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Leverage G20 to retrieve India's stolen antiquities, House panel to govt

The panel said the government should make all efforts to ensure that the Kohinoor diamond, currently with the British royal family, and other precious historical artefacts are returned to India

Kohinoor was gifted to Britain, government tells SC

Archis Mohan New Delhi

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A parliamentary panel has urged the government to leverage its G20 membership to retrieve India's stolen antiquities. It asked the Union culture ministry to flag the issue on the G20 platform, with the help of the external affairs ministry, to generate awareness and build pressure on non-cooperating countries.

The panel said the government should make all efforts to ensure that the Kohinoor diamond, currently with the British royal family, and other precious historical artefacts are returned to India.

The parliamentary standing committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture tabled its report on "Heritage theft - the illegal trade in Indian antiquities and the challenges of retrieving and safeguarding our tangible cultural heritage" in both Houses of Parliament on Monday.

The panel, headed by YSR Congress Party's Rajya Sabha member V Vijayasai Reddy, asked the Centre to prioritise the documentation of antiquities at locations identified for the G-20 Summit in September 2023.

"Having a digital record of India's Tangible Cultural Heritage will further attract international tourists and result in promoting tourism at these locations," the report said. The committee said this effort would be consistent with the 'technological transformation and digital public infrastructure', one of the six priorities for the G-20 dialogue in 2023. The committee said, "India has to lead by example."

In its report, the committee recommended that the Ministry of Culture adopt global precedents to get the Kohinoor back "as it rightly belongs to the people of India". According to the parliamentary committee's report, the law secretary informed it that "legislative competence exists" for formulating legislation for the restitution of Kohinoor.

The committee said it is of the view that there is nothing to prevent India from seeking the restitution of the Kohinoor and other antiquities stolen, taken or removed in whatsoever way before India's independence or to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It said there were precedents of countries getting back their ancient treasures stolen before 1970.

The panel noted that only 13 antiquities were retrieved from 1976 to 2013 and 229 from 2014 onwards. It disputed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)'s claims that the number of recovered antiquities had increased considerably in the last decade. The number has increased only due to the arrest of one smuggler, Subhash Kapoor, in the US from whom nearly 300 antiquities have been recovered, and not due to the efforts of the ASI, the committee said. It "appreciated" the government's efforts under the prime minister's leadership to bring back India's lost heritage.

The committee recommended setting up a dedicated cultural heritage squad with trained officers to recover stolen antiquities. It said a considerable amount of tax hinders bringing back antiquities to India. It asked the culture ministry to take up the matter with the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs and waive off the customs duty levied on antiquities brought back to the country.

The ASI told the panel that there have been 210 antiquity theft cases since independence. In these cases, 486 stolen antiquities have been reported stolen from centrally protected monuments, sites and museums located in 19 states, and only 91 antiquities, or 18.8% of total antiquities stolen, have been recovered to date.

The committee said it was not convinced by the assurances of the ASI and culture ministry that theft from monuments has gone down. The committee pointed to media reports of Indian antiquities surfacing in museums' displays and catalogues around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has 77 antiquities with links to smuggler Subhash Kapoor. It noted that London's Victoria and Albert Museum website acknowledges that some of the objects in its collection are "on loan from the Government of India." It said the ASI still needs to take the basic steps to try and ascertain the background in which these objects were loaned to that museum and make efforts for their retrieval. The committee noted that the collection of Aural Stein was perhaps the most extensive collection of Central Asian Art. It asked the ASI to contact the Victoria and Albert Museum and initiate the process of bringing back the objects in the Aural Stein collection.

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First Published: Jul 24 2023 | 10:58 PM IST

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