The image of Kerala has already become frayed because of the high prevalence of scandals, scams, gold smuggling, bank bursting, domestic violence and rape even if we explain them away as over-reporting by the media. Reports of femmes fatales operating openly, and scams and suicides emanate from Kerala endlessly. But nothing is as shameful as the antiquities scam, which has exposed the gullibility of Keralites at every level.
The response of the Kerala elite to the offer of the original staff of Moses, Lord Krishna’s curd pot, one of the thirty pieces of silver that Judas earned for betraying Jesus, Tipu Sultan’s throne and Einstein’s skull, a cross made out of the mud that was on Jesus’s feet when he was crucified, a thread from the cloth used to wipe Jesus’s face during the crucifixion, a nail of Portuguese priest St Anthony of Padua, a piece of St Alphonsa’s veil and a 2,000-year-old jug of Jesus was astonishing. At this rate, a shrivelled fig leaf could have been sold as Eve’s suit in paradise for a crore of rupees!
For several years, a person fooled many people, styling himself as a motivational speaker, doctor, cosmetologist, art promoter and antique dealer, by building influence in high official circles, particularly the Police and parading them as his patrons and protectors. The facts that came out were stranger than fiction ever created by Hollywood or Bollywood to unravel tricks of global crimes. An odd antique may have been over valued in some places, but manufacturing antiques attributed to pre-historic times and managing to get people to part with their money for them has not featured even in crime thrillers. The police, which officially provided protection to him even after receiving complaints, finally nabbed him after a ceremony attended by many celebrities, very much in Bollywood style.
This case too may go on expected lines
In Kerala, even as details of the man’s deceit and crimes started to unfold, celebrities who took pride in being photographed with him are distancing themselves from him. But like in other scams over the years, the excitement will die down and the criminal may spend some time in prison after an investigation and all others will be let off as lacking evidence about their involvement. The Kerala government is lukewarm about this case because it will hit not only the opposition, but also some appointees of the government.
A quid pro quo likely
The disturbing factor of this scam is the evidence to show that the law and order authorities themselves and some politicians also fell prey. These are people, who are by training expected to be particularly watchful. The trust that they displayed in a criminal without suspicion is unbelievable and, therefore, the concern is that they have aided and abetted him and protected him in return for various favours.
Kerala education, business now suspect
Even more importantly, this case devalues the literacy rate and the reputation of the graduates from Kerala universities. Delhi colleges apparently discount their marks because of the suspicion that these marks are often gifts bestowed on students for various considerations. A parent told me that his daughter could not get admission in a top college in Delhi even with 100% marks! Such a reputation will have a cascading effect on Kerala graduates and their chances of getting jobs outside will be in jeopardy.
The scam may also have a devastating effect on business collaboration in Kerala. Scamsters and crooks will come to Kerala, knowing that it is possible to exploit the gullibility of educated Keralites and their greed, manifesting itself in eagerness to make money in every possible way. The reputation of Kerala Model of development and the ease of doing business will disappear. The criminal will get away, but his imprint will remain on the whole population of Kerala.
A deeper societal malady
A Kerala historian has said that the Kerala society is producing decision makers of the lowest quality. He says that there are capable people in Kerala, but “as a collective, we are behaving like there is no tomorrow.” A multinational financial consultant is of the view that the problem of Kerala is not just brain drain, but a competence drain.
Such comments have not been made in the case of mounting crimes in Kerala as they are individual cases. The antics over antiquities revealed a deeper malady amounting to a mass hysteria of gullibility. Instead of creating a polarisation on political grounds to save those involved, a deeper introspection is necessary about Kerala society. Confidence tricksters are not new, but this is the first time that a large number of people were hypnotised into believing that relics of pre-historic times can be traded in this technological age. Technology has the capability to detect the value of artwork, but no technology wizard in Kerala has come up with a formula to expose this scam. The damage the scam has created to the image of Kerala should not be underestimated. Never before has the intellectual elite in Kerala been so exposed.
One comforting thought is that we are not alone in such gullibility in the case of fake antiquities. At the same time as the Kerala scam surfaced, the New York Times reported that someone sold fake antiquities in New York for decades before he was arrested and charged with grand larceny and other crimes. The police said that the mass-produced objects were passed off as ancient artifacts, exactly as it happened in Kerala!
(T P Sreenivasan is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)