Illegal trafficking of priceless objects

Former Director, Centre of Central Asian Studies, Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Banday was “surprised’ to see Harwan Tiles at a museum in France”.

On 17 October 1979, stone images and stone fragments related to 10th-11th century AD were discovered from Khurhama (Kupwara). Soon thereafter, there were allegations that some of these objects were pilfered during shifting between the excavation site and the Museum. A criminal case was filed against an officer of the Archives, Archaeology and Museums Department. The missing objects were believed to be of high antique value. As part of the investigation, the Anti-Corruption Department seized 22 objects from the Museum which remained in its custody for 24 years until released on 29 January 2013 through intervention of the court. The case is still undecided even as the accused official has since passed away. Earlier, in 1965, as many as 461 copper coins and one fragment of copper ring were unearthed by one Ghulam Rasool Kumar from his private land at Kulgam in South Kashmir. He refused to part with the treasure when the government asked him to handover the find. The matter went to the Court of Munsif (Magistrate) Kulgam which seized the coins in connection with case titled State v/s Ghulam Rasool Kumar and Others. The artefacts are still in the custody of the court despite repeated requests for their release.

Illegal trafficking of priceless objects has slowly depleted heritage reserves of Kashmir. The long turmoil and the resultant law and order failure in Kashmir beginning 1989 is especially believed to be a period when art smugglers robbed Kashmir of its priceless articles “which now adorn homes of private collectors and museums in western countries.” In 2012, a 10th century Durga statue in greenstone, stolen from a temple in Tengpun village of Pulwama, was spotted at Linden Museum, Stuttgart (Germany). The role of Indian art dealer, Subash Kapoor, who was arrested in Germany in 2011, was suspected in smuggling the idol out of Kashmir. During her visit to New Delhi in October 2015, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel returned the 18-armed Durga sculpture which is now installed at the SPS Museum. Former Director, Centre of Central Asian Studies, Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Banday was “surprised’ to see Harwan Tiles at a museum in France”. A 6th century AD Gajalakshmi (Stone) was discovered in village Brah of Anantnag district during early 20th century. The photograph of the image was first published in 1913. Ever since, host of archaeologists, including Banday, have used the picture in their publications but nobody knew where the image was actually located until 2014 when it was discovered in Japan with a private party. 

So for as structural and archaeological heritage of Kashmir is concerned, most of the important sites and monuments in Kashmir like Burzahom, Martand and Awantipora– there are 31 ASI protected sites and monuments in Kashmir – are under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is accused of leaving these literally uncared for since 1990. The ASI, however, claims that “all the Sites/Monuments are well preserved, maintained and in presentable condition.” The organization has not undertaken any excavation in Kashmir since 1998-99, and no significant excavation after Gufkral in 1981-82. The J&K High Court expressed lack of satisfaction over the working of the ASI in Kashmir. In an interim order pronounced on 11 December 2012, the Division Bench observed: “We have been taken through the photographs which show that efforts [by the ASI] are being made to discover and identify these excavated sites but no steps have been taken which may lead us to record our satisfaction”. Against well established norms, the ASI has not set up any site museum at its archaeological sites in Kashmir to showcase the excavated objects. Instead, it is accused of shifting the artefacts outside Kashmir. Quoting an instance, senior journalist, Ghulam Nabi Khayal refers to “[t]he Terracotta tiles of 2nd and 3rd [century] BC excavated here were shifted to Ramgad, Udhampur in the name of security and thus Kashmiris were deprived of their rich history.” The ASI, Srinagar Circle admits that “a portion [of the excavated material in Kashmir] has been shifted”, for, what it describes, “its reporting part.” It attributes its failure to build a site museum in Kashmir to “land dispute”, as if every ASI protected site is in dispute.  

In a situation where the Government and institutions have literally abdicated their responsibility to stand guard against loot and rot of Kashmir’s rich heritage, journalist and social activist, Imdad Saqi woke people up to the perilous state of affairs. In 2007, he filed a PIL in the J&K High Court through his Valley Citizen Council seeking appropriate directions for the protection and conservation of Kashmir’s artefacts, monuments and excavation sites, and return of artefacts gifted by the State to different museums and institutions. The PIL revealed a sad tale of Government negligence and insensitivity. Saqi was able to convince the Court to take cognizance and order return of the treasure gifted away by the Government. Thanks to his activism, the SPS Museums has received back 35 artefacts it had gifted to a museum in Shimla in 1973. Another 209 Central Asian antiquities were also returned by University of Kashmir. The 22 artefacts seized by the Anti Corruption Department in 1979 too were released and received in the Museum. More significantly, the PIL has renewed hopes of recovery of one of the most precious artefacts of the Museum – the 17th century manuscript of holy Quran bearing the seal of Aurangzeb – after the High Court ordered the CBI to investigate its theft. The Court was not satisfied with the investigation by the Crime Branch.  

Khalid Bashir is the author of Kashmir- Exposing the myth behind the narrative