[op-ed snap] Bringing back treasures: On stolen idols

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Cultural Artefacts

Context

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will bring three cultural artefacts, during his 2022 visit to India. The sculptures include a pair of dwarapalas from Tamil Nadu and one nagaraja or serpent king from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.

Repatriation

  • The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) voluntarily returned them to India after establishing that they were stolen. 
  • This ‘cultural repatriation’ comes in the wake of a similar return of idols in 2016. Washington handed over around 200 sculpture pieces valued at $100 million to India.

Artefacts

  • India’s historical artefacts are a treasure-trove of a rich cultural legacy and religious significance.
  • They are strewn across far-flung lands as a result of decades of trafficking. 
  • The most extensive and ruthless of smuggling rings is by Subhash Kapoor, who has taken the illicit trade in antiquities to a global scale. 
  • The NGA and many U.S. museums and art galleries had obtained artefacts from Kapoor in good faith.
  • Rigorous provenance research had proved that their acquisition was a mistake.

Issue of missing artefacts

  • We still see continued operations of idol thieves who are looting ancient temples.
  • We have to request foreign institutions collecting art to conduct a greater degree of due diligence before acquiring any Indian idols.
  • Even among Indian institutions, the inventory documentation of idols is poor. 
  • Southern Tamil Nadu has many ancient temples situated in small, abandoned premises of a village.
  • Investigative reports have revealed the extent to which certain sections of law enforcement have abetted the loot. 

Way ahead

  • Major institutional reforms are required to end the operations of smugglers.
  • India should 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. India should demand that they institute stricter vetting protocols for international trade in historical artefacts. 

Conclusion

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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