US DHS Statement Clarifies, Proves Indian Cultural Minister Ignorant of Facts

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Washington, DC – The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently clarified to Indian American Times a statement by Indian Federal Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who had claimed that only eight antiquities were returned to India by the US. Sharma negated the earlier announcement during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June, that over 200 cultural artifacts were returned to India.

Replying to a question from Indian American Times, Brendan Raedy, Public Affairs Officer/Spokesperson for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the DHS said, “In preparation for the repatriation ceremony scheduled during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, DC, an Indian delegation traveled to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York to view multiple seizures.”

Giving full details of the process, Ready said, “The delegation selected twelve pieces (from 200+) to be transported to Washington, DC for the ceremony at Blair House. Because of limited space at Blair House only five were displayed during the ceremony. All twelve pieces were transferred from Blair House to the Indian Embassy the evening of Monday, June 6th. Mr. J. R. Kerketta of the Embassy took custody of the twelve pieces.”

“HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) New York is in communication with the Indian Consulate in New York and is working towards a mutually acceptable date to schedule the delivery of the remaining pieces,” the DHS official added.

Earlier this month, Sharma made headlines in India when he said in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of the Indian Parliament), “US authorities have returned only eight antiquities to the Prime Minister of India during his visit to the US.”

Sharma declined to entertain a question regarding the value of the returned antiques in the international market. “It is not the mandate of Archaeological Survey of India to determine the market value of antiques,” he said, adding that the antiques, including a bronze image of Ganesha, were returned voluntarily.

In June, during the ceremony at the Blair House, US Attorney General Lynch said, “The United States is committed to ensuring that no nation is robbed of the objects that inform its identity, shape its traditions and inspire its citizens.”

“Today, as part of that ongoing commitment, more than 200 antiquities and cultural artifacts that speak to India’s astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home. It is my hope – and the hope of the American people – that this repatriation will serve as a sign of our great respect for India’s culture; our deep admiration for its people; and our sincere appreciation for the ties between our nations,” said Lynch.

Speaking at the event, Indian Prime Minister Modi expressed gratitude to US President Barack Obama, “for returning to us these treasures which join us to our past,” adding, “This will evoke great respect among the people of India.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in June, “Protecting the cultural heritage of our global community is important work and we are committed to identifying and returning these priceless items to their countries of origin and rightful owners,” adding, “It’s the responsibility of law enforcement worldwide to ensure criminal smuggling organizations do not profit from the theft of these culturally and historically valuable items.”

The majority of the pieces announced for repatriation in the ceremony were seized during Operation Hidden Idol, an investigation that began in 2007 after HSI special agents received a tip about a shipment of seven crates destined for the United States manifested as “marble garden table sets.” Examination of the shipment in question revealed numerous antiquities. This shipment was imported by Subhash Kapoor, owner of Art of the Past Gallery, who awaits trial in India.

Items returned included religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years, looted from some of India’s most treasured religious sites, according to a DHS release. Among the pieces returned is a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (circa 850 AD to 1250 AD) stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai, India, which is valued at $1.5 million. Also included in the collection is a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh estimated to be 1,000 years old.

HSI’s Operation Hidden Idol focused on the activities of former New York-based art dealer Kapoor, currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations. Artifacts were also found in the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex, who promptly partnered with HSI to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor. Additionally, five individuals have been arrested in the United States for their role in the scheme. The estimated value of the artifacts seized so far in the case exceeds $100 million.

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