For more than a millennia, innumerable Hindu artifacts have been either destroyed or stolen and smuggled to various foreign countries. Some stole or destroyed them for ideological purposes, like the Islamic invaders or Christian missionaries or Colonial era loot. Others did it for the perceived value and smuggled such artifacts to Europe, America and Australia. Many of our own people have been involved in this lucrative trade. For 1000 years we were under foreign rule of the Muslims and the Christian colonialists, and were not in a position to preserve our heritage form getting destroyed by alien cultures. However the sad truth is that even after seven decades of independence, the Indian state has not taken up this matter with any degree of seriousness, and numerous priceless artifacts have been smuggled out of India in the last 70 years.
Murti is Not a Mere Stone Idol
In India, an idol is not merely an idol. It is a murti, or a representation of the Divine with the full potency of the divine once it receives pran-pratishtha. In almost all cases, the deities are carriers of potent powers and the collective devotion of millions of devotes over centuries. If an idol is lost to smugglers, it simply cannot be replaced because an idol is not a piece of stone but the repository of divine energy which takes centuries of tapasya, bhakti and sadhana and full agamaic and Vedic adherence to come to that state. Thus in most cases, when a murti is stolen from an old temple, not only is the murti not replaced, the full spiritual, social and financial ecosystem of the temple complex collapses, and in many cases Christian missionaries and other unscrupulous people take advantage of that to promote adharma.
Fortunately for us, time and again Dharmic forces have arisen who take up the mantle and do what the State should have been doing, especially when the State is confused and misguided and beliefs that people elected them for building roads and smart-cities and that Dharma could take a back seat. They forget that dharma is the underpinning of good rajatantra, and vikas and pragati are merely an outcome of dharma in action. But the average Hindu is deeply Dharmic and well capable of self-organizing and achieving amazing feats.
India Pride Project
One such group is the India Pride Project (IPP), an establishment determined to bring back stolen and smuggled art and lost treasures of India. It is a citizens’ group which has successfully built the agenda for heritage repatriations in the recent past[i]. It was founded in 2013, and headed by Anuraag Saxena, The project has a core team consisting of 11 members- all of them engaged in regular full-time jobs in education, banking, business, etc., and for security reasons the group works in secrecy[ii]. The main objectives of IPP are[iii]:
- Bringing back India’s lost heritage.
- Creating awareness within Indian citizens
- Creating awareness among Government agencies that have ignored the issue for decades.
- Instilling the fear in buyer’s mind
It is to be noted that the IPP investigates all types of Indian artifacts, whether Hindu and non-Hindu. They received their first success when the 11th century Chola statue of Sripuranthan Natarajan (dancing Shiva), stolen from a temple in Sripuranthan in 2006, was handed over by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot in 2014 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi[iv].
The temple is part of the Big Temple (Brihadeeswara) region complex in Tanjore, which was so amazing that when the Indian government issued a thousand rupee note in 1954 they put a picture of the temple on it[v]. This was in the era, faux secularism had not taken over Indian institutions.
After the theft of the murti, the temple witnessed reduced number of worshipers and fell to disrepair and ruins. Later with the re-installation of the murti, the temple has regained its former glory and is thronged by numerous devotees.
The murti, allegedly smuggled by the now infamous New-York based art dealer Subhash Kapoor who faces trial in Chennai for running an international art smuggling racket worth $100 million. Raiders came in from New York, hand-picked these statues and smuggled them out of India. They made fake papers in Hong Kong and sold them through auction houses in London and New York and the murtis ended up bought by the government of Australia not knowing that they was stolen and placed in their National Museum. This pan-Western ring of smuggling Indian antiquities was finally busted and the perpetrators are being brought to justice. This was then followed by the Canadian Prime Minister and German Chancellor returning Indian murtis and other artifacts.
Terror Funding: The Rise of Blood Buddhas
Terrorism financing refers to activities that provides financing to terrorist groups so that they may sustain themselves and propagate their ideologies. Terrorist organizations like the Islamic State get their money’s through[vi]:
- Illegal Activities/ Smuggling
- Front Companies
As narcotics and sex-slavery are “high visibility” crimes, ISIS has moved to peddling Heritage Artifacts because of lack of limited monitoring. Increasingly in the past few years, smuggling of Hindu artefacts is being used to fund terrorist activities by anti-Indian forces like the Islamic State who want to destroy the last Kafir civilization of India and establish radical Islam at the point of sword and wreak havoc, decimate native Hindus, destroy all temples, capture women as war booty and slaves and destroy our ancient democratic society. This is a grave issue of national security, heritage crimes and a severe Breaking India threat.
