Theft of cultural treasures: Reviewing ASI’s role

This is exactly the problem that the culture minister sadly faced when answering questions in Rajya Sabha.
Theft of cultural treasures: Reviewing ASI’s role

In mid-March, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit India with its full force, Union Culture Minister Prahlad Singh Patel was in Parliament answering questions on stolen antiquities raised in the Rajya Sabha by Trinamool’s Sukhendu Sekhar Roy. Many other members representing other states joined the debate and posed valid queries on how, despite the multitude of media reports about rampant thefts in temple sites, the ministry has been sticking to its two-digit official theft number.

The inputs were obviously prepared by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for the culture ministry and it showed not much change had happened in the way officialdom looks at heritage crimes in India. By refusing to acknowledge the enormity of the problem of blatant looting of India’s cultural treasures, the jaundiced system had succeeded once more in hiding the obvious in red tape. This series of monthly articles will focus on each aspect of this cultural drain and suggest solutions. We take the ASI and aligned archaeologists in this first column.

Firstly, the ASI is only the custodian of a small percentage of heritage sites in India and their  functioning has been the subject of a very critical report by the CAG in 2013, which has still not been answered fully in Parliament. The culture ministry and in essence the government is responsible for all of India’s heritage and not just the declared heritage sites. As such, the crime/theft statistics have to come from law enforcement and not the ASI. Our state police records did have separate counts of heritage crimes right from the 1920s upto the 1970s, as can be seen from the CBI’s report to UNESCO in the mid-70s.

Further, many cases have been closed claiming that the idols are non-traceable. But we have proved that even idols stolen in the 1960s can be successfully restituted. Hence, a pan-India exercise to tabulate all recorded FIRs for cultural property theft, irrespective of whether the cases are open or closed, is the need of the hour.

Secondly, we tackle the question of ethics within the archaeological community. “Do archaeologists have an ethical obligation to report looting?” was the title of a recent policy brief by Dr Blythe Alison Bowman Balestrieri of the Antiquities Coalition—a diverse group of experts in the global fight against cultural racketeering. Some of the key takeaways from the document are crucial for defining policy in India.

 Chola Jain Teertankara bronze
that was smuggled out of India
and recently seized

Looting, illegal digging and theft in whatever form causes “irreparable damage to the archaeological landscape, and the knowledge archaeologists hoped to glean from those sites about the human past has also been compromised, if not lost entirely…” In short, looting destroys context and reduces an archaeologically significant find to a showpiece curio.

The policy brief draws insight from a global survey on why many field archaeologists say they do not report looting in archaeological sites when they encounter it, and argues that the duty to report should be a central tenet of a field archaeologist’s professional ethics. Some of the startling results that actually supported our long-held claim was the result of the survey in which nearly 15,000 archaeologists took part: Not only did 80% state they had experienced first-hand encounters with looting, they also noted that these were not isolated encounters—i.e. looting is frequent, iterative and widespread. What did they do when faced with such looting? The survey says nearly 15% of archaeologists documented it internally, 25% took no action, while 62% did notify external agencies including archaeological authorities or law enforcement.

What are the possible reasons for non-reporting or inaction? Some archaeologists say economic conditions cause poor locals to turn to looting and add that they are the victims of the global market, exploited by the desires of dealers and collectors who are the real villains, a simple problem of supply and demand.

But the need argument can be applied to any form of theft. And should archaeologists even be viewing these in this manner, especially in the Indian context where there are specific laws that make such illicit digging and looting illegal? Further, smuggling networks even employ their own people to loot the sculptures. The actual diggers are paid literally peanuts compared to what the middlemen and dealers make even before the artefact is smuggled out and prices multiplied 100 times over in the eventual markets in Europe and America.

Original image of Chola Teertankara
icon matched with image of same
bronze at an exhibition at the Royal
Academy of Arts, London

A case in point is a recent seizure of a Chola Jain Teertankara bronze.  (in picture). It was smuggled out by Sanjeevi Ashokan and Deendayal and eventually reached international smuggler Subhash Kapoor in New York. In early 2004, a farmer who found the buried bronze along with a few ceremonial vessels (sadly lost now) had sold it for its weight to a scrap merchant (Rs 5,000). Within a year in February 2005, the bronze had been sold by Kapoor for $70,000 to a collector in New York City.

The non-reporting of stolen artefacts has long been a stumbling block in many of our unsuccessful restitution attempts. Let’s take a look at how the inaction by archaeologists contributes to the continuing destruction of heritage sites. As the policy brief points out, it creates the perception that looting is not as rampant as activists like us say it is. Collectors and dealers make use of it and try to influence policy to downplay the role of looting in the global antiquities trade, leading to a weak regulatory mechanism and poor policing strength.

This is exactly the problem that the culture minister sadly faced when answering questions in Rajya Sabha. The problem will not go away till the ministry addresses the root cause and comes up with a code of ethics and code of conduct for field archaeologists—be it the ASI, state archaeology departments or various academic institutions that contribute to some entry-level excavation works. The code of conduct should include reporting any incidence of theft and looting not only in museums, but also in site museums and excavation sites. Further, ASI employees should declare any conflict of interest (immediate and extended family), especially with regard to licenses for art dealerships.

S Vijay Kumar

Co-Founder, India Pride Project and Author of The Idol Thief

(The India Pride Project’s #BringOurGodsHome initiative has helped bring many stolen idols back to our country. Email ID:

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