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‘We still prosecute temple heritage loot as house theft, need strict antiquity laws’: Vijay Kumar, the co-founder of India Pride Project speaks to OpIndia

"There is a lobby which is constantly working to dilute the application of The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972. We need proper antiquity laws as we don't even have a proper section for heritage crimes. We still prosecute temple thefts under Section 380, law for housebreaking theft. Notably, Egypt and China have gone for capital punishment for heritage crimes," says Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project.

The India Pride Project is a global organisation dedicated to restoring India’s lost heritage. It’s a network of art lovers who use historical documents and social media to track down stolen sacred artefacts from Indian temples and facilitate their return. It was created in 2014 and now has activists from all around the world as associates.

The India Pride Project (IPP here onwards) was launched by Anuraag Saxena and S Vijay Kumar. Anuraag is a Singapore-based CA & MBA. IPP’s work has been recognised by foreign governments and agencies, and universities and institutions all around the world are impressed with it and have invited the founders to speak on various occasions. S Vijay Kumar, Co-Founder of the India Pride Project, was interviewed by OpIndia to learn more about the project’s objectives.

How did India Pride Project start?

The seeds of the initiative were sown in 2006, long before I met Anuraag in 2014. I’ve been doing this since 2006, essentially recording India’s heritage locations. After reading a historical fiction work in Tamil, I became fascinated by historical art and began visiting ancient monuments and temples, as well as blogging about them, in order to better appreciate them. The blogging was more about how I perceived the site as a whole, rather than simply the spiritual and holy aspects. So, in this way, I met other readers and formed a team in 2007, after which we began visiting additional sites together. It was more about recording previously unexplored places.

That’s when I realised there were inconsistencies, as well as artefacts and antiquities gone from numerous historical places. That’s when I started paying attention to the antiquities market and discovered that many Indian artefacts were aggressively being traded openly. Even though India has its own antiquity legislation from 1878, it was useless. However, UNESCO has had a regulation against the illegal trade of antiquities since 1970, but India was not serious about any of this. This is when we understood the urgency of the situation and began collaborating with people to recover the stolen and smuggled items.

How did you come up with the team?

It’s only that when I started going to locations with a few individuals, additional volunteers showed up and joined in. People from other nations, in addition to Indians, became interested in this and began to work with us. I met Anurag Saxena and Sanjeev Sanyal in 2013 through a mutual friend in Singapore. Because, while I was working and the Delhi red tape bureaucracy was not reacting, we decided to give a name to the work I was doing with the team, and that is how the official India Pride Project was formed in 2014.

It was more about putting a face to the work we’d been doing for a long time than starting a new effort. We had been engaging with several groups and law enforcement agencies since 2009, but it was more of a consultative and volunteer position. When we became a face, agencies all around the world began to recognise us and our work.

Vijay Kumar.

What about the collaboration with the law enforcement agencies? How the IPP currently works in association with them?

For the last 15 years, we have collaborated with law enforcement authorities all around the world. When worldwide organisations needed to check on an Indian artefact, they contacted Indian officials such as the Archaeological Survey of India and the customs, but the response from the Indian side was quite weak. So, after that, they began to approach us when they discovered that there is a group that has specific information and operates as a non-profit entity. It was particularly so because we were well familiar with many artefacts in India and overseas. We can know a lot about a statue or artefact merely by looking at it or the material used to make it. We inform the agencies about the article’s or region’s origin.

Following that, we are collaborating with a number of international organisations to halt the unlawful trading of ancient sculptures and return them to India. Subash Kapoor, an Indian American artefact smuggler, was apprehended by INTERPOL in September 2011 after we aided processes against him. There have been several such arrests to date. The United States recognised the gravity of the situation in 2009, but India did not until 2013.

What has been the Indian approach to the artefact smuggling issue? Are the authorities concerned? Or there are any barriers in their way of action, whether political or not.

India has been lenient on this issue for a long. Even though India has its own antiquity legislation from 1878, it has not been invoked to get a satisfactory outcome. Moreover, much has been lost since the British left the Indian soil in 1947. The system was not cooperative till 2013 but a slight change was discernible after that. However, it was not substantial enough to change the landscape of the issue.

In fact, there are attempts being made to dilute the already toothless antiquities law in India. There is a lobby which is constantly working to dilute the application of The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972. We need proper antiquity laws as we don’t even have a proper section for heritage crimes. We still prosecute temple thefts under Section 380, law for housebreaking theft. Notably, Egypt and China have gone for capital punishment for heritage crimes.

What is the Modus Operandi of IPP?

Our way of working is simple. We have a developing list of stolen and missing arts and artefacts and our volunteers are present worldwide. We keep our eyes on public and private auctions and the moment we find something unusual about an article, we reach out to the concerned authority with proper proof and validation. Once it is proved that the article is a stolen or missing one, the restitution becomes easy. However, sometimes it is tough to prove the claim. It all depends on the concerned body we are seeking an article from. If it is a government body, it is different and if it is a private body, things go a different way. It is just that the Gods want to be back home and they have just chosen us as a medium.

Are things going on well with the project?

The initiative has gathered momentum and will continue to do so. We were successful in recovering around 300 stolen artefacts. However, much more is on the way. A considerable portion of the colonial plunder is still to be returned since not a single piece looted prior to independence has been returned to India. We are currently collaborating with the Indian High Commission in London. In Glasgow, there is a museum that has opted to return some colonial loot. They have identified certain things, and this will be the first time that something stolen during the colonial era will be returned to India. A lot of other work is also in the pipeline.

What is your advice to people and how can they contribute to the project?

A basic piece of advice and request is that people must visit their villages and local temples and document the existential proof of the deity or a sculpture. Snap a photo of the statue or if not allowed, at least ask the priest and the management to take a photo and preserve it with them. This way we will be able to have proof of all the statues that we have.

In case a statue is stolen, report the theft to the local police station and reach out to us. Even if the case is 50 years old, report it to us and we will try our best to bring it back. Acknowledging the theft is the first step to its recovery. And, in case one finds a statue or an artefact in a museum or for sale and doubts that it is stolen, get a photo of it and reach out to us. We have our volunteers worldwide and we will try to trace the article and facilitate its return.

Note: The interview was conducted virtually.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Pallav
Pallav
Aristotelian and Platonic simultaneously.

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