The Indian subcontinent with its diverse cultural and natural wealth attract people from all walks of life, some to appreciate, while some to steal. The richness of Indian culture and heritage has paved a way for many smugglers to carry on illicit smuggling for enormous profits. Thus, smuggling of Antiquities in India has become a very rampant business for the racketeers.
The government on its part has brought out a few methods to prevent such illicit activities through the enactment of laws. One such important act is the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act (AAT Act), 1972. However, as the act is riddled with certain limitations, anti social elements tend to take advantage of the law.
2. Brief introduction to the AAT Act
The AAT Act was introduced in the year 1972 to mainly reduce the illicit trading in the antiquities and art treasures. Certain artefacts which are more than 100 years old will qualify as an antiquity.The Act requires licensing of the antiquities by the owners if they want to sell them. Registration is required if the owners want to possess the artefacts. For this purpose, licensing and registering officers are appointed. The power of entry, search and seizure is with the government officer.Export of antiquities is not possible by private individuals. It can be done only by the government.
3. Reasons behind the antiquity smuggling
3.1. Improper registrations
There are a few reasons why the cultural wealth of India is getting smuggled away to various parts of the world. It is not out of context to note the section 5 of AAT Act which states that, “as from the date of expiry of a period of six months from the commencement of this Act no person shall, himself or by any other person on his behalf, carry on the business of selling or offering to sell any antiquity except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a licence granted under section 8”. The AAT Act makes it compulsory for all antiquity owners to register their antiquities with a licensing officer if they want to sell them. The Archaeological survey of India (hereinafter ASI) is currently responsible for registering the antiquities. When an antiquity is sold without any license, it amounts to illicit trading or smuggling. But many dealers neither obtain license nor register their antiquities owing to various reasons and a few are listed below.
Firstly, some of them have a wrong notion that when their antiquities are registered, the antiquities become the property of the government, which is not the case.
Secondly, the AAT act does not allow the export of antiquities and art treasures unless it is done by the Central government or its agencies. The foreign customers usually pay the antique dealers enormous amount, which the domestic customers don’t. The sellers are not willing to obtain a license and sell them in the domestic market for a comparatively lower price. Also, if the sellers register their owning, they will only be able to sell them within the country and not smuggle them abroad.
Thirdly, red-tapism in the licensing office like any other governmental department is a crucial reason for the low registration of the antiquities. To avoid this long and lengthy process, in 2017 the government came up with a draft which would enable the art treasure owners to possess and sell their merchandise without a license. According to the draft, all license issued under the AAT Act would be repealed. This draft was proposed with a view to encourage free domestic trading of antiquities and avoid the overlong process faced in registration. However, this draft has not transformed itself into an Act until now.
3.2. Improper storage
A report submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in the year 2013 revealed the abysmal condition of the storage facility of the antiquities. The Central Antiquity Collection (CAC) was established in the year 1960 by the ASI to collect and store the antiquities obtained during the process of excavations, exploration, etc. But the collections from the CAC are neither properly documented nor kept in a condition favourable to the antiquities. One of the observations from the aforesaid report stated that ‘the artifacts of CAC were scattered and spread over four different locations. In the absence of appropriate documentation, it was not possible to ascertain the location of specific artifacts’. This sort of condition enables the racketeers to commit larceny without even being noticed by the officials as they have not properly documented it.
3.3. Lack of database
The ASI has been constantly named for the poor maintenance of database of antiquities. The 2013 report also revealed the discrepancies in the number of artefacts in the museums of India. Also, the definition of what qualifies as an antiquity is too wide. According to the AAT Act, any artefacts such as coins, sculptures, paintings, anything detached from building or cave, an object of historical interest, and many others which are more than 100 years old would be qualified as an antiquity. Many people who own such artefacts don’t even know what they own are antiquities. When what objects account to antiquities itself is unknown, it is almost impossible to have an accurate database. This makes it convenient for the smugglers to involve in many trafficking activities.
The report of 2013 has made a considerable amount of recommendations for efficient antiquity management and counter actions against illicit trafficking. It asked for a review of the provisions of the AAT Act and the international conventions to make it more contemporary and effective. Though India is a part of the UNESCO Convention against the Trade of Cultural Property, 1970, which is a multilateral agreement among the countries for returning the smuggled goods to the country of origin, it is indispensable to have contemporary laws within the country. Attempts were made in 2003 and 2017 to amend the AAT Act but they still have not seen the light of the day.
The report also recommended developing a safekeeping mechanism of the antiquities by museum, creating a digitised and centralised database, converting sculpture sheds into museum sites, and retrieving the stolen antiquities by being more vigilant and few other recommendations. All these recommendations were accepted by the cultural ministry. However, no action was taken by the ministry till today.
Apart from these recommendations given in the report, to increase the awareness among the public and encourage them to act more in a responsible way, incentive schemes to the informer or the finder of the lost or stolen artefacts can be also introduced.
It is also necessary to redefine what qualifies as an antiquity, so that objects of trivial nature don’t come into the definition.
But, the most important of all is to bring innovative, relevant, contemporary, and strict transformations to the AAT act. In 2017, a need was felt to amend the AAT Act. A draft bill was proposed by the government with an intention to repeal the AAT Act and bring in the Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export, and Import Bill, 2017. This newly proposed draft was mainly made to do away with the licensing of antiquities which meant that there can be free trade of the antiquities and art treasures within the country. According to the draft, if a person wrongfully exports or tries to export the antiquities, there shall be minimum of five years of sentence in jail along with fine. It also had proposed to waive off the custom duties to anyone who would bring back the antiquities of Indian origin.The question raised is whether all these would counter the problem. The answer to this can be known only when the draft is enacted.
The problem of antiquity smuggling is very prevalent. Many recommendations and changes can be brought in to stop this problem. But all this can come to an end only when people realise that it is wrong to spoil and loot one’s own cultural heritage. People must also realise that it is their fundamental duty to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
Ilakiya S.D., Protection of Antiquities – An Overview, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (August 14, 2020), https://exgratialawjournal.in/blawg/constitutional-law/protection-of-antiquities-an-overview/.
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 2(1)(a), Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 5, 14, Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 23, Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 3, Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 5, Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Supra at 4.
 Govt drafts bill proposes selling of antiquities sans license, Outlook India, https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/govt-draft-bill-proposes-selling-of-antiques-sans-licence/1151512
 Performance audit of preservation and conservation of monuments and antiquities, (chapter 6), management of antiquities, https://cag.gov.in/content/report-no-18-2013-performance-audit-preservation-and-conservation-monuments-and-antiquities#Executive%20Summary%20and%20Recommendations
 Id. at p.133.
 Id. at p.138.
 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act § 2, Act No. 10, Acts of Parliament of India (1952).
 Supra note 10 at 3.
 UNESCO Convention against the Trade of Cultural Property, 1970, http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.phpURL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
 Supra note 10 at 3.
 Supra note 7 at 3.
 Draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export, and Import Bill, 2017, https://www.gktoday.in/gk/draft-antiquities-and-art-treasures-regulation-export-and-import-bill-2017/