The Culture Ministry has not been able to bring back to India over 200 stolen cultural artefacts from the US despite an announcement for the same being made last year.
In June last year, the US government announced its decision to return over 200 cultural artefacts, estimated to be worth $100 million, to India at a function at the Blair House, Washington DC, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch .
However, even after more than a year, hardly a dozen artefacts have reached the country so far due to alleged lackadaisical approach of the Ministry, said a source. The items which were returned by the US included religious statues, bronzes and terracotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years. These were looted from some of India’s most treasured religious sites.
The pieces returned included a statue of Saint Manikkavichavaka, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (850 AD to 1250 AD), which was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai and is estimated to be of $ 1.5 million. There was also a bronze sculpture of Lord Ganesh, said to be 1,000 years old.
As per Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s admission in Parliament a year ago, only eight antiquities had reached India at that time. However, the source said, there has not been much progress after that.
Repeated attempts to contact D.N. Dimri, Director (Antiquities) at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), for his response on the issue, failed. There was no response to the e-mail sent by this correspondent to him, as well as ASI Director General Usha Sharma and Culture Secretary Rashmi Verma.
In a recent judgement of the Madras High Court, Justice Mahadevan also re-emphasised the plight of stolen heritage, highlighting the inadequacy of various government departments in solving the idol-theft issue.
According to sources, ever since the US government “returned” the 200 artefacts, these are no longer “public properties” and they are under pressure to relocate these items to India physically. The US government has spent millions of dollars in the recovery and safekeeping of Indian artefacts.
The offer to return the Indian antiquities was the outcome of “Operation Hidden Idol”, conducted by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) department in the US, in which thousands of artefacts were recovered.
According to a media release of the US’ Department of Homeland Security, since 2007, more than 8,000 artefacts have been returned to 30 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, as well as cultural artefacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.
When contacted, Anuraag Saxena of “India Pride Project”, a volunteer-network which tracks India’s stolen/smuggled heritage and creates awareness for final restitution, said: “It was a welcome gesture on the part of the US government to return our stolen antiquities. However, it is sad that the Culture Ministry has not been able to bring them back to the country,” he said.
Saxena pointed out the role of activists and think-tanks which have proven credentials and the ability for Track-2 diplomacy in solving this issue. “Why limit Public-Private-Partnerships to infrastructure projects alone? Why not social and cultural projects?” he asked.