The Bombay High Court Thursday overruled a lower court order that had ordered the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) to release the passport of alleged antiques smuggler Vijay Nanda, an American businessman of Indian origin. Nanda is accused of smuggling antiques and artifacts to the US, Europe and Hong Kong.
The court was hearing a plea filed by the DRI seeking to quash the June 28 order of a sessions court directing it to “hand over the passport” of Nanda, currently out on bail, and allow him to travel to the US for 12 weeks.
“It’s a big win for the DRI,” said an official. The agency argued in the court that the investigation was at a “crucial” stage, and Nanda was likely to “abscond” if his passport were returned.
On February 6, the DRI arrested Nanda from his residence in Girgaum Chowpaty in South Mumbai. The team recovered at least six stone sculptures of 10th Century AD, mostly stolen from temples in the southern and eastern India, from his home, and a godown in Byculla. It also found terracotta figurines from 1st century AD, bronze figurines from 17th and 18th centuries.
The DRI has said Nanda is part of an international art smuggling syndicate that uses unscrupulous people to steal sculptures from Indian temples. These sculptures are then legitimised through forged ASI certificates and then smuggled out of India concealed inside “consignments of furniture, handicrafts, or readymade garments”. The probe agency has alleged that Nanda has shipped abroad about 13 consignments using this modus operandi.
According to the DRI, Nanda used to arrange auctions and subsequent sale of such artifacts in the US and Hong Kong to private collections and museums. Indian antiques and artifacts command great value in international markets and are highly sought after by art galleries and private collectors.
Nanda’s lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani, however, has argued in courts that the DRI had no jurisdiction in the case as the issue pertained to the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. He claimed that even if the recovered statues were considered to be art treasures there was “no finding of fact to that effect” so these seizures could not be the “basis for continuing investigation since no complaint has been filed yet”.