Missing Antiquities in India

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    • It was recently found that the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, includes at least 77 items with links to someone who is serving a 10-year jail term in Tamil Nadu for smuggling antiquities.

    Data on missing antiquities 

    • Reported missing:
      • Since Independence, only 486 antiquities have been reported as missing from the 3,696 monuments protected and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), including 139 from Madhya Pradesh, 95 from Rajasthan and 86 from Uttar Pradesh.
      • The menace of missing antiquities is illustrated by a UNESCO estimate that “more than 50,000 art objects have been smuggled out of India till 1989”.
    • The RTI records:
      • The RTI records also show that 305 antiquities have been brought back to India from abroad since 1976, including 292 since 2014. 
    • Parliamentary Standing Committee:
      • However, as the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Transport, Tourism and Culture points out, these numbers may just be “the tip of the iceberg”.
    • ASI’s list of missing antiquities:
      • The ASI’s list of missing antiquities covers 17 states and two Union Territories. Apart from MP, Rajasthan and UP, the list includes: Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana and West Bengal, among others. 

    What is Antiquity?

    • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, of 1972, (implemented in 1976), defined “antiquity” as: 
      • “Any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship; any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave; any article, object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages; any article, object or thing of historical interest” that “has been in existence for not less than one hundred years.”
      • For a “manuscript, record or other document which is of scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value”, this duration is “not less than seventy-five years.

    International conventions

    • The UNESCO Convention:
      • The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defined “cultural property” as: 
        • The property designated by countries having “importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.”
      • On the matter of illicit export, the declaration says that:
        • “The illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property.”
    • UN:
      • In 2000, the General Assembly of the UN and the UN Security Council in 2015 and 2016 also raised concerns on the issue. 
    • INTERPOL:
      • An INTERPOL report in 2019 said that almost 50 years after the UNESCO convention, “the illicit international traffic of cultural items and related offences is sadly increasingly prolific.”

    Indian laws

    • Heritage of India:
      • In India, Item-67 of the Union List, Item-12 of the State List, and Item-40 of the Concurrent List of the Constitution deal with the country’s heritage.
    • Pre-independence – Antiquities (Export Control) Act:
      • Before Independence, an Antiquities (Export Control) Act had been passed in April 1947 to ensure that “no antiquity could be exported without a license.” 
    • Post-independence legislations:
      • In 1958, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act was enacted. 
      • The government enacted the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act(AATA) in 1972  (implemented from April 1976). The AATA states:
        • “It shall not be lawful for any person, other than the Central Government or any authority or agency authorised by the Central Government in this behalf, to export any antiquity or art treasure.” 
        • “No person shall, himself or by any other person on his behalf, carry on the business of selling or offering to sell any antiquity except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a licence.”
          • This licence is granted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). 

    Can India bring back antiquities?

    • The biggest challenge the Government faces in its move to bring its heritage back into the country.
    • There are three categories to take note of: 
      • Antiquities taken out of India pre-independence; 
      • Those which were taken out since independence until March 1976, i.e. before the implementation of AATA; and 
      • Antiquities taken out of the country since April 1976.
    • For items in the first two categories:
      • Requests have to be raised bilaterally or on international fora. 
        • For instance, the Maharashtra government on November 10, 2022, announced it was working to bring back the sword of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj from London. 
          • This sword was given to Edward, the Prince of Wales (the later King Edward VII) by Shivaji IV in 1875-76. 
        • Several antiquities, from Vagdevi of Dhar (MP), to the Kohinoor diamond, to Amaravati marbles to the Sultanganj Buddha to antiquities related to Rani Laxmibai and Tipu Sultan, are currently abroad.
    • Antiquities in the second and third categories:
      • They can be retrieved easily by raising an issue bilaterally with proof of ownership and with the help of the UNESCO convention.

    Source: IE