India’s beauty, history and cultural ancestry can be found in its artefacts and antiquities. They are windows to our past. However, the issue of illegal smuggling of these antiquities has almost entirely been ignored. In the last few years, with prominent cases of restitution of India’s stolen treasures by foreign governments, public interest has grown. But how could its invaluable antiquities leave India in the first place?
The answer rests with an archaic piece of legislation: the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. The act that sought to regulate the business of dealing in antiquities, and accordingly their preservation, is alleged to have failed in its purpose. It was originally enacted in an era when capital, talent, money and wealth (including art and antiquities) were leaving the country in an exodus. The act was a knee-jerk reaction to keep Indian antiquities from leaving the country along with their private collectors. A cumbersome registration process was created to develop a wide-ranging database of such items. Further, the legal definition is so wide that anything over 100 years automatically became an antiquity. The act also introduced various avenues for the government to raid and prosecute private collectors on flimsy grounds, like “inadequate maintenance of the object”. Stringent curbs were placed on the movement and trade of antiquities, even within India. Such provisions deterred most people from registering their antiquities. Hence, these remained hidden from the government’s eye and allowed an underground black market to flourish. Look no further than the ongoing Subhash Kapoor case to understand its scale.
Recognising the urgency of addressing the issue, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma recently proposed to the Union cabinet that the act be revised. He said: “We want this act to be revised and we have proposed to the cabinet that the antiquities act be changed. In India, anything more than 100 years of value comes under the antiquity act. Let India have an open market. Once we allow the trade of those antiquities in India, this smuggling will stop.”
Unfortunately, the minister’s proposal isn’t the first of its kind. Numerous attempts to amend the act have failed since 1985. Assurances were given nine times by the Central government, but nothing further was done. In 2011, a formal committee under R.N. Mishra was set up, which included representatives from museums, collectors, archaeological departments and the private sector. An effort was made to make the system transparent and user-friendly, especially the registration, with a view to ensuring free mobility of antiquities within the country. But nothing happened.
Another committee was formed under Justice (retired) Mukul Mudgal, which submitted its report for possible amendments in 2012. But when the culture minister was changed in October 2012, this, too, failed. The committee never filed a conclusive report due to dissenting notes from members. In its report (Report No 18 of 2013), even the CAG admonished the government for its inability to review the law.
There is no indication that this time will be any different. However, the incumbent government has enough political capital to address this issue. Any attempt to make the act more user-friendly would be welcome. But would an “open market” necessarily address the issue of smuggling and preventing the illegal export of antiquities? The black market for Indian antiquities is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is incentive enough for looters to continue excavating ancient sites and exporting artefacts.
India needs to first work on modernising the core regime. People should be encouraged to register their antiquities and trust the government not to harass them. Under the act, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has only registered about 3,00,000 artefacts out of a possible 30 billion. An e-registration process would encourage more participation and help create transparency among stakeholders. Also, not everything 100 years old is an antiquity. Some criteria need to be applied. The definition has left enough room for interpretation, leading ASI officers to make uninformed decisions.
Another point of contention concerns the act’s enforcement. The ASI’s focus and resources have been channelled towards the maintenance, restoration and preservation of ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The additional mandate for supervising the antiquities market has put a strain on its limited resources. The ASI’s lack of expertise in this area has been found to be a major systemic flaw. A larger, dedicated body of experts is needed.
While Sharma’s announcement shows the right intentions, it may be premature to think about opening up the market for trade. It would be fair to expect many potential collectors and traders to be circumspect. The registration process and the ASI issues are still too pertinent. Nevertheless, India needs the courage and conviction to follow up on the proposals that keep coming. Only then will the windows to our past be available for future generations.
Shroff is partner and Patnaik an associate, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.