tamil Nadu has miserably failed to discharge its primary duty….is a vindication of the long-standing position of millions of Hindus and temple freedom advocates that state HRCE departments are worse than foreign invaders when it comes to looting Hindu Heritage.”

Correcting The Wrongs

Time and law will take its own course before Hindu temples are freed. For the time being, it is necessary to strengthen the existing institutions to achieve the goal of preservation. The Madras High Court has suggested ways and means to protect and preserve the existing idols. Its judgment says: “All the temples in the state must have a strong room, where the idols should be kept and appropriate security arrangement, including 24×7 video surveillance with alarm, must be made in consultation with the team appointed by this court.” The court also suggested that a list of archakas be made and the task of protection and surveillance be entrusted to them.

One of the leading suggestions in the judgment is the digitisation of records of all the idols in temples. If implemented all over India, we can get a single record of all the idols that exist in this country. It will be a treat for heritage enthusiasts and an impediment for smugglers since they can’t dispose of any idol whose record exists somewhere.

By whatever measure we achieve it, temple protection and idol preservation has become the need of the day. The Madras High Court has rightfully observed that, “This land was invaded by many to exploit the natural resources and to break the culture, which made them dominate the world in all the fields. Many temples and deities were destroyed and precious wealth was robbed.” But this was about ancient and medieaval times, and the court observed: “For the past several years, a new form of attack is carried out by smuggling the ancient idols. Foreigners and dis-believers see the idols as antiques worth only in value, in terms of money, but the people of this country see them in the semblance of god, culture and identity.“

It has now become imperative that we take concrete steps to protect our heritage. Perhaps, the way shown by the courts will lead to that objective one day. Perhaps, government institutions, instead of actively conspiring in the smuggling, will realise their responsibility for the preservation of our heritage and civilisation.

This country was never short of Ghaznis and Aurangzebs. Let’s hope the government agencies don’t add themselves to that list.

About the author: Ashutosh Kulkarni (Twitter: @PrachinVaani) is a graduate mechanical engineer and an enthusiast in ancient Indian history and Dharmic studies