India Pride Project which has been diligently tracking online sales of illicit heritage artifacts, has uncovered a sinister plot by the dreaded Muslim terrorist organization Islamic state to use the dark-web for illegally buying and selling cultural artifacts to fund their jihadi agenda and launch global terror attacks on non-Muslim areas like India and Europe. A terror attack costs less than 100,000 USD, and Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS have been stealing and smuggling heritage artifacts to fund their terror operations. A research study by Katie Paul published in a Special Issue Advances in Art Crime Research (2018) provides a chilling tale of how smuggling of illegal artefacts are fueling terror attacks by Islamic groups[vii]:
“Since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as Daesh and ISIL) in 2014, antiquities have been a widely publicized source of funding for what has become one of the most technologically savvy terrorist organizations of the modern era. The globalization of technology and rise of popularity in cryptocurrencies has changed the face of black-market trade and the actors that carry out these crimes. While art and antiquities have long served as a market with susceptibilities to laundering, the emergence of Dark Web markets, identification-masking software, and untraceable cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have opened new doors to potential vulnerabilities. The anonymity that is offered by these technologies acts as a roadblock for authorities, while attracting the likes of terrorists and transnational criminals. Investigative research using cyber security platforms to identify digital artifacts connected to potential traffickers provides the opportunity to unmask the seemingly untraceable actors behind these activities. The evidence of illicit antiquities trafficking on the Dark Web displayed in this article can generate a new discussion on how and where to study black-market antiquities to gain needed insight into combating the illicit trade online and the transnational criminal groups it may finance.”
In other words, while the Illicit Antiquities trade has existed forever, it hasn’t really been so catastrophic till ISIS started using it for terror-funding and this facilitated the rise of Blood Buddhas. In a series of Tweets, Anuraag Saxena describes Blood Buddhas as “trading in illicit/ stolen heritage to fund terror/ jihadi activities” and elaborated on the Jihadi activities of using heritage stealing for funding terror.
— Anuraag Saxena (@anuraag_saxena) April 6, 2018
In response UNSC passed Resolution 2199, saying ISIS is generating income from the looting and smuggling in cultural heritage items.
India at the center of it all
FBI issued an advisory and US Homeland Security have been seizing Indian & Asian heritage. Why is that so? This is because a large number of the stolen artifacts are from India where there is poor maintenance of our heritage by ASI, no awareness of what is stolen, no process in place to investigate such crimes and finally no interest by any state agency to take any kind of action. Here is what Anuraag Saxena says[viii]:
Between 2011 and 2016, the declared imports of antiquities into the US grew by almost 50%. That sure is a phenomenal growth rate. More so for a product or market that is not new or fancy. Of the $147 million-worth of arts/antiquities traded in 2016, $79 million came from India. Compare that to Iraq at only $2.5 million. In short, more than half of America’s arts/antiquities imports had their origins in India. When you view this in the context of India’s CAG report (the country’s official review and audit agency), commenting on ASI (India’s official agency responsible for preventing heritage-crimes), they chose to not mince words and describe the agency’s efforts as “completely ineffective.” To add to this, a recent High Court ruling in India had “not come across even a single case, where the persons involved in smuggling the idols out of the country have been independently prosecuted.” The team at India Pride Project posts regular updates on heritage thefts. Interestingly, most of those thefts are not even officially reported by the local police. No wonder multinational-terror groups chose India for its ripe, repercussion-free pickings.
The Indian government has never taken up this matter seriously unlike other nations. Even in the middle of the Hillary and Trump Presidential diatribe, the US Congress passed the Bill 415:0[ix]. Jordan, whose GDP is less than 2% of India, has an enforcement agency[x]. Anuraag Saxena adds that even countries like Pakistan and China have new laws and enforcement wings to fight Blood Buddhas[xi].
— Anuraag Saxena (@anuraag_saxena) April 6, 2018
India so far has neither passed a new law, nor created an enforcement agency to deal with the issue. However, agencies like DRI have been doing a great job. Internationally also, Heritage crimes are seen as a “heritage” or a “faith” issue and not as a National Security challenge. English mainstream media and wheelers and dealers of Lutyens Delhi do not really care about this issue and in fact the likes of Shekhar Gupta would rather communalize the issue[xii].
