“A focus on heritage & culture…I thank the US government for the return of precious cultural artefacts to India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after the Cultural Repatriation Ceremony at Blair House, Washington DC, on Tuesday, where the US initiated the process to return over 200 stolen artefacts to India. The statues, bronzes and terracotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years, had been looted from some of India’s most treasured religious sites, and are estimated to cost $ 100 million (nearly Rs 670 crore).
At the ceremony, Attorney General Loretta E Lynch lauded the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for “working tirelessly with international partners to combat the theft and smuggling of valuable cultural artefacts and antiquities”. In fact, the pieces being returned to India represent just a fraction of the collection seized by ICE as part of Operation Hidden Idol, which it began in 2007. More than 3,000 artefacts — valued at over $ 150 million — were recovered during the operation focused on the former New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, currently awaiting trial in India for allegedly stealing rare antiquities from India and several other nations. Five other individuals too were arrested in the US. India expects the US to eventually return all recovered artefacts.
In March this year, days before Christie’s ‘Asia Week, New York’ auction, the ICE seized two artefacts stolen from India. One, a 10th century buff sandstone slab of the Tirthankara Rishabhanata, was valued at $ 150,000; the other was a very rare sandstone panel depicting the equestrian deity Revanta and his entourage, made in the 8th century AD, valued at $ 300,000. Investigations showed the Rishabhanata was sold to a London-based dealer in 2006-07, while the Revanta panel appeared to be an “orphan fragment”, a piece broken off to be sold by the smugglers after the sale of the main part of the sculpture.
The Ministry of Culture recently told Parliament that since 2000, 101 antiquities had been stolen from centrally protected monuments. However, the Central Bureau of Investigation had registered only one case in connection with the thefts between 2000 and 2016. Over the years, many idols have been stolen from temples and personal collections as well. For instance, the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu Police records the theft of 48 objects from various temples in the state, which are not under the protection of the ASI.
The process of retrieval of a stolen object that surfaces in a foreign country takes place through India’s mission in that country. The CBI’s Economic Offences Wing deals with heritage crimes. In Tamil Nadu, which has a huge collection of idols and panels in its hundreds of temples, the government has set up an Idol Wing-CID. “There is a need for a more concerted approach for retrieval of Indian art objects stolen or illegally exported to other countries. The ASI as the nodal agency for this purpose needs to be more proactive and vigilant in its efforts, and the Ministry needs to develop an aggressive strategy for the same,” a report on Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiquities by the CAG said a few years ago.
According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities (NMMA), which functions under the ASI, India has over 70 lakh antiquities of which just 15 lakh are registered with it. Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma says the government has planned a comprehensive national database of antiquities to “help in establishing provenance in the retrieval of smuggled antiquities”. This, in fact, was the NMMA’s brief when it was formed in 2007 — it was given five years to complete the task. In its submission to Parliament, the ASI has conceded that it has no estimate of the number of antiquities that have been smuggled out of the country.
In 2013, a sculpture of Vrishanana Yogini, weighing 400 kg and dating to the 10th century, stolen from a temple in Uttar Pradesh, was brought back from Paris after a 12-year effort. In 2014, Australia returned a Nataraja and an Ardhanariswara, which are now in the custody of the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing. In 2015, three idols — Parrot Lady from Canada, Mahisamardini from Germany and Uma Parameshwari from Singapore — came home. These are currently housed at Purana Qila in Delhi. All these artefacts were handed over voluntarily.