Bringing back treasures: On stolen idols

India needs to plug loopholes in legislation and enforcement to protect its cultural artefacts

November 30, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:25 am IST

When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits India in January 2020, he will not only bring with him the goodwill of his country, but also three priceless cultural artefacts. The sculptures, including a pair of dwarapalas or door guardians from Tamil Nadu and one nagaraja or serpent king from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, will come back to their place of origin after the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) voluntarily deaccessioned and returned them to India after establishing that they were, in fact, stolen. This ‘cultural repatriation’ comes in the wake of a similar, if more extensive return of idols in 2016, when Washington handed over around 200 sculpture pieces valued at $100 million to India during Prime Minister Modi’s U.S. visit. Increasingly, it has become evident that India’s historical artefacts, a treasure-trove of a rich cultural legacy and religious significance, are strewn across far-flung lands, the result of decades of trafficking. At the heart of the most extensive and ruthless of smuggling rings is one man, Subhash Kapoor, who allegedly has taken the illicit trade in antiquities to a truly global scale. The NGA, like many U.S. museums and art galleries, had obtained artefacts from Kapoor in good faith, yet rigorous provenance research had proved that their acquisition was a mistake.

Today, Kapoor sits in a Tamil Nadu jail, awaiting prosecution and a full trial. Yet, how much progress have authorities made, first, to crack down on the continued operations of idol thieves who are looting ancient temples, and second, to advocate for foreign institutions collecting art to conduct a far greater degree of due diligence before acquiring any Indian idols? In part, the problem is complicated by the fact that even among Indian institutions, the inventory documentation of idols is poor. Southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, has many ancient temples, most situated in small, abandoned premises of a village, where even local residents have no recollection of what idol was originally within the temple, leave alone questions of safeguarding the structure. Further, investigative reports, including by The Hindu , have revealed the extent to which certain sections of law enforcement have tacitly abetted the loot. Major institutional reforms are therefore required to end the operations of smugglers. Meanwhile in the global arena, India would do well to leverage the power of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Most major western nations are signatories and Mr. Modi would be well within his rights to demand that they institute stricter vetting protocols for international trade in historical artefacts. Unless such multi-pronged action is taken by the government, targeting loopholes in domestic legislation and enforcement, idol trafficking will continue to erode India’s invaluable cultural heritage.

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