Loot of India’s antiquities goes unchecked
Syed Ali Mujtaba
An ancient idol of Lord Sabranath was stolen from a Jain temple in Kurdi village of Baghpat district in UP. Unidentified men entered the temple and took away the idol. The idol was never recovered.
A rare manuscript written by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb called ‘Gulistan’ was stolen by unidentified miscreants from a school library in Gaya district of Bihar. Police suspect some organized racket of international smugglers dealing in antiques to be behind this theft.
The country's first Nobel Prize, won by Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 was stolen with his several other personal belongings from the safety vault of the Museum of Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan. Police is yet to make any breakthrough in this case.
When ever such news items hit the headlines there is murmur in the civil society about the loot of the antiquities that’s going on unabated in the country. There is a sense of pain and anguish among the countrymen towards the carelessness attitude of the law enforcing agencies to curb such anti-national activities.
The general feeling is while there are stringent laws being enforced against those hunting the endangered species, there is hardly any deterrent punishment given to those robbing our national heritage.
Some times ago I remember there was a big uproar in Hyderabad over the theft that took place at the famous Salarjung Museum. This Museum houses one the choicest collections of one man; Nawab Salarjung. This museum has been robbed many a times but the stolen artifacts have never been recovered.
The story repeats itself in Chennai. There was a similar theft that took place at the Egmore Museum located in the heart of the city. The robbers broke into the well protected area of the museum and decamped with centuries old Natraza bronze statues. There was uproar in the city but no breakthrough was made in this case.
I tried to quiz some friends in the police department as to why such thefts takes place at regular intervals, who are behind such crimes, and what role does the police force play to control them.
The police officials admitted that there are some criminal gangs with international links that are involved in the theft of such artifacts. They operate at the all India level with a great degree of coordination. They are being funded by outside agencies or even financed by some big art dealers within the country.
The police force, on the contrary, does not have any such coordination on the national scale. Such investigations are long and unwieldy process so they are closed for want of evidences. Some pretty criminals may get convicted in such cases but the big fishes remain at large because they operate at national and international level.
In such cases it’s often the public property that is being robbed so there are no one to follow-up the cases. The moment such theft takes place; the media will come with its arch lights blazing and would turn their backs getting some sound bites and stirring public emotions. This action will repeat if and when a story breaks out somewhere else.
The interesting aspect of such crimes is that some of these cases are solved in record period of time. The police force will swing into action and nab the culprits to solve the case in no time. This mysterious efficiency of the police force is because they themselves mastermind such crimes. The modus-operandi is to send a decoy to commit the theft. Then there would be wide publicity given to the crime. The police will nab the culprits in no time and recover the antiques. All this is to done to win accolade for the efficiency of the police force and fudge the case registers of ‘solved cases.’
India's antiques have been robbed since the time Robert Clive conquered this country. The British took away every object that was ancient and valuable. Many of them remain till date in private homes in Europe. One has to go to the British Museum in London to have a look at the plunder of the Indian heritage by the British Empire.
The height of British loot was witnessed when a number of Mughal buildings located inside the Red Fort were demolished to rob off its tiles. The tiles extricated from these buildings were shipped to London and were put on auction. Luckily, there were no takers for such items, so this saved destruction of many opulent buildings in the country.
It was due to the same reasons that the destruction of the Taj Mahal was stopped. The British thought that the marble tiles of the monument of love would fetch them a fortune. However, when they found that there were no takers for the Red Fort tiles, they stopped the order of the demolition of the Taj Mahal.
In independent India, the loot of the antiques continues unabated. There are regular stream of stories flowing from different parts of the country about the idols and artifacts being stolen. They make a good headline but then that’s all about it; there is general indifference towards solving such crimes.
I had the opportunity to visit the museums in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. I could see many sculptures there devoid of their top portions. It seemed to me someone has neatly cut of the head of such sculptures to take them away. The remaining portion on display testified the beauty of the art object even without their missing portions. All of them were sculptures of Buddha in its different ‘Mudras.’
It seems to me, the robbers could not carry the entire sculpture so they neatly cut out the top portion to smuggle it out of the country. This has been corroborated by some friends who have seen Budha’s bust as a decoration items in some homes in Europe. The owners of such sculptures proudly proclaim to have got them from India.
The latest update on this is, since the supply source of such artifacts has almost dried up, there are fake imitations of the originals doing rounds to make quick bucks. These items sell like hot cakes so the imitations are professionally produced to be sold to the international tourists. India’s golden triangle of tourism; Delhi- Agra- Jaipur, is full with such shops dealing in the Arts and Artifacts. No one knows how many of them are genuine and how many are imitations.
There are a few cases that have come to limelight where traders dealing in the ancient antiques have been found behind the robbery of the antiques in the country. Such people, in spite of known proof, have never been booked for such crimes. It seems there is hardly any individual or organizations that may like to take up such issues. Perhaps there is no scope to make money through this and no politics could be done over it. The law enforcement agencies too seem to be slack in investigation of such crimes. So is the end the crime of loot of national heritage goes on unabated and unchecked in the country.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@ yahoo.com