Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s recent speech at Oxford asking Britain to pay reparations to India for its colonial rule may have led to Labour MP Keith Vaz demanding that the Koh-i-Noor be returned to India, but history shows that India has been losing antique items far more frequently than it has got them back.
India has got 13 antiques back in 40 years, according to records with the Archaeological Survey of India. These records are for the period since India signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, too has provisions for regulating trade in antiques.
In contrast, 131 major antique items have been stolen in the last 20 years. In the 29 months from January 2013 to May 2015, there have been 13 thefts, with nine taking place in Karnataka alone.
“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,” says a CAG report on Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiquities.
Seven of the 13 antique items brought back are from the United States, all from the Chola period. Four have been recovered from the United Kingdom, while one of the remaining two came back from France and the other from the Netherlands.
The last procurement was in 2013, a Yogini Vrishanana idol was brought back from France. It had been trafficked to France and acquired by a private collector, Robert Schrimpf, whose wife decided to return it to the Indian Embassy in Paris. India’s then culture minister, Chandresh Kumari Katoch, asked the embassy to send the idol to the National Museum in New Delhi. Getting it back to India took 12 years from 2001.
Most of these artifacts have, in fact, been given up voluntarily. The last artifact that the government got back following legal recourse was a Nataraja statue from London, in 1991.
ASI is empowered to compulsorily acquire antiquities but none has been so acquired till date. Museums have acquired art objects mainly by way of purchase and gifts. According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, the country has approximately 70 lakh antiquities of which close to five lakh are registered.
Minister of State for Culture and Mahesh Sharma has said that the government is planning a national database of antiquities. “The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities would document the antiquities and prepare a national database, which would help in establishing provenance in the retrieval of smuggled antiquities,” Sharma said.