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Nation’s medal of pride stolen

Santiniketan, March 25: India has been robbed of its foremost badge of pride.

In a sensational robbery without an Indian — possibly, global even — parallel, Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel citation and medal were stolen between Tuesday noon and Thursday morning.

The robbers broke into Bichitra, the building in the Uttarayan complex that houses the museum on its ground floor, through a window at the back.

They also took away a gold pocket-watch and ring of India’s only literature — and first — Nobel laureate, several paintings, silverware, ivory items and jewellery and a sari his wife, Mrinalini Devi, wore.

Caretaker Bhagendra Jha, apparently, was the first person to discover the loss: about 30 items have disappeared. Opening the gates on Thursday morning, when the complex reopened after the weekly break, he realised what had happened and ran out to inform Visva-Bharati vice-chancellor Sujit Kumar Basu.

As national leaders, starting with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, reacted with horror and embarrassment, Basu described the incident as a “crime against the nation”.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who was phoned by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called it a “catastrophe”. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani offered “any help” in recovering the stolen articles.

Although the 1913 citation and medal would have no value in the open market, there is a flourishing clandestine international trade in stolen artwork and memorabilia.

Initial police investigations indicated that “insiders could have had a hand in the crime”. Bengal home secretary Amit Kiran Deb said: “A special Criminal Investigation Department team has been sent to Santiniketan and we are confident of getting leads in the next couple of days.”

A senior member of the government, Nirupam Sen, the industry minister, is also reaching here tomorrow.

Jha and three National Volunteer Force security personnel, including the two on duty on Tuesday night (Vishnu Laha and Sridam Das), were detained.

The investigations suggest the robbers entered the museum through a window a few feet above the ground, somehow opening the latch. They would have spent some time taking out the screws that held together the grille and clambered up and into the room.

Once inside, the job was easy because the memorabilia were kept in a glass showcase shaped like a horseshoe that runs along the wall with a separate section placed in the middle. The citation and medal were in the central part.

They broke the locks on the glass cases and collected the loot.

Two armed security personnel guard Rabindranath Memorial Museum from outside. Other than them, two watchmen are present only during the official visiting hours.

The robbers took advantage of the poor security arrangements. Bichitra has burglar alarms but they have not been working for over a year.

Security officer Arup Sil, however, insisted that “security and lighting arrangements were adequate”.

Vajpayee, who is the chancellor, called Basu to ask how the incident occurred.

“We are shocked and devastated,” the vice-chancellor said, appealing for co-operation from “all compatriots” and closing down the museum till the investigation was over. Refusing to rule out sabotage, he called the “Visva-Bharati parivar (family)” to a meeting tomorrow to decide how to handle the crisis.

Supriyo Tagore, a descendent of the Tagore family, said: “This is such a great shock… it has left everyone stunned.”

Officials admitted in private that security was lax and had been scaled down.

“When I was still working (in 1997), the museum had a generator operator and two security personnel who stayed inside day and night,” former museum maintenance superintendent Debiprasanna Chattopadhyay said, referring to the absence of anyone inside the museum after working hours.

Quick to scent an opportunity to embarrass the government before the election, supporters of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress began an indefinite fast demanding a judicial probe.

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