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IT’S almost seven years since the theft. It’s one and a half years since the case went to the CBI. Now, having tried everything else, the agency is counting on tips from the public. On April 11, the CBI placed an advertisement in newspapers promising Rs 1 lakh reward for anyone with any information on an antique asthadhatu (eight-metal) bell that used to be kept in the front verandah of Shimla’s Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) and went missing on April 22, 2010.
It was no minor theft — the IIAS is one of the premier research institutes in the country, and the Viceregal Lodge where it is housed is the designated second home of the President of India. The bell was taken out of the wooden frame in which it was mounted and carted away. Together with the frame, the bell weighed 80 kg. There were a total of 12 security personnel guarding the 110-acre campus on the night of the theft, including two outside the building that housed the bell.
The bell had been gifted to the then Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, back in 1903, by the royal family of Nepal. It is estimated to be worth lakhs. “It was a medieval piece belonging to the 16th or 17th century. It was almost similar to the antique pieces displayed outside famous temples in Nepal. The royal family of Nepal had also inscribed the Viceroy’s name on it,” says former IIAS director and noted historian Dr Chetan Singh, who adds that the disappearance of the bell is “a matter of serious concern”.
The robbery is the first such reported from the institute. And as the CBI seeks to solve it, it seems no closer to the truth. “We have tried our best, used all our professional skills, and chased various clues. But we have been unable to make a tangible headway,” a senior CBI official told The Sunday Express over phone. “Soon, we may distribute pamphlets in the town and areas such as Tutu and Summer Hill forest. We are also appealing to the media and social groups to help,” said the official.
The advertisement seeking information was issued by the CBI’s Economic Offences Wing, New Delhi, and promised anonymity to anyone who came forward. “A nation-wide hunt has also been launched to nab the culprits involved in the theft,” said a CBI official in New Delhi.
The case had been handed over to the investigating agency in October 2015, on the Himachal Pradesh High Court’s orders. The IIAS had filed a petition in the court saying it was dissatisfied with the Shimla police’s investigation. The court had directed the CBI to launch a nation-wide hunt to recover the bell and to find the culprits.
CBI sources said the agency’s teams have questioned several people, including security guards, and checked out possible escape routes, including through the backyard and the Summer Hill forest next to the Viceregal Lodge.
The theft had left Shimla’s residents, visiting scholars and fellows of the IIAS in shock. “A duty chowkidar reported the theft to the IIAS’s estates official at around 5 am on April 24, 2010, who in turn immediately spoke to our then director Peter Ronald deSouza. We all were in utter shock and disbelief. The police were called immediately,” recalls Ashok Sharma, a former IIAS PRO.
At one stage, the Shimla police had decided to close the case as untraced and submitted a report in the court of the judicial magistrate. However, the court had declined the plea and directed a re-investigation in July 2015.
Additional Shimla SP Bhajan Negi, who handled the investigations at a later stage, says he had rounded up three-four suspects and interrogated them. A few of these people hailed from Tutu area of Shimla town and were put under surveillance as they had earlier been accused of cheating a brigadier-rank Army officer in Punjab, he says.
“I could not reach out to the brigadier, but it’s a fact that there was local involvement. It was the handiwork of more than two or more people. The bell couldn’t have been taken out of the IIAS premises without the connivance of insiders, who were familiar with escape routes through the backyard,” he says.
Negi, who wishes he had more time to probe the matter, also wonders how the thieves were able to strike at the IIAS which has around-the-clock security provided by the government, as well as private security. “The bell’s wooden frame is still lying in the stores of the IIAS,” he says.
Since the theft, security has been stepped up in the institute. A new private security agency has been engaged and CCTV cameras have also been installed at vital points across the campus. Guards now keep a strict watch on the movement of visitors and vehicles.