The Madras High Court Friday quashed a Tamil Nadu government order transferring the investigation of idol theft cases to the CBI, holding that it was unreasonable, mala fide and transgression of judicial orders.
A special bench of justices R Mahadevan and P D Audikesavulu, set up to hear petitions related to idol thefts, criticised the government for "hurriedly" taking the decision to transfer the cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)by its August 1 order, when the court entrusted the job to a team appointed by it.
It had ordered the appointment of Inspector General Pon Manickavel, who superannuated Friday as the Idol Wing chief, as a special officer to investigate present and future cases for one year.
Reposing its faith in the IPS officer, the court said he was instrumental in recovering many stolen idols.
The court came down on the government for issuing an order Thursday upgrading the post of IG Idol Wing to the additional director general of police and appointing ADGP Abhay Kumar Singh to succeed Manickavel after it reserved orders on the petitions challenging the CBI probe.
"The entire process followed in the issuance of the (August 1) government order is illegal. The decision seems to have been taken by four officials, and not by the government, within a day, for reasons which would not require an investigation by the CBI or any central agency," it said.
Strangely and illegally, the genesis of the so-called policy decision had come from the office of the then Commissioner of Hindu and Religious Charitable Endowments Department, Jaya, who seems to be unjustifiably unhappy because of the action was taken by the team appointed by the court and who was pulled up by this court for non-cooperation, it said.
The court on August 8 stayed the government order on petitions filed by advocate Elephant Rajendran and social activist Traffic Ramaswamy, seeking to quash the order transferring the cases to the CBI.
Taking a serious view of the theft of antique idols, the court had in July last year directed transfer of all pending cases in the state to a court in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur district for their effective and speedy disposal.
Several idols had been stolen from the district.
It had also quashed Manickavel transfer order from the wing and directed him to constitute a team to continue investigation.
The state government had contended it was a policy decision and there were enough and sufficient grounds for transferring the investigation to the CBI as in some cases, there were international and inter-state ramifications.
It had said the probe needed the cooperation of central agencies, embassies and foreign governments. In some cases, the accused might need to be extradited from foreign nations, the government said.
Rejecting the government's stand, the court in its order said neither concurrence of this court nor of the CBI was obtained before issuing the government order, which has not only resulted in transgression of the judicial order but led to the refusal of the agency to take up the probe.
The bench said it was of the view that the action of the officials involved warranted initiation of contempt action, but it was refraining from taking such action for the present.
It noted that Manickavel had arrested many officers who had either aided in the theft or in concealing the theft. The arrested include officers from his own police department, high ranked officers from the HR & CE department and politically influential people.
Refusing the arguments of the government that Manickavel was not revealing his course of action to his superior officers, the bench said as an officer appointed by this court, he is liable to submit the report only to this court.
"Needless to say that an investigating officer or his team is not expected to reveal their course of action to anyone until the task is completed. If such a procedure is adopted, it would not only defeat free, fair and impartial investigation but also defeats the very purpose of the probe in sensitive cases," the bench said in its order.
Therefore, the demand of the state and the superior officers to disclose the names of the suspects or alleged offenders was not only unwarranted but also untenable, it said, adding such information would affect the probe and may facilitate offenders to flee.
Backing the IG, the bench said the officer was fair and impartial, and it was satisfied with the procedure followed by him in securing the accused.
"...Even recently more than 250 idols were unearthed by him based on information received from credible sources. Some idols were also recovered during transit. He has been able to keep the informants intact and show tremendous progress," the court said.
It said members of the special team shall continue to be part of it and any personnel as requested by Manickavel shall be spared by the state government.
Ordering that he would continue to draw the same pay and benefits available to him at the time of retirement, it directed him to periodically submit reports on the probe before the appropriate court, and also the high court in a sealed cover for monitoring investigations.
The CBI and other agencies of the Centre shall continue to give appropriate support to the Special officer and his team.
No action or enquiry against the Special officer or any member of his team shall be initiated except with the concurrence of this court, it said.
The bench posted the matter after six weeks for compliance of its directions.
(With inputs from agencies.)