A merciless sun beats down on the throng outside the Trichy Central Prison in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. Not the best of conditions for a two-hour wait amidst a jostling multitude anxious to meet their kin in the massive jail complex.
Suddenly a man appears, walking through a crowd of inmates in the prison yard. It is clear he is heading for the warden’s office. Clad in a light blue t-shirt and mud brown shorts, he is not in regulation prison wear, which is all white. With his hair a mess of unruly grey, a days-old stubble, and eyebrows scrunched up in a strange expression of curiosity and timidity, 69-year-old Subhash Kapoor doesn’t look the part of a man said to be the kingpin of an international gang of idol thieves.
He hasn’t given an interview for more than five years. But the erstwhile art dealer and celebrity donor who moved around with New York’s swish set opens up, under the watchful eyes of the jail warden.
In the course of a conversation that lasts over two hours, he spins an intriguing, and sometimes confusing, tale of complicity and collusion. The story he tells is of a well-organised racket run by senior police officers who worked hand-in-glove with smugglers to enable the theft of temple idols from all over India, of men in law enforcement who built fortunes through extortion.
Media accounts have portrayed Kapoor as a smooth-talking criminal mastermind. In person, he was anything but that. He appeared tired and old and kept complaining about his multiple illnesses — early-stage cancer, diabetes, lupus. But there were no external signs of any grave ailment.
Kapoor bemoaned the fact that Tamil Nadu’s criminal justice system would not let him get even an MRI done to detect the true extent of the cancer. In court, he had to argue his case for medical treatment himself, which meant that language was another barrier to better care.
And yet, for the multi-nation, multi-agency teams investigating the global idol-smuggling network, Kapoor is a prize catch. He was first detained in Germany in 2011, after the Interpol issued a Red Corner alert. Subsequently he was extradited to India.
His deviant roots, however, seem to go back farther, or should we say, to his father, Parshotam Ram Kapoor. The older Kapoor was reportedly tried on allegations of art theft in the 1970s.
Affinity for idols seems to run deep in the Kapoor gene pool, for other family members flushed out of the illegal trade include Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen and daughter Mamta Sager. Despite the heat faced by antique smugglers worldwide, Kapoor’s brother Ramesh runs Kapoor Galleries, located close to Subhash Kapoor’s infamous gallery, Art of the Past, which was raided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in January 2012.
Other reported associates of Kapoor include the Kerala-based Sanjeevi Asokan, an alleged kingpin of a gang of idol thieves; Paramaspry Punusamy, Kapoor’s former ‘girlfriend’ from Malaysia; Deenadayalan, a Chennai-based gallery owner and art dealer; and Khader Basha, a former Inspector in the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police, who is under investigation.
While some among these, including Punusamy and Deenadayalan, provided useful information upon interrogation, others walked free due to the legal complexity of proving guilt in a court of law for such transnational criminality.
Crackdown on idol traffickers
Kapoor first came under direct suspicion in February 2007, the day a shipping consignment marked ‘Marble Garden Furniture’ arrived in New York. Authorities in Mumbai and in the U.S. had been tipped off that it actually contained antiques under false documentation. The shipment was seized. But no one came forward to claim it.
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