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The great antiques heist in Punjab

The sculpture found in Sangrur that was stolen.

The great antiques heist in Punjab

Unchecked all the time, unnoticed at times, history is being stolen systematically

While digging a mound, a 10-year-old girl discovered a stone sculpture at Mard Khera village in Sangrur in 1980. Villagers placed it in a specially-built room and it soon became the centre of activities. Weddings, Hindu or Sikh, would not be solemnised without the couple bowing before the idol. It started figuring on the first leaf of wedding albums. A series of newspaper articles called it a rare 11th century idol of God Surya.In the 1990s, it caught the attention of archaeologists. A team from the Archaeological Survey of India also carried out excavation at the site. A few months after the “exploration”, the idol went missing one night in 2003.

Rameshwar Dutt, a Sunam-based freelance archaeologist, remembers every detail. He had visited the village on the day the idol was found. Though Dutt doubts that the theft had anything to do with ASI’s visit, the villagers are sceptical.With slight variances in the names of places and time of discovery of theft, this story is repeated in almost every town that had some ancient or medieval link. The deep-rooted nexus between antiques smugglers and the state Archaeology Department officials is once again in the spotlight after the former Director, Archaeology, Navjot Pal Singh Randhawa, confessed before the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence that he helped a smuggler buy Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanerette furniture.“It went on for decades,” says former Punjab Museums’ Archaeological Officer-cum-curator KK Rishi.

For all these years, when antiques were being smuggled out of state museums, there was no detailed understanding of what was left and what had gone. The scale of “loss” first came to notice in 2009 when ASI, under the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, started keeping a register of artefacts in Punjab’s museums.An ASI official associated with the project tells on condition of anonymity that in museum after museum they were shocked to see that only replicas were housed. “This was true for all kinds of items, whether paintings or weapons… And there was no account of coins. We noticed precious stones missing from walls and floors of preserved archaeological sites,” he says. Like the many paintings at Qila Mubarak and Sheesh Mahal museums at Patiala.

Sadly, the ASI neither brought anything on record, nor did it prepare any report about their authenticity. “We had documented just four aspects: size, colour, condition and features.
So, we didn’t make any mention of originality in the report,” explains a senior functionary from the state Archaeology Department who was associated with the project.At the end, a total of 51,289 antiquities were documented in Punjab’s museums and sites. “Now we are not sure how many are original,” he says. Navjot Singh Sidhu, Punjab’s Tourism and Cultural Affairs Minister, agrees. He says thefts that have taken place in Punjab’s museums have been brought to his knowledge. He cites examples of daggers and miniature paintings which were taken away in the past and replaced with replicas. “But we will bring the thieves of heritage to book,” he assures.

What has been bothering archaeologists like Rishi is that when everybody knew that the thefts were taking place, why did it take five decades to make an inventory? “Officials who headed the department from time to time owe an answer. The department was established half a century back, why did it take 50 years to prepare an inventory?”Another official, who retired recently, supports Rishi’s claim that the idea of documentation was discussed several times, but was often dismissed at the top level. “When we don’t know what we have, heist becomes easy,” says Rishi. He adds that there is a hue and cry over thefts of just items displayed in museums. What goes missing from the stores in museums goes unnoticed.Prof Devendra Handa, former head of the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at Panjab University, agrees that nobody has checked what is lying in the stores of the museums. “Generally, it is thefts of antiquities lying in museums or at protected monuments that make news. We hardly come to know about the thefts at unprotected monuments and antiquities being taken away from private individuals by smugglers,” he says.

Official-smuggler nexus

Rishi shares the story of an official, in charge of an Amritsar museum, who would replace original paintings with duplicate ones. “He would get handmade paper from Rajasthan and get copies painted from expert painters. Those experts are still around and who knows, might be in action even after the officer’s retirement,” he says.“It was a common phenomenon in 1980s and 1990s that officials responsible for registering antiquities lying with individuals or organisations would do private deals and gift the antiquities to their seniors from IAS and PCS cadres just to get excellent ACR reports,” says Rishi.Prof Handa, known for his work on tribal coins, says there is evidence that the smuggling of antiquities from Punjab started during the British era.
During field trips to places around Chandigarh, he noticed several ancient sculptures in villages in Kharar and at a dera at Khanpur village. “A few years later, they went missing,” he says. He too had tried convincing his seniors to get the artefacts to the department, but failed.Meanwhile, the theft of antiques continues unabated. Last year, a person was caught with a collection of around 600 coins at Wagah border. The customs and excise officials were clueless and sent the entire collection to ASI. “The ASI called me and I was shocked to see that many of these belonged to 2nd century BC,” says Prof Handa.

Major heists

1996: A miniature painting of Guru Gobind Singh was stolen at Qila Mubarak
2004: Three miniature paintings of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh went missing from Qila Mubarak
February 2003: 12th century idol of Sun God was stolen from Mard Khera village in Sangrur
2003: A pistol belonging to Feroz Shah went missing from Anglo-Sikh War Memorial, Ferozepur. Original pistol has been replaced with a replica
1990: From Bhagat Singh Museum at Khatkar Kalan, the shoes of Sukhdev, trousers of martyr’s uncle Ajit Singh were stolen by a mentally deranged person.

What the law says:
According to the Punjab Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1964, “antiquity” means any coin, sculpture, manuscript, epigraph, or other work of art or craftsmanship, any article which has been in existence for not less than 100 years.
The government has the power to direct that any antiquity or any class of antiquities shall not be moved from the original location except with the written permission of the director.
The government has the power to make an order for compulsory purchase of antiques.
Penalty for removing antiques.
Whosoever destroys or misuses or removes from a protected monument any sculpture, carving, image, bas-relief, inscription or other like objects shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to Rs 5,000, or with both.

Vishav Bharti, Tribune News Service, Chandigarh, September 8

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