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General Studies 2 >> International Relations

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1. Context

India is close to signing an agreement with the United States under which the process for the return of stolen antiquities will be hugely simplified.

2. What is Cultural Property?

Cultural property refers to tangible and intangible expressions of a society's cultural heritage. It encompasses a wide range of objects, including archaeological artefacts, works of art, monuments, historical sites, manuscripts, books, traditional crafts, and oral traditions. Cultural property is considered a valuable asset that reflects the unique identity and history of a community or nation.

Types of Cultural Property

  1. Tangible Cultural Property includes physical objects that can be seen and touched, such as archaeological artefacts, works of art, monuments, historical sites, and manuscripts. These objects are often housed in museums, libraries, and archives.
  2. Intangible Cultural Property encompasses non-physical expressions of culture, such as traditional music, dance, theatre, oral traditions, rituals, and knowledge systems. Intangible cultural property is often passed down through generations and is essential for maintaining a community's cultural identity.

3. About the Cultural Property Agreement

The Cultural Property Agreement (CPA) between India and the United States aims to safeguard cultural heritage and combat the illicit trafficking of art objects. 

  • Once the CPA is finalized, the US will automatically repatriate any cultural objects identified as belonging to India, eliminating the need for India to provide additional proof of ownership.
  • The CPA imposes import restrictions to prevent looted and stolen cultural property from entering the US. This helps to protect India's cultural heritage from illegal trade and ensures that these objects remain in the country to which they belong.
  • The CPA encourages the legal sharing of cultural objects for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes. This facilitates collaboration between experts and institutions in both countries, promoting knowledge exchange and cultural understanding.
  • Under the agreement, the US will intercept smuggled cultural objects at the border and return them expeditiously to India. This swift action helps to prevent the illegal circulation of these objects and ensures their return to their rightful place.
  • The CPA fosters cooperation between the US and India in combating the illicit trafficking of art objects. This collaboration helps to protect cultural heritage globally and promotes responsible practices in the art market.

4. About an antiquity and its Provenance

  • Antiquity is any object that is at least 100 years old and has archaeological, historical, literary, artistic, or scientific value.
  • It can be a coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph, or other work of art or craftsmanship.
  • It can also be an article, object, or thing detached from a building or cave, or any article, object, or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals, or politics in bygone ages.
  • 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.
  • It establishes the object's origin, authenticity, and any significant changes it has undergone over time.
  • A well-documented provenance enhances the value and credibility of antiquity, demonstrating its legitimacy and providing insights into its historical context.
  • The UNESCO 1970 declaration states that “The requesting Party shall furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return.”
  • The first thing to prove the ownership is the complaint (FIR) filed with the police.
  • In India, the problem with missing antiquities is that in many cases, there is no FIR. But other proof, like details mentioned by reputed scholars in research papers etc., also work.

5. International conventions

  • The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defines “cultural property” as the property designated by countries having “importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.”
  • The Declaration further states that “the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property.”

6. Indian laws 

  • Item 67 of the Union List, Item 12 of the State List, and Item 40 of the Concurrent List of the Constitution deal with the country’s heritage.
  • In India, The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (AATA), implemented on April 1, 1976, deals with antiquities and art treasures.
  • The AATA states that it is not lawful for any person to export any antiquity or art treasure without a license from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
  • 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.”

7. Can India bring back antiquities?

  • There are three categories to take note of: antiquities taken out of India pre-independence; those which were taken out since independence until March 1976, i.e. before the implementation of AATA; and 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 instance, the Maharashtra government on November 10, 2022, announced it was working to bring back the sword of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj from London.
  • This sword was given to Edward, the Prince of Wales (the later King Edward VII) by Shivaji IV in 1875-76.
  • Several antiquities, from Vagdevi of Dhar (MP) to the Kohinoor diamond, to Amaravati marbles to the Sultanganj Buddha to antiquities related to Rani Laxmibai and Tipu Sultan, are currently abroad.
  • 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.
  • The conviction of Subhash Kapoor has further given a chance to India to bring back smuggled antiquities.

8. The WayForward

The ongoing initiatives, coupled with the potential agreement with the United States, present a promising landscape for safeguarding India's cultural heritage. It necessitates continued vigilance, legal reforms, and international cooperation to ensure the return of antiquities and the perpetuation of India's rich cultural tapestry for generations to come.
For Prelims: Cultural Property Agreement, UNESCO,  India and the United States, Antiquity, Union List, State List, Concurrent List, The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, Archaeological Survey of India
For Mains: 
1. Discuss the potential for strengthening international cooperation to combat the illicit trafficking of art objects and ensure the return of stolen cultural property to its rightful owners. (250 Words)
Previous Year Questions

1. Recently, which one of the following was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage list? (UPSC 2009)

(a) Dilwara Temple
(b) Kalka-Shimla Railway
(c) Bhiterkanika Mangrove Area
(d) Visakhapatnam to Araku valley railway line

2. UNESCO stands for _______. (MP Police SI 2016) 
A. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation
B. United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation
C. United Nations Educational Scientific and Commercial Organisation
D. United Nations Economic Scientific and Cultural Organisation
3. Khajuraho, 'the City of the Gods' a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the name of which was first referred in the 11th century CE by (WBCS Prelims 2021)
A. Ibn Battuta
B. Ibn Sina
C. Abu Rihan Alberuni
D. Omar Khayyam
4. With reference to Indian history, who among the following is a future Buddha, yet to come to save the world? (UPSC 2018)
A. Avalokiteshvara      B. Lokesvara       C. Maitreya      D.  Padmapani
5. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, “MahabodhiVihar” is situated in which Indian state? (SSC MTS 2017)
A. Madhya Pradesh        B.  Himachal Pradesh           C. Bihar         D. Maharashtra
6. One of the heritage sites according to UNESCO is the_____.  (MP Police Constable 2017) 
A. Kesavnath Temple at Ujjain       
B. Bhojapur
C. Jahaz Mahal at Mandu
D. Khajuraho Monuments
7. Which one among these sites of Madhya Pradesh is NOT declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO? (MP Vyapam Sub-Engineer Electrical 2016)
A. Chanderi, Ashoknagar                  B. Khajuraho Group of Monuments
C. Buddhist Monuments, Sanchi       D. Rock Shelters, Bhimbetka

8. The Parliament of India acquires the power to legislate on any item in the State List in the national interest if a resolution to that effect is passed by the

(a) Lok Sabha by a simple majority of its total membership

(b) Lok Sabha by a majority of not less than two-thirds of its total membership

(c) Rajya Sabha by a simple majority of its total membership

(d) Rajya Sabha by a majority of not less than two-thirds of its members present and voting


9. As per Section 2 of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, 'Antiquities' include 'any manuscript, record or another document which is scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value and which has been in existence for not less than _______ years'. (SSC MTS 2021)

A. 125        B. 150         C. 50          D. 75

Answers:1-B, 2-A, 3-C, 4-C, 5-C, 6-D, 7-A, 8-D, 9-D

1. Safeguarding the Indian Art Heritage is the need of the moment. Discuss. (UPSC 2018)
2. Indian Philosophy and tradition played a significant role in conceiving and shaping the monuments and their art in India. Discuss. (UPSC 2020)

 Source: The Indian Express

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