ISLAMABAD, July 14: The centre and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have locked horns over the ownership of a collection of antiquities presumably dating from the ancient Gandhara civilisation that was confiscated by the Karachi police a week back.
On July 6, the police had intercepted a container full of items which included stucco and stone sculptures of Buddha and story panels.
On July 9, the federal government wrote to the government of Sindh claiming ownership. In a two-page letter available with Dawn, the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Ministry of National Heritage and Integration, reminded the Sindh government of Section 13-A of the Antiquities Act 1975: “The ownership of all buried antiquities shall rest with the federal government.”
The letter further stated: “As the antiquities in question have been unearthed from some buried archaeological sites through clandestine excavations, therefore, as per above referred section of the Act, the detained antiquities are property of the federal government.”
When Dawn contacted Asif Ghafoor, secretary Ministry of Heritage, he said: “At the moment we have asked for details. We have no clue about the origin or authenticity of the antiquities. Further action will be based on the report we receive from the Karachi Museum.”
He added that since the Antiquities Act 1975 was still enforced, the federal government was well within its rights to claim ownership.
However, it has turned out that the federal government is not the only party claiming ownership.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa beat the centre by filing a claim on July 7, only a day after the Karachi police made the bust.
Former provincial museum director Dr Shah Nazar told Dawn that the provincial government had already requested the Sindh government to return these objects to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province of their origin.
Dr Nazar argued that illegal excavations at archaeological sites in the province and other parts of the region were rampant and that there was a definite possibility that these objects were illegally excavated from a historical site.
Out of all the provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after devolution has been most vocal about the return of its antiquities spread across museums in the country.
Meanwhile, Director Archaeology and Museums Sindh Qasim Ali Qasim said his department was still waiting for possession of the items to ascertain facts: where the sculptures and slabs came from, and whether they are genuine or counterfeit artifacts.
While Dr Nazar had demanded the Sindh government to return the items to their province of origin, both archaeology departments in Islamabad and Sindh maintain that there is no law in the country that ensured such a transaction.
“However, once it is established that the items confiscated by the Karachi police were in fact illegally excavated and smuggled out of the KP, we will return the items to the concerned province out of good will,” said Mr Qasim.
He explained that the items were still in police custody since it was a criminal case, and would be claimed by his department through the court as early as possible to prevent any damage to the items.
Nonetheless, in his legal opinion, Advocate Babar Sattar said the 18th Amendment did not touch upon the transfer of assets directly.
“In the case of antiquities being confiscated by police in Karachi, concerned parties will have to determine where the items were excavated, and eventually return them to the province of origin,” said the expert on the constitution.
However, the problem does not end there. According to sources in DOAM, provinces would require a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the director general department of archaeology and museums, federal government, if these items were to be moved and returned to the province of origin – a point already mentioned in the letter to the Sindh government written by the federal government.
Otherwise, traffic of moveable antiquities without a licence granted by the director general is a punishable offence under sections 25, 26 and 27 of the antiquities act.