Features | Society | South Asia

Reclaiming India’s Stolen Cultural Heritage

Indian activists seek to recover missing idols, the victims of colonial plundering and contemporary thievery.

By Angel L. Martínez Cantera for
Reclaiming India’s Stolen Cultural Heritage

The ancient Buddha statue displayed at the High Commission of India in London Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, during a ceremony to hand it back to India, 57-years after it was stolen from an Indian museum and found its way to UK’s art dealer market.

Credit: AP Photo/Nishat Ahmed

“It belongs in a museum,” was Indiana Jones’ tagline after rescuing archeological artworks from the hands of his enemies across the world. Nearly 40 years after the release of the first Indiana Jones film, however, the idea of cultural property is under scrutiny. The relationship between global north and south has been reshaped and the new understanding of colonization has reframed the narrative and the villains within it.

“History belongs to its geography” is the motto guiding a global network of Indian activists and art-lovers on a quest to find India’s lost heritage. Aiming to return antiquities allegedly stolen from their motherland, the volunteer-run India Pride Project (IPP) uses social media to identify artifacts worldwide and investigates cases coordinating authorities, global agencies, museums and a small tightly-knit curator community.

Claims for the restoration of the Indian cultural past surfaces amid a debate across governments and artistic institutions in Europe. While Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum announced that it will return to Sri Lanka and Indonesia all their stolen art, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report urging a change to the country’s heritage law and recommending the restitution of artworks taken from Africa during the colonial era. Simultaneously, experts highlight that part of the opaque multibillion dollar art market profits from crime and war.

The Indian Indiana Joneses

“You haven’t really decolonized a nation, unless you’ve given back what’s theirs,” says Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project (IPP). Since 2014, Singapore-based Saxena has coordinated a core group of 250 modern treasure hunters of artworks taken from India “without the consent of the community or its owner.” Their quest not only blames colonial invaders for the heritage they stole, but also modern-day criminals.

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In August 2018, London-based members of the network found a 12th-century bronze statue of Buddha in 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.

In a benchmark case last year, IPP work led 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. Similarly, two other Australian galleries formally handed back a couple of statues worth $5 million in 2014. Later in 2018, two museums in the United States pledged the safe return of several statues after evidence proved that the idols in question had been previously stolen from Indian temples.

Presumably the world’s first crowdsourced heritage recovery team, this network also records recoveries inside India, like a raid against a Jaipur-based gang trying to smuggle more than 200 statues of religious idols worth $984,000 into the international market in 2003. According to the Indian Ministry of Culture, 101  antiquities have been stolen from the subcontinent’s Centrally Protected Monuments between 2000 and 2016. However, others suggest that the actual number of missing artwork may be in the several thousands. 

“Our research shows that well over $700 million worth of Indian art and antiquities entered the U.S. just in declared imports over the last decade,” explains attorney Tess Davis. “How much came in undeclared altogether? We don’t know, but it’s likely that this figure is just the tip of the iceberg,” concludes Davis, also executive director at the Antiquities Coalition, which leads the world’s fight against illicit trade in ancient art. 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. The alliance noted that the real total was likely significantly higher as only 5 percent of the reported objects seized had value estimations. The United States accounted for the majority of the seizures.

Home to the world’s main auction houses, wealth and access to transportation also makes the United States, and particularly New York, a hub for art criminals. Manhattan-based art dealer of Indian origin, Subhash Kapoor is on trial for running a $100 million global smuggling racket; the biggest from Asia. “Operation Hidden Idol, as it was named, was definitely unique given its magnitude and would continue to reap results for U.S. authorities years after Mr. Kapoor’s arrest,” confirms Domenic DiGiovanni, who was involved in the case and handled over 1,500 seizures as a customs officer in New York before retiring.

Kapoor’s case didn’t curb art trading. Davis further points out: “Even more concerning, just about every foreign museum with an Indian art collection purchased pieces from this smuggler, and some continued to do so even after the true nature of his business was revealed.”

Present and Past “Blood Buddhas”

Like any other illicit trade, the grey market of artifacts arguably seeds the ground for terrorism. “A growing body of evidence proves that cultural racketeering funds armed insurgents and violent extremists, including Daesh [the Islamic State or ISIS], as well as those closer to India like the Taliban and Haqqani Network,” explains Davis, adding that the Islamic State made several million dollars a year out of this business at the height of their territorial control.

“Due to the sharp increase in looting and illegal export of Indian antiquities in the second half of the 20th-century, relevant laws […] became stricter, to a point where export was not allowed,” says Dr. Emiline Smith, a lecturer in art crime and criminology at Glasgow University and member of Trafficking Culture; a consortium researching the current global trade in looted cultural objects. “This inherently is a transnational crime,” says Smith. “However, our world system is still very much based on sovereignties and local/national legislation, which often is unable to deal with transnational crime effectively.”

The 1970 UNESCO Convention prohibits and prevents the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property and so does UN resolution 2347. However, countries aren’t sanctioned or forced to comply, so it is up to “the Global North countries” to regulate this given that they “have exploited Global South countries for their cultural heritage,” says Smith. Recently, the European Union regulated the introduction and import of cultural goods while the United States works on a country-by-country basis.

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Unlike other country sources of this trade, like China, India doesn’t have heritage protection laws. “Jordan’s GDP is less than 2 percent of India’s. Yet they have an enforcement agency for heritage,” says IPP founder Saxena, complaining about India’s bureaucratic apathy in this matter. In addition to preserving the cultural legacy remaining within the borders of the Indian subcontinent, IPP also aims to recover priceless art displayed in renowned galleries in the UK, the empire which once ruled and looted India for centuries.

In demand for reparation, outspoken Indians label the British Museum a “chor bazaar” (thieves market) due to the amount of allegedly stolen antiques exhibited in it. The museum disputes such claims. To Saxena, however, this shows the evils of colonization: “How can you be proud of what your grandfather stole from mine!?” 

Saxena’s complaint almost points directly at the most precious possession of the Empire: Among the world’s largest cut diamonds, the infamous Koh-i-Noor was taken by Queen Victoria after the annexation of the subcontinent. It has been claimed by India since its independence but, to this day, is on public display at the Tower of London.

While in India it’s clear that the subcontinent’s cultural legacy don’t belong in Western museums, it is debatable where it is to be locally preserved instead. “It surprises me the way our returned murtis [idols] were stored by ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] in their warehouse and the complete insensitivity towards our faith objects,” explains director Nikhil Singh Rajputt, who traced artifacts while filming Blood Buddhas, a documentary about the topic. The treatment of its own cultural heritage by Indian institutions as well as the religious belief of the larger part of the society brings another dimension to the narrative.

“The debate in India is very complicated […] They are not temple art like Da Vinci’s Last Supper but are Gods themselves,” says Nikhil. 

“They belong in a temple,” he concludes, proving again how oblivious Indiana Jones’ claim sounds today.

Angel L. Martínez Cantera is a Spanish freelance photojournalist based in Asia since 2013. He has an MA in international politics from City University of London (UK) and specializes in human rights and development.