Antiquities and Art Treasure Act

Context: Recently, the United States handed over 105 trafficked antiquities to India.
Probable Question: Q. What are the challenges faced by India in preserving and protecting its antiquities and art treasures, and what measures has the country taken to address these challenges? Additionally, how does India demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding its cultural heritage on an international level?
More on News:
  • The artifacts represent a wide geographical spread in terms of their origin in India – with 47 from Eastern India, 27 from Southern India, 22 from Central India, 6 from Northern India, and 3 from Western India.
  • These antiques are made of terracotta, stone, metal, and wood – spanning a period from the 2nd-3rd century CE to the 18th-19th century CE.
    • For example:  Terracotta Yakshi plaque belonging to the 1st century BC; a red sandstone Dancing Ganesha from the 9th century; and a 10th century Kubera.
Image Credits: What are Antiquities?
  • Antiquity refers to any object or work of art that reflects science, art, literature, religion, customs, morals, or politics from a bygone era. 
  • This can include coins, sculptures, paintings, epigraphs, detached articles.
  • As per, the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972(AATA), an “antiquity” is an article or object that is at least 100 years old. 
    • If it is a manuscript or record of any scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value, it should be at least 75 years old.
Art Treasure:
  • An art treasure is a human work of art, other than antiquity, declared to be a treasure by the Centre for its artistic value after the artist’s death.
    • For Example: Chola Bronzes
What is the ‘Provenance’ of antiquity?
  • Provenance includes the list of all owners from the time the object left its maker’s possession to the time it was acquired by the current owner.
    • For Example:  Tracing the ‘Provenance’ of Kohinoor Diamond: 
      • 1306: The diamond – not yet christened Kohinoor – is mentioned for the first time in some historical texts as belonging to the Rajas of Malwa around this time.
      • 1526: the diamond passed to Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, before coming into the possession of his grandson, Sultan Mahamad.
      • 1739: Persian general Nadir Shah defeated Mahamad to conquer Delhi – and the diamond — in 1739 and gave it its now-famous name- Kohinoor.
      • 1813: The diamond returns to India when Shah Shuja Durrani, brings it to Punjab and gives it to Maharaja Ranjit Singh
      • 1849: The British win the second Anglo-Sikh War and Duleep Singh signs over the kingdom and the diamond to the British.
      • 1852: The kohinoor diamond is taken to England.
      • Current ownership: Despite claims of ownership by three countries — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan — the United Kingdom has maintained its ownership over the gem.
Magnitude of Missing Antiquities: According to the ASI list, 322 of the 486 antiquities were reported missing since 1976.
  • The ASI’s list of missing antiquities covers 17 states and two Union Territories which includes: Uttarakhand (33), Tamil Nadu (30), Bihar (22), Andhra Pradesh (18), Karnataka (15), Maharashtra (12), Chhattisgarh (8), Odisha (5), Telangana (5)
  • As per UNESCO estimates that “more than 50,000 art objects have been smuggled out of India till 1989”.
  • The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities has so far registered 3.52 lakh antiquities from the 16.70 lakh it has documented for an “effective check” on illegal activities.
Constitutional, Legislative and International Provisions Related to Indian Heritage:
  • Constitutional:
    • Classification of subjects: In India, Schedule seven of the Constitution contains the following provisions relating to Indian heritage:
Union List (Item 67) State List (Item 12) Concurrent List (Item 40)
  • Ancient and historical monuments and records, and archaeological sites and remains, [declared by or under law made by Parliament] to be of national importance.
  • Libraries, museums and other similar institutions controlled or financed by the State; ancient and historical monuments and records other than those declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance.
  • Archaeological sites and remains other than those 1 [declared by or under law made by Parliament] to be of national importance.
    • Directive Principles of State Policy: Article 49 puts obligation on the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance.
    • Fundamental DutyArticle 51A of Constitution states that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our culture.
  • Legislative:
    • 1947: The Antiquities (Export Control) Act was passed to prevent antiquities from being exported without a license.
    • 1958: The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act was enacted to safeguard ancient monuments and archaeological sites from destruction and misuse.
    • 1972: The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (AATA), implemented from April 1, 1976.
    • This license is granted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Salient Features of The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (AATA):
  • Definition of Antiquities and Art Treasures: The Act defines what constitutes antiquities and art treasures.
  • Regulation of Export: The Act prohibits the export of antiquities and art treasures unless it is done under a valid license issued by the government.
