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Bringing back treasures: On stolen idols

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When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits India in January 2020, he will not only bring with him the goodwill (friendly, helpful, or cooperative feelings or attitude) of his country, but also three priceless cultural artefacts ( an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest). The sculptures, including a pair of dwarapalas or door guardians from Tamil Nadu and one nagaraja or serpent king from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, will come back to their place of origin after the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) voluntarily deaccessioned ( officially remove (an item) from a library, museum, or art gallery in order to sell it) and returned them to India after establishing that they were, in fact, stolen.

This ‘cultural repatriation ( the return of someone to their own country)’ comes in the wake of a similar, if more extensive return of idols in 2016, when Washington handed over around 200 sculpture pieces valued at $100 million to India during Prime Minister Modi’s U.S. visit. Increasingly, it has become evident that India’s historical artefacts, a treasure-trove of a rich cultural legacy and religious significance, are strewn ( untidily scattered) across far-flung ( distant or remote) lands, the result of decades of trafficking ( deal or trade in something illegal) .

At the heart of the most extensive and ruthless of smuggling rings is one man, Subhash Kapoor, who allegedly has taken the illicit trade in antiquities ( the ancient past, especially the period of classical and other human civilizations before the Middle Ages) to a truly global scale. The NGA, like many U.S. museums and art galleries, had obtained artefacts from Kapoor in good faith, yet rigorous ( extremely thorough and careful) provenance ( the place of origin or earliest known history of something) research had proved that their acquisition ( the learning or developing of a skill, habit, or quality)  was a mistake.

Today, Kapoor sits in a Tamil Nadu jail, awaiting prosecution and a full trial. Yet, how much progress have authorities made, first, to crack down on the continued operations of idol thieves who are looting ( steal (something) from someone) ancient temples, and second, to advocate for foreign institutions collecting art to conduct a far greater degree of due diligence ( careful and persistent work or effort) before acquiring any Indian idols? In part, the problem is complicated by the fact that even among Indian institutions, the inventory documentation of idols is poor.

Southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, has many ancient temples, most situated in small, abandoned ( having been deserted or left) premises ( Property ) of a village, where even local residents have no recollection of what idol was originally within the temple, leave alone questions of safeguarding the structure. Further, investigative reports, including by The Hindu, have revealed the extent to which certain sections of law enforcement have tacitly ( in a way that is understood or implied without being directly stated)  abetted ( encourage or assist someone to commit (a crime)) the loot.

Major institutional reforms are therefore required to end the operations of smugglers. Meanwhile in the global arena, India would do well to leverage ( use (something) to maximum advantage)  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 and Mr. Modi would be well within his rights to demand that they institute stricter ( demanding that rules concerning behaviour are obeyed and observed)  vetting ( make a careful and critical examination of (something)) protocols for international trade in historical artefacts. Unless such multi-pronged action is taken by the government, targeting loopholes ( an ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules )  in domestic legislation and enforcement, idol trafficking will continue to erode India’s invaluable cultural heritage.

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