On his fourth visit to the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday paid tribute to American soldiers, met the family of Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla, received old cultural artefacts from the US government and held a meeting with think-tanks.
The highlight of the day was when US Attorney General Loretta E Lynch handed over about 12 cultural artefacts to Modi — starting the process of returning about 200 such items, valued at over $100 million.
Speaking in Hindi at a small ceremony in Blair House, Modi thanked US President Barack Obama for returning the items. “For some, these artefacts may be measured in monetary terms but for us this is beyond that. It’s a part of our culture and heritage,” the PM said.
“The US is committed to ensuring that no nation is robbed of the objects that inform its identity, shape its traditions and inspire its citizens,” the US Attorney General said.
“Dollars are a poor measure of the true worth of these pieces. For the people of India, these objects cannot be appraised by the whims of the market. They represent India’s rich heritage — the imagination of its thinkers and the skill of its artists; the beauty of its land and the vitality of its people; the endurance of its religions and the influence of its philosophies. Today, as part of that ongoing commitment, more than 200 antiquities and cultural artefacts that speak to India’s astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home,” she said.
According to the US government’s statement, the items returned included religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years, looted from some of India’s most treasured religious sites. Among the pieces returned is a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai, which is valued at $1.5 million, and a bronze sculpture of Ganesh estimated to be 1,000 years old.
Most of the pieces repatriated in the ceremony were seized during Operation Hidden Idol, an investigation that began in 2007 after US special agents received a tip about a shipment of seven crates destined for the US manifested as “marble garden table sets”.
Examination of the shipment revealed numerous antiquities. This shipment was imported by Subhash Kapoor, owner of Art of the Past Gallery, who awaits trial in India.
After his arrival here Monday afternoon, Modi went to the Arlington national cemetery to pay tribute at the Tomb of Unknown Soldiers.
He was joined by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and senior US government officials.
Then, at the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial, Modi met Kalpana Chawla’s family. They were extremely moved as the PM spoke to them in Gujarati. He had met them in Gujarat some years ago. The PM also met Sunita Williams, another astronaut of Indian-origin. “We are very honoured that he took time to come and acknowledge the shuttle catastrophe and the deep cooperation that we have with India in the space world,” Williams said.
Later in the day, Modi interacted with the heads of US think-tanks. “The aim was to understand from them how they see global trends in the coming years, the challenges and what the US and India could do together,” Indian envoy Arun K Singh said.
The think-tanks were from Brookings, Council on Foreign Relations, Centre for American Progress, the Atlantic Council, Hudson Institute among others.