THE return of 45 artefacts to Pakistani authorities in New York by the Manhattan district attorney’s office should be a moment to celebrate. The relics are valued at around $250,000 and include sculptures of the Buddha from the Gandhara period. The return of these artefacts follows a lengthy probe by the US Homeland Security Investigation office into the collection of Nayef Homsi, described as a “known trafficker involved in illegal looting, exportation and sale of ancient art from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and other countries”. The Pakistani consulate in New York played a commendable role by pursuing the case of the artefacts and ensuring the return of these cultural and historical treasures.

However, it is an unfortunate fact that the trafficking of such significant relics continues to be a thriving business in the region. Equally regrettable is the lackadaisical attitude of the Pakistani authorities that have failed to clamp down on this illegal trade of antiquities and dismantle the network that sells heritage items to foreign art dealers. Given this disinterest, what will be the fate of these recovered items once they arrive in the country? Post-devolution confusion has added to the woes of conservation and management of antiquities in the country. KP and Punjab have passed their own amended versions of the Antiquities Act of 1975, but Sindh and Balochistan have lagged behind in formulating legislation to protect important heritage sites such as Mohenjodaro. Robust and updated laws and coordinated provincial action can help check the rampant pilferage of cultural items and address the current lack of clarity over ownership of cultural property between the centre and the provinces. But laws alone will not protect archaeological heritage. The country’s history predates the events of 1947 by centuries but this is not reflected in the approach of officialdom that has hardly attempted to create a sense of pride in the public. This must change if the secrets of long-buried civilisations are to be showcased as a sign that Pakistan can protect its own.

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2020

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