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Gods For Sale: Misplaced Priorities And Mercantilism In The Antiquities Bill 2017

The Ministry of Culture recently put out the Antiquities Bill, 2017, proposing, among other things, the selling and buying of heritage items and antiquities. Normally, this development wouldn’t have blipped on our radars. Hundreds of bills are tabled and thousands of papers are shuffled within Lutyens’ offices.

Three recent developments, however, have made this bill more critical than it seems on the surface:

1. Prime Minister Modi’s personal focus: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the first Indian head of state to demand (and personally receive) stolen antiquities from the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Australia and other nations. (See insert)

2. Judicial intervention: Very recently, the Madras High Court chided the Tamil Nadu state government for spectacularly failing to protect temple heritage.

3. Terror funding: United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has officially declared antiquities’ theft as a source for Islamic State terror funding. Interpol has set up the “Art Crimes Unit” to deal with this global concern.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott talk alongside a statue of the Dancing Shiva ahead of a meeting in New Delhi. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott talk alongside a statue of the Dancing Shiva ahead of a meeting in New Delhi. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Fundamental concerns

While recommendations are incorporated later on in the piece, it might be prudent to highlight three fundamental concerns about the Bill:

1. Mercantilism: Clearly, going by the global trends on this front, illicit antiquities trade is not merely about antiquities any more. Viewed in this light, the proposed Bill reflects a complete lack of understanding and appreciation of the issues involved. Worse, the Bill reflects and reinforces negative stereotypes of Indian mercantilism even with respect to issues that have a deep bearing on its (a) heritage, (b) history and (c) national security.

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