Retrieving Stolen Idols and Artefacts: Initiatives, Challenges and Way Forward – Explained, pointwise

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Monuments and antiquities are part of India’s heritage and culture. But there is a lack of adequate measures to protect this rich heritage. Hence, there are frequent incidents wherein these idols and artefacts are stolen from centrally-protected temples, museums, monuments and archaeological sites. India is facing a double jeopardy due to the illicit removal of cultural objects. The stolen idols and artefacts are irreplaceable and this inflicts a heavy loss of heritage. To protect the stolen idols and artefacts and bring them back to India, the government needs to be in a mission mode.

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About India’s the status of Stolen idols and artefacts
Stolen idols and artefacts
Source: Indiapedia

A 2013 report of CAG highlighted that 131 antiquities were stolen from monuments/sites and 37 antiquities from Site Museums from 1981 to 2012. Apart from that, about some 200-odd idols are being returned by the US, Britain, Canada and Australia to India.

Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is the nodal agency to retrieve stolen or illegally exported art objects. From 1976 to 2001, 19 antiquities had been retrieved by the ASI from foreign countries. This is done either through legal means, indemnity agreement, voluntary action or throughout case settlement. But after 2001, the ASI had not been able to achieve any success.

Read more: Karnataka has most number of stolen artefacts
About Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) functions under the Ministry of Culture. It is the premier organization for archaeological research and the protection of the cultural heritage of the nation. Maintenance of ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance is the prime objective of the ASI.

Functions of ASI

– Regulates all archaeological activities in the country as per the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

– Regulates Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, 1972.

For the maintenance of ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance, the entire country is divided into 24 circles.

Note: Article 51A(f) of the Constitution mentions that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.”

Read more: Monuments in India: issues and Challenges
What steps have been undertaken by the government to protect arts and artefacts from being stolen?

Legislations: Indian Treasure Trove Act (1949) and Antiquities And Art Treasures Act 1972.

The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958: It provides for the preservation of ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance. It also provides for the regulation of archaeological excavations and for the protection of sculptures, carvings and other like objects.

National Mission On Monuments And Antiquities: The mission aims to prepare a National database on Built Heritage and sites from secondary sources and a National database on Antiquities from different sources and museums.

National Manuscript Mission: The mission was established in February 2003, by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India. It aims to unearth and preserve the vast manuscript wealth of India. This will help India to connect its past with its future. It also helps to connect India’s memory with its aspirations.

Read more: Schemes administered by the Ministry of Culture to promote and disseminate the art & Culture
International collaborations

India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. India also ratified the convention in 1977.

Private initiatives

India Pride Project: It is a group of art enthusiasts who uses social media to identify stolen religious artefacts from Indian temples and secure their return.

Read more: A catalogue of all that’s valuable
What are the challenges in controlling idols and artefacts stealing?

In India, Stealing of idols and artefacts is common because,

The size of the black market: Stealing arts and artefacts has lucrative illegal business prospects. According to the Global Financial Integrity (GFI) Report, the Illegal trade of artefacts and antiquities is one of the world’s most Profitable Criminal Enterprises ($6 Billion dollars). UNESCO also confirmed that ISIS is trafficking in art and antiquities to finance its operations, and earning approximately US$ 1 million of revenue a day.

Lack of protection in temples: There is a lack of protection for Indian Temples. For instance, Southern Tamil Nadu has many ancient temples situated in small, abandoned premises of a village. With non-existent security, idols are routinely stolen by local thieves.

Lack of focus on Organised crime: Though the Indian government has taken active steps to bring back the stolen idols and artefacts, there is lack of adequate attention to curb the organized stealing of idols and artefacts. For instance, (a) even two years after the stealing of Nataraja and Uma Maheshvari (this idol was in Singapore) idols, there was lack of awareness among the authorities about the theft; (b) Though stolen idols and artefacts were found in many Western museums and auction-houses, Indian authorities do not have enough track of how the stolen artefacts reached the Western markets and about their internal connivance.

Inefficiency of the ASI: 2013 report titled “Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiquities” released by CAG highlights the Inefficiency of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Such as; (a) Excavation and preservation require distinct skill-sets and expertise, but ASI seeks to combine them both; (b) ASI had never participated in or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at well-known international auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, etc. This is because there was no explicit provision in the AAT (Antiquities and Art Treasures) Act, 1972 for doing so.

Lack of Community Participation: Local community is usually the first respondent to path-breaking discoveries. For instance, the Rakhigarhi Excavation was first reported on farming land by local workers and farmers. But in India, there is an absence of incentives to identify and report idols and artefacts discovery, stealing and even the recovery.

Read more: Ministry of Culture is reprinting “Mongolian Kanjur” manuscripts
What should be done?

Active involvement from ASI: Worldwide, organisations took many more effective steps. Such as checking catalogues of the international auction house(s), posting information about the theft in the International Art Loss Registry, and sending photographs of stolen objects electronically to dealers and auction houses and intimate scholars in the field. Hence, the ASI should be equipped with adequate powers to protect Indian arts and artefacts.

India should sign the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Follow the steps of Italy: Italy is a country with the highest UNESCO Natural and Cultural Heritage sites. Many best practices to retrieve stolen artefacts originate in Italy. Such as,

(1) A specific law on protecting cultural heritage, with enhanced penalties; (2) Centralised management before granting authorisation for archaeological research; (3) Specialisation in cultural heritage for public prosecutors; (4) An inter-ministerial committee for recovery and return of cultural objects; (5) MOUs and bilateral agreements  (6) Created a complete inventory of moveable and immoveable cultural heritage, with detailed catalogues; (7) Monitoring and inspection of cultural sites; and (8) Centralised granting of export requests.

India can also follow the steps of Italy and implement reforms in this area.

Frame a Portable Antiquities Scheme like the UK: The UK encourages local communities to voluntarily report and register the discovery of artefacts with help of experts. India has to implement similar schemes in mission mode to prevent idols and artefacts from stealing.

Read more: Interpol’s “ID-Art App” to help protect cultural property

Unless there is a multi-pronged action from the government to target loopholes in domestic legislation and enforcement, the stealing of idols and artefacts will continue to erode India’s invaluable cultural heritage.

Source: Indian Express

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