“In all the antique religions, mythology takes the place of dogma; that is, the sacred lore of priests and people … and these stories afford the only explanation that is offered of the precepts of religion and the prescribed rules of ritual” - is how William Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish Orientalist and an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica saw the place of antiques in a nation’s life.
Thus, to preserve one’s tradition, a country’s antiques need to be safeguarded. Faced with growing pressure to stop rampant looting of the country’s cultural treasures and apparent limitations in the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, the government has now proposed a draft bill related to antiquities known as “The Draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Bill, 2017”. The proposal was made to the government by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Draft Bill is an amended version of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.
The Draft Bill defines “Antiquity” as certain objects like coins, sculpture, paintings over 100 years old or manuscripts over 75 years old. It has a separate category, “Art Treasure”, which has been defined as “any human work or expression of art or any art object, whether an antiquity or not, declared by the Central Government by notification, to be an art treasure for the purposes of this Act having reference to its artistic or aesthetic value.”
The Draft Bill proposes to abolish state regulation in the business of art and antiques and to provide way for free trading of antiques and artworks. This is probably the biggest change the new bill has sought to make. Once the new Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Bill, 2017, becomes a law, every licence issued under the 1972 Act will stand repealed.
The Centre has proposed doing away with the requirement of a licence for selling antiques within the country in the Draft Bill. By doing away with the licence-raj the bill proposes to make the business in antiques easier and transparent.
Other objectives of the proposed bill are to provide for the preservation, protection, and promotion of antiquities and art treasures, to provide for the sound development and regulation of domestic trade in antiquities and art treasures, to provide for the prevention of fraudulent dealings in antiquities and art treasures, to provide for the compulsory acquisition thereof for preservation in public places, to regulate the export and import in antiquities and to provide for the prevention of smuggling of antiquities and art treasures.
A significant improvement the draft bill has proposed over the previous one is regarding the recovery of lost antiques outside India. It states that whenever the government comes to know that an antiquity of Indian origin was “ a) taken out of India illegally or clandestinely; or b) exported in contravention of any provisions of law in force governing export of antiquities at the time of making such export, is or has been found in a foreign land, the Central Government shall immediately make all efforts to ensure the retrieval of such antiquity from that foreign land.”
Salient features of the proposed bill
The Draft Bill proposes to do away with the requirement of a licence and wants such businesses to be conducted by uploading specified details of the antiquities or art treasures on a designated web portal. This will make the transaction transparent. Under the present law only individuals with licences issued by the government are authorised to sell antiques within the country. Further, any individual in possession of any antique piece is required to register the object with the government.
An Expert Advisory Committee under the proposed Act will be formed which shall decide any question referred to it and declare as to whether any article, object or manuscript record or other document is antiquity / art treasure or not. Earlier the responsibility was rested on certain designated senior officers of ASI.
The Advisory Committee shall include (other than designated government officials) not less than three other members to be co-opted from a panel of expert persons, to be prepared by the Central government. These persons will have proven records of expertise in the fields of antiquities and art treasures, archaeology, handicrafts, textiles, heritage and such other fields.
The Draft Bill has empowered ASI to raid any house if it feels antiques have been stored illegally. Critiques fear that this clause has the potential to be abused wrongly by the government officials.
To encourage bringing back of Indian antiques from abroad the Draft Bill proposes to waive customs duty for anyone who brings back antiques of Indian-origin after lawful purchase and for artists who would bring back their own creations.
The central government wants to preserve or protect any antiquity or art treasure in a public place and it may make an order for the compulsory acquisition of such antiques. In this section ‘public place’ means any place which is open to public, whether on payment of fees or not, or whether it is actually used by the public or not. Such antiquities or art treasures kept in offices and other public places may be affected by such orders. The government, however, will pay compensation for such acquisitions.
Export of antiquities and art treasures cannot be made other than by the Central government or any authorized authority or agency. At the other end whenever any person intends to import any antiquity or art treasure by himself or by another person on his behalf such import can be made only if he uploads on the web portal such details of the antiquity or art treasures.
The Draft Bill seems very particular about adherence to the regulations it has proposed. For example, if any person himself or by any other person on his behalf exports or attempts to export any antiquity or art treasures in contravention of the prescribed regulations he will be liable to punishment with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years with a fine.
If any person contravenes the provisions, that is, to upload the details of the antiquities sold within India on designated web portal, he or she shall be liable to punishment with imprisonment for a term of up to six months or with fine not exceeding `5 lakh or both and the antiquity in respect of which the offence is committed will be liable to confiscation.
The question is: will these provisions stop smuggling, fraudulent dealings and stealing of antiques and artworks? The 1972 bill has failed miserably here. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 4,408 antique items were stolen from monuments across the country during 2008-2012 but only 1,493 could be intercepted by the law enforcement agencies. Around 2,913 antique items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide. In this process of plunder for profit the cultural history of India is being torn out of its context making it unfeasible to relate to it except in the most abstract way. One keeps fingers-crossed that the proposed bill would stop such theft of precious artworks and antiques, so precious in national history.