[Burning Issue] Return of Indian Cultural Property

Jagdamba Sword used by Chh. Shivaji Maharaj


  • Recently, The Indian government has denied that it is seeking wholesale repatriation of cultural property extracted by Britain from India during colonial times.
  • In this context, this edition of the Burning Issue will discuss about the Indian cultural properties aboard and their repatriation.


  • The Indian government was reacting to a story published in the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper and said the headline and story were “unfortunately misleading”.
  • Government sources said that while it was seeking the restitution of artifacts taken from India, the story was a “significant overstatement” in terms of how it portrays the government and its approach to the U.K.
  • It further added that its approach was to retrieve antiquities via “cooperation and partnership” and in a manner consistent with international agreements.

Issue of Cultural Property Trafficking

  • According to the Indian Ministry of Culture, 101 antiquities have been stolen from the subcontinent’s Centrally Protected Monuments between 2000 and 2016.
  • The U.S.-based alliance charted reported cultural property seizures since 2014 and found that nearly $65 million worth of illegal artifacts had been seized between 2014 and 2019.
  • Like any other illicit trade, the grey market of artifacts arguably seeds the ground for terrorism.
  • Among the world’s largest cut diamonds, the infamous Koh-i-Noor was taken by Queen Victoria after the annexation of the subcontinent.

Procedure of return

International organizations such as UNESCO and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC have been at the forefront of the fight against cultural heritage crimes.  Their combined expertise and global partnerships have led to the establishment of standard-setting instruments that enhance responses to and the protection against cultural theft. The process involves the following steps:

  • Identification: Identify cultural properties that may have been wrongfully acquired or removed.
  • Legal and Ethical Considerations: Consider international conventions, national laws, and ethical guidelines pertaining to repatriation.
  • Collaboration and Negotiation: Collaborate and negotiate with the country of origin and the current possessor to reach an agreement.
  • Evidence and Documentation: Gather evidence and documentation supporting the claim for repatriation, such as historical records and provenance research.
  • Public Awareness and Advocacy: Raise public awareness and advocate for repatriation through campaigns and outreach efforts.
  • Restitution and Return: Arrange for the safe return of the cultural property to its country of origin, considering logistics and storage.
  • Future Preservation and Collaboration: Ensure the proper care, conservation, and display of the repatriated cultural property, and foster ongoing collaboration between the country of origin and international institutions.

International agreements

  • The 1970 UNESCO Convention: on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (hereafter, the 1970 Convention) mandate in the prevention of organised crime and cultural trafficking, and offer systematic tools to strengthen national capacity.
  • UN resolution 2347: Condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artefacts, and the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, notably by terrorist groups.

Significance of return of cultural properties

  • Preserving Heritage: Cultural property acts as a bridge between the past, present, and future generations, preserving a nation’s heritage. The cultural property of a country is a testament to its history and heritage and should belong to the nation. Illicit trade and smuggling of artifacts have plagued the art and culture market of the world. 
  • National Identity and Pride: Cultural property plays a vital role in defining a nation’s identity and fostering a sense of pride among its citizens. It symbolizes the unique values, beliefs, and customs that distinguish one nation from another. It gives people a sense of belonging and collective memory, strengthening social cohesion and unity.
  • Tourism and Economic Benefits: Cultural property often attracts tourists from around the world, contributing to the nation’s economy. Heritage sites, museums, cultural festivals, and artistic traditions draw visitors who spend money on accommodation, transportation, food, and souvenirs. The preservation and promotion of cultural property can generate employment opportunities and sustainable economic development. The preservation and protection of the Indian artifacts and cultural heritage are an integral component of India’s foreign policy.
  • Education and Research: Cultural property serves as an educational resource, offering insights into different historical periods, social structures, artistic styles, and technological advancements. It provides researchers, scholars, and students with valuable primary sources for studying various disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, history, art, and linguistics.
  • Cultural Diplomacy: Cultural property represents a nation’s soft power, allowing for cultural exchange and diplomacy. Exhibitions, collaborations, and cultural exchange programs enhance mutual understanding and promote positive relations between nations. Sharing cultural heritage can foster peace, tolerance, and cooperation among diverse communities globally.

Issues involved

  • Unlike other countries’ sources of this trade, like China, India doesn’t have heritage protection laws.
  • International conventions and laws are not legally binding making them toothless.
  • The treatment of its cultural heritage by Indian institutions as well as the religious belief of the larger part of the society brings another dimension to the narrative.

Some Previous Returns

  • Aiming to return antiquities allegedly stolen from their motherland, the volunteer-run India Pride Project (IPP) uses social media to identify artefacts worldwide and investigates cases coordinating authorities, global agencies, museums and a small tightly-knit curator community.
  • The Network found a 12th-century bronze statue of Buddha at a trade fair. Ransacked from the Archaeological Museum in Nalanda (in eastern India) in 1961 along with 14 other sculptures, the figure was later returned to India following its identification by the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), an organization working to preserve cultural legacies.
  • The Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide to recognize its illicit possession of a stolen 16th-century statue of Siva Nataraja and to return it following an official request from India.
  • In 2022, the Australian Government repatriated 29 antiquities to India. These artifacts are broadly categorized into the following themes – Shiva and his disciples, Lord Vishnu and his forms, portraits, worshipping Shakti, Jain tradition and decorative objects.
  • India was successful in bringing back 157 antiquities from the United States of America in 2021.
  • An 18th-century idol of Maa Annapurna stolen from Varanasi in 1913 was returned by Canada in November 2021.
Jagdamba Sword used by Chh. Shivaji Maharaj

Way forward

  • Social media, coupled with informed journalism and inclusive decision-making across governance levels, can also offer an encouraging step forward.
  • A key measure is the development of digital inventories and professional documentation of cultural property. Local and regional museums may benefit from augmenting their digitization capacities.
  • Digital imaging, which could nowadays be done via smartphone applications in numerous regional languages, can optimize the recognition of the stolen object, prevent its movement and intercept it.
  • The objects must also be well-documented, cataloged, and digitized to create a permanent database of the nation’s heritage. Another crucial step towards eliminating the problem is preventing the formation and expansion of illegitimate groups that harbor this trade.


  • As pointed out by UNESCO, this has also underlined the fact that illicit trade of cultural properties is not an individual problem of a country but an issue at the global level. The 1970 Convention solely will not tackle this issue, it should be the collective efforts of the governments, societies, communities, and the people to spread awareness regarding the importance of national and cultural heritage and how to safeguard them.
  • Preventing the expansion of illicit networks would not only prevent the exploitation of humanity’s shared heritage but also safeguard community identity.

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