Misplaced nationalism has led to the irredeemable loss of Indian antiquities - which are being smuggled out of the country, to be sold and bought by unscrupulous elements subscribing to its illegal trade. In the absence of a lawful business in antiquities, in which the exchequer stands to gain with every transaction, its unregulated, illicit trafficking has engendered a flourishing underground market. The notion that Indian art and antiquities must be collected only by Indians confined to geographical India is as flawed as the belief that anything over a hundred years old is antique and has inherent value. Now, the Centre is reportedly considering changes that will correct this problem, and allow for an open trade in antiquities. According to the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, no person or agency other than the government can export antiques. Not only does this limit commercial activity, it curtails any opportunity for the exhibition of Indian artefacts by any agency other than the state. The changes to the Act, thus, are aimed at containing unethical dealings while strengthening domestic and international markets for antiquities.
Far from a potential loss of relics, this will lead to increased pride in our national heritage. Indian antiquities, whether smuggled or removed from India before the formation of the Act, form part of international auctions where they currently find fewer bidders than should be the case. Indians are concerned about paying a cess for bringing these works back to India, and then having to confine them to the country even when they might have homes in other countries, or children abroad, to whom they cannot freely bequeath works because they cannot be carried outside the country. Au contraire, the government should examine why the tax system dis-incentivises those who wish to bring back antiquities to the country of their origin. Nor is lack of migration the only issue. Globally, collectors vie for works of art irrespective of their nationality. If they are unable to acquire these legally, some of the world's most respectable collectors would rather dispense with Indian antiquities than deal with an obstructionist bureaucracy in the absence of finding a way to acquire these lawfully - or be forced into buying those without much aesthetic merit merely for being in circulation outside India.
The fear that this might lead to the looting of temples has some merit; but the documentation and archiving of such works and forensic sharing with agencies around the world should, in fact, lead to improved vigilance. What is more interesting is the dilemma that could rise from any such notification. How does the Act identify works from a specific region when the exact location may be difficult to attribute? For instance, a medieval stone relief may be of Buddhist origin that could be anywhere from Myanmar to Uttar Pradesh. Would that qualify as an "Indian" antique, or should the Act itself allow some degree of ambiguity, or flexibility, especially since it calls for open trading in antiques across nations? If not, the place of origin could act as a tripping point: Is something from Lahore in undivided India "Indian" in the post-Independence context, or is it Pakistani? Even if such quibbles persist, Indian antiquities will have found their place, honour and price on a global platform instead of being confined to the hands of smugglers and illegal traders. And while it's at it, will the government consider a similar relaxation of rules for the nine artists called National Treasures, whose export too is similarly, but unfairly, banned?