The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Scam scent in missing scrolls

Darbhanga, April 30: Mithilanchal’s rich literary heritage is under threat. An organised gang of art smugglers appears to be stealthily removing the region’s priceless possessions — rare manuscripts of ancient works.

The gang, believed to be in league with foreign agents, has been operating with help from a section of government officers, police suspect. One senior officer was recently arrested.

According to investigations, the smugglers have been taking advantage of lax security arrangements in the makeshift museums in which these manuscripts were lying neglected.

The condition in which manuscripts are preserved had sparked a furore a year ago. The Assembly was flooded with letters from intellectuals urging the Bihar government to form an all-party committee for a probe into the allegations of neglect.

The committee tabled its report in the House on July 26 last year. The report deplored the state of affairs at the Mithila Institute of Post Graduate Studies and Research, the official custodian of the manuscripts, and recommended measures like building a separate preservation centre and stepping up of security.

Despite the recommendation, the government failed to act during these nine months. Now reports of theft and missing manuscripts have started pouring in. On March 28, officials at the Mithila institute opened a huge iron chest to discover that 25 rare manuscripts were missing. Some of these documents are believed to be from the old Vishnu Puran and poems of Nagarjun and Pundit Vidyur Malik.

An FIR was lodged at the town police station. After about a week’s investigation, the police picked up M.N. Jha, one of those in charge of the rare manuscripts at the institute and who also happens to be the complainant in the case. After a day of interrogation, the police raided his house and found 17 rare manuscripts. Another official, B. Jha, who used to be in charge of the centre earlier, may be interrogated, the police said.

“These manuscripts found in M.N Jha’s house were in addition to the 25 which could not be recovered,” said Pradip Kumar, district magistrate of Darbhanga. According to Kumar, Jha failed to explain why he had kept the manuscripts in his house.

The recovery from a person responsible for the safe-keeping raised another question: how many manuscripts were actually missing from the institute'

The police are certain the thefts could not have been committed without an insider’s assistance. “No one knew the value of the manuscripts in the literary market. How can an outsider get an inroad without the help of a scholar or for that matter a custodian who is in the know'” asked Darbhanga superintendent of police Sunil Kumar.

“The iron chest was heavy and it had a double-lock security. After dismantling the original lock, the smugglers removed the manuscripts and put an identical lock instead,” said Balaram Kujur, DSP of Darbhanga.

According to a report by the Assembly committee, headed by Arun Kumar, a senior member of the House, there are about 22,000 rare books and 11,000 rare manuscripts at the institute. These include, in addition to those of 14th and 15th century poets, rare scripts written on palm leaves that date back to the 19th century. Vidyapathi is another famous name from the region. “We were shocked to see some of these manuscripts lying scattered in the institute’s kitchen corridor. We are fiddling with our rich heritage as the government failed to protect them,” said Kumar.

B.B. Srivastava, secretary, higher education, told The Telegraph the district administration has been asked to keep a record of the number of manuscripts at the centre with their dates and the name of their authors.

“We are also preparing a project report to be submitted to the Government of India on the condition of manuscripts (and) asking for facilities for microfilming,” he said. The state government, Srivastava added, was thinking of tying up with the National Library on a scheme for better preservation.

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