How secure are India’s museums?

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Stegodon Ganesha, whose plaque simply reads “Animals that lived millions of years ago”, is one of 1,700 fossils in the Siwalik Gallery. The air is musty, punctuated by the scent of aging furniture. Walk into the colonnaded courtyard and the unmistakable whiff of bat guano hits your nostrils. Go out the main gate, and you’re hurtled from past to present by honking cars, the aroma of Kathi rolls and Kolkata’s mugginess.

Siwalik is one of 32 sections in the 30,000 sq. ft Indian Museum. “Jaguar” (house of magic), as the museum is locally called, isn’t just a custodian of antiquities. It watches, as quietly as Stegodon Ganesha, the shapeshifting world within and outside its walls.

At 204, this is India’s oldest museum. And also its most controversial.

A train of blue tarpaulin runs nonchalantly along its perimeter. For the vendors of Chowringhee who sell everything from jhalmuri to crockery to terracotta jewelry to T-shirts, Jadughar’s visitors matter more than its chequered history. A history that includes a Gupta-era sculpture heist in 1974.

A stolen Buddha bust in 2004. Allegations of pilfering and the display of fakes. A whistleblower missing for four years. “That case is sub judice and we can’t say anything. But we pray for his return,” says administrator Nita Sengupta about Sunil Upadhyay, the preservation officer who disappeared in 2014.

Here 28 years now, the woman in a crisp taant sari and the neat ponytail is no mood to hear ill of the Indian Museum, and neither are the three men accompanying her. As evening sets in, a game of factual ping-pong unfolds in the museum security office.

“Sunil had been offered Rs 90 lakh days before he disappeared,” I remember a museum worker telling me (requesting anonymity). “I suspect that more than half the originals in this museum have disappeared.”

Assumptions made

I wonder what Sengupta and the company make of this. More on that later.

On the face of it, Upadhyay’s case seems limited to rampant corruption. But look closer, and a common thread emerges, connecting seemingly disparate dots of mismanagement, artifact smuggling, and tedious repatriation.

That thread is security.

India has no official protocol regulating the security of our cultural heritage. When museums are woefully understaffed or have untrained guards, it’s a cakewalk for the mice, both within and outside, to come out and play.

The only official report quantifying the state of our museums is the 2013 audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). It’s still relevant because museologists will tell you little has changed in years since.

And if Indian Museum and Delhi’s National Museum (from where the famous General Niazi’s pistol was stolen in spite of being protected by the CISF and the naval guard) had it bad, what would you expect of the Nizam Museum?

Stealing the Nizam’s lunchbox

Mohammed Ghouse Pasha, 24, was a mason by profession and burglar by choice. So when his friend Mohammed Mubeen told him about a sitting duck in Purani Haveli, he couldn’t resist.

Located in Pathar Gatti, old Hyderabad, Purani Haveli once housed the Nizams. It is now home to the Nizam Museum, which has some 1,000 artifacts that belonged to Hyderabad’s last ruler, Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII.

It also had creaky, wooden ventilator grills, CCTV cameras that didn’t work, multiple entry points, and insufficient guards. None of this escaped the gaze of 23-year-old Mubeen, who’d stepped into the museum as a visitor.

A plan 40 days in the making bore fruit in the twilight of 3 September 2018: the wiry men broke in, forced open a wooden almirah and stole a solid gold, diamond-encrusted tiffin and a gold cup, saucer, and spoon. A gold-encased Quran was also on their list. They’d have had it too if they hadn’t been unnerved by a call for namaaz from a nearby mosque.

But there’s a difference between good and meticulous preparation.