  • Process of Registration: Under section 14(3) of the AATA, “Every person who owns, controls or is in possession of any antiquity” shall register such antiquity before the registering officer “and obtain a certificate in token of such registration.”
  • Sale of Antiquities: Antiquities can be sold only by a licensed person.
  • Penalties: Selling antiquities specified for sale only by the Central government and failure to declare all the antiquities in one’s possession at the time of the expiry of a license are offenses.
    • All these attract the same penalty of a six-month jail term or fine or both, besides confiscation.
  • India’s Obligations towards International Conventions related to Heritage:
    • Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1977
    • Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2005
    • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, 2006
    • United Nations World Heritage Committee: India has been elected as a member of the committee for the term 2021-25.
Mechanism of Bringing Back Antiquities to India: There are three categories of antiquities which has been moved out of India:
    • Antiquities taken out of India pre-independence; 
  • Those which were taken out since independence until March 1976, i.e. before the implementation of AATA;
  • Antiquities taken out of the country since April 1976.
  • For items in the first two categories, requests have to be raised bilaterally or on international fora.
  • For Example, the Maharashtra government in 2022 announced it was working to bring back the sword of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj from London.
  • Antiquities in the second and third categories can be retrieved easily by raising an issue bilaterally with proof of ownership and with the help of the UNESCO convention.
What do international conventions say?
  • The 1970 UNESCO Convention aims to prevent the illicit import, export, and transfer of cultural property, and the United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.
  • It emphasized that illegal trade of cultural property diminishes the heritage of countries of origin and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property.
Challenges in Conservation of antiquities:
  • Lack of Strategy: As per CAG report, ASI lacks strategy or road-map (long term/medium term) to fulfill its mandate. The conservation activities were being undertaken on an ad-hoc/annual basis.
  • Repatriation issues: Retrieving stolen antiquities from foreign countries can be a lengthy and complex process, involving diplomatic negotiations and legal challenges.
  • Illegal trafficking and looting: India is rich in cultural heritage, making it a target for illegal trafficking and looting of antiquities.
    • Global Financial Integrity estimates that illegal trade in paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts generates $6 billion annually.
  • Inadequate law enforcement: Limited resources and lack of strict enforcement make it challenging to effectively monitor and prevent the illicit trade of antiquities.
    • The National Crime Records Bureau reported that between 2008 and 2012, 4,408 items were stolen from 3,676 ASI-protected monuments nationwide, but only 1,493 could be intercepted by police.
  • Red Tapism: Lengthy and complex bureaucratic processes can hinder the proper documentation, conservation, and preservation of antiquities.
  • Encroachment and urbanization: Historical sites and archaeological sites are sometimes encroached upon or destroyed due to rapid urbanization and development projects.
  • Underfunding and resource constraints: The conservation and management of antiquities require significant financial resources and skilled personnel, which may not always be available.
    • After 2017-18, increase in ASI’s overall expenditure and its expenditure on heritage protection activities (40 percent of total expenditure) was moderate.
    • As per CAG, ASI’s expenditure on excavation and exploration activities was still less than one per cent. 
  • Climate and environmental factors: Natural elements, such as weather and pollution, can pose threats to the preservation of antiquities.
Way Forward:
  • Strengthening Legal Framework: Enact and enforce robust laws to combat the illegal trafficking and export of antiquities.
  • Improved Law Enforcement: Invest in specialized training for law enforcement officers to identify and combat antiquities smuggling.
  • Digital Documentation: Utilize modern technology like 3D scanning and digital documentation to create detailed records of antiquities. This aids in research, conservation, and repatriation efforts.
  • Improved Archaeological Surveys: Conduct systematic and regular archaeological surveys to identify and document sites, which can be vulnerable to looting or encroachment.
  • Heritage Conservation Zones: Establish specific zones around important heritage sites where development and construction are strictly regulated to protect the cultural heritage.
Additional Information: About Advanced Antiquities Management System:
  • It is an initiative of the Goa government which claims to be the first such system in the country for storage of antiquities.
  • It is a software-driven automated storage used for the storage of various objects.
  • It will provide information about the age of antiquity, the material it is made of and its brief history.
National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA):
  • The NMMA was launched in 2007 to document the country’s monuments and antiquities.
  • It will help in the creation of a database of all antiquities and can be referred to readily in case of fraudulent dealings or theft.
  • It was initially set up for a period of 5 years from 2007 to 2012. It was extended for a further 5 years till 2017 and later merged with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
 News Source: The Indian Express
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