The Telegraph
Tuesday , April 21 , 2015

Troubles in an antique land

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, has just returned a 900-year old "Parrot Lady" sculpture from Khajuraho to India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. Some weeks ago, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, presented him with two ancient Shiva sculptures that were proudly displayed by their National Gallery, which had bought it for Rs 30 crore in 2008. All of a sudden, newspapers have started reporting how Indian antiquities that had been smuggled to foreign museums have started coming home.

In early April this year, American museums in Massachusetts and Hawaii decided to return eight rare antiquities that were pilfered from India, and Subhash Kapoor, the brain behind this constant flow of rare artefacts, has been arrested. In October last year, another museum in Ohio decided to return an Indian statue it had bought in 2006 for crores of rupees. Kapoor is awaiting trial on charges of trafficking in stolen artefacts worth at least Rs 600 crore. This is not a small amount. The plot thickens, as investigations lead to more and more American museums, including the prestigious Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and there is no doubt that Indian antiquities have been taken out illegally for several decades. If one recalls the central theme of many Bollywood films in the 1970s and the 1980s, a familiar figure that would pop up immediately would be of a blonde 'white smuggler', who would hand over a bag full of cash to his Indian counterpart, saying: "Now hand over your murti (idol) to me." The popular cinema, therefore, was clearly conscious of what was actually going on behind the scenes, and made this one of its perennial and exciting themes. How officialdom treated this problem is not known because, excepting a few enterprising customs and police officials, no one appeared to be spending sleepless nights.

The question that we could have raised on World Heritage Day is: how did we come to such a pass? Well, we need to go back to 1969 and the abolition of 'privy purses' that sent panic waves among erstwhile royalty, especially of those former 'princely states' whose monuments had not been brought under the Archaeology Survey of India. The nizam of Hyderabad set the cat among the pigeons when he started calling international auction houses to evaluate his rich jewellery collection "that was large enough to pave Piccadilly Circus". It was rumoured that many other former 'royals' were spiriting away valuables like paintings, antiquities and jewellery overseas. The Central government rushed in to enact the Antiquities and Art, Treasures Act in 1972, which was to regulate trade within the country and "to prevent smuggling and fraudulent dealings". To deter wrongdoers, a provision for compulsory acquisition of such priceless products was also inserted. But, by the time the 'rules' governing this act were promulgated next year, the market reported that whatever could move within the grey areas of law did so with lightning speed.

The real game then began - between a completely unprepared ASI that was declared the custodian of India's treasures, and those who sought to feed the avarice of foreign institutional buyers and private collectors. The former royals or the erstwhile zamindars were not the only ones who were in this 'sport', because the unguarded temples and monuments of India were also prime targets. The 1970 UNESCO convention on preventing illicit import of cultural property is only a guideline and unless Interpol is deadly serious, it could remain just a pious pronouncement. One cannot fault the UNESCO for not trying hard enough, for it kept publishing instructions and alerts and even brought out a Technical Manual in 1983. It also made several 'declarations' and held numerous conferences in pleasing foreign climes, which must have been well attended. India has also been elected often as a member of the inter-governmental committee of the UNESCO.

But the clumsy procedure outlined in the 1972 act and the rules of 1973 almost ensured its unworkability. The ASI's unenviable task is to guard almost 3700 protected monuments of India. It is so short-staffed that more than half of these have just a purple enamel signboard, rusted at the edges, declaring its 'national' status and serious purpose, without a single guard within eyesight. Some of us have been constantly campaigning for a re-look at the excessive burden that has been thrust on the ASI; we have also been pleading that responsible local communities or public institutions be permitted and encouraged to guard and care for monuments in their neighbourhood with love and pride.

The ASI has neither the requisite number of 'registering officers' nor sufficient 'licensing officers', although these functionaries are the mainstay of the Antiquities Act. Besides, the ASI's expertise in identifying, dating and valuing antiquities is also rather limited, considering that most of its officials were recruited and trained for the conservation of monuments and for archaeological excavations, not for guarding antiquities.

The Antiquities Act declares every coin, sculpture, painting, image or any item of historic value that is more than a hundred years old to be an 'antiquity' which has to be registered. It is estimated that well over 90 per cent of such items are/were not registered, as their owners were not in the know about the legal provisions and last dates. Besides, most citizens are petrified at the prospect of visiting any government office. Thus, all are now 'offenders' under this act and liable to the 'search and seizure' under Section 23 or confiscation of his family's heirloom, or they may even face six months imprisonment for contraventions under Section 25.

The tragedy lies in the fact that this law has not been able to stop the smuggling of antiquities out of India, but it is seen as the biggest impediment to the movement, sale and transfer of such heritage items within our own country. In the age of the internet, the obstinate insistence on presenting oneself before junior officials and frightening clerks could easily be replaced by electronic registration on a voluntary basis, that would free millions from the dark shadow of 'criminality' for the simple fact of not registering what their forefathers left behind. We set up the R.N. Mishra committee in 2010 as one of the endless attempts to modify this rather draconian Act and permit treasures hidden in family vaults or with dealers to come out and be exhibited in public museums or in other iconic situations. But the report proved to be disappointing to the pro-changers as is evident from the historic meeting of the cultural community with the government on September 5, 2011. The antiquities laws of China, Japan, Canada and other countries were analysed and presented; with a fervent plea to jail smugglers or illicit dealers, and a plea not to punish millions of common citizens. Permitting free flow of antiquities within the country would lead to hundred of crores of rupees to the often-impoverished owners and would enrich the country's official collection. It would provide employment to thousands of qualified persons. The Act remains, as before.

A lot of water has moved down the river, often in the reverse direction, but the human heart and mind never give up hope: at least not while the world celebrates its heritage.

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