Most Heritage Crimes have a strong international angle to it; making it difficult for any one country to prosecute. Therefore Interpol runs a separate unit for such crimes. India however, is not a part of Interpol’s effort and does not subscribe/use/contribute to their Art-Crimes database. In fact, India does not even consider art theft a major problem at all, and is unwilling to deal with the national security implications.
Dark Web and Its Threats
Since the crackdowns in USA, Australia, and other places, potentially Illicit-art dealers have moved online. The anonymity of the net is an added layer of protection for them. And so the dark web is the new frontier of terrorist organizations and smugglers.
Only 4% of the internet is visible to the general public and the remaining 96% of the internet is made up of “The Deep Web”. Dark Net is a subset of the Deep Web where there are sites that sell drugs, hacking software, counterfeit money and more. The “dark web” requires special software to access. Once inside, web sites and other services can be accessed through a browser called TOR. Sites in the Dark Net are effectively hidden because they are not indexed by search engines. Only those who know the sites can access such websites. There are special markets called “darknet markets”, which mainly sell illegal products like drugs and firearms, and often paid using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Because of the anonymity afforded, the dark net is the preferred choice of terrorist groups, criminals, human traffickers, wildlife traffickers and other illegal organizations. Here one can buy credit card numbers, drugs, guns, usernames and passwords, fake passports, stolen subscription credentials, counterfeit money, hacked software, and one can also hire hackers, assassins and so on. [xiii],[xiv],[xv],[xvi] This has become the perfect platform for ISIS and its network of heritage artifact smugglers.
In “Digital World War” Haroon Ullah reports how Javaid, an ISIS member, uses Dark Web for these deals “with no footprints left behind”.
Interestingly, antiquities dealers have officially started accepting Bitcoins in order to disrupt a market largely dominated by large auction houses. Already major dealers have been arrested “on suspicion of jihadi terrorist financing.” [xvii] Below is an example of Jihadi groups are trying to sell heritage coins through Telegram.
Now why should all this matter to India?
Government Apathy: So far, citizens-groups have to beg governments to restore stolen heritage[xviii]. When the US offered us 200 heritage-items back, our bureaucrats brought back only 11 out of those 200[xix].
Terror Funding: It has been reported the Haqqani network, a Deobandi Jihadi Islamic group based out of Pakistan and Afghanistan is actively involved, so this makes the issue of terror funding very “real” and relevant for India [xx].
Cultural Cleansing: In Kashmir alone, 499 temples were destroyed/looted in cultural cleansing. This has become a rising trend across Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and rest of India.
Political Nexus: In Karnataka, elected Congress/NSUI politicians were recently arrested for Temple theft of bronze idols of Jain Tirthankara near Kotalingeshwara Temple in Kundapura, in Udupi[xxi]. In Tamil Nadu, a senior police officer, Khader Basha was an accused in stealing artifacts from temples[xxii].
These stolen artifacts could be easily transformed into terror funding which will again be used to target India.
It would be naïve to believe that all of these are isolated-incidents and not interconnected. The global narrative on heritage is changing, with USA & Israel leaving UNESCO[xxiii]. India needs to wake up to the reality and if it is not the government, then at least private citizens must take actions to prevent the theft of heritages and/ or following up on artifact recovery.
Anuraag Saxena is hopeful that this expose will have positive impact on the Indian public. He is optimistic and says:
“Hopefully this expose, will change some of your assumptions. Hopefully, our heritage will not be sold, so bombs can be thrown back at us! Hopefully YOU will ensure the narrative in the Art/Heritage Community changes. Hopefully YOU will choose to share this with friends & fellow citizens. Hopefully YOU will demand that your Government gets their heads out of the sand… & DO something about it. Hopefully History will come back to its Geography.”
The entire Tweet thread by Anuraag Saxena is available here.
[vii] Ancient Artifacts vs. Digital Artifacts: New Tools for Unmasking the Sale of Illicit Antiquities on the Dark Web http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/2/12
[viii] Blood Buddhas: How Indian Heritage Fuels the Terror Machinery https://www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/india-funding-terrorist-groups-latest-news-headlines-today-97021/
Featured Image: Morocco World News/ The Hindu
Other Images, except where specified: Anuraag Saxena