CIC slams PMO for 'not applying mind' on RTI application about recovery of ancient Indian artifacts from abroad

New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) has slammed the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) for shirking its responsibility while dealing with an RTI application on recovering historical artifacts from other countries. The PMO had received an RTI application seeking information on efforts being made to bring back precious treasures including the Kohinoor diamond, the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Shah Jahan's wine cup, the sword and ring of Tipu Sultan, the Nassak diamond and Sultanganj Buddha.

The application was transferred to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Since the ASI had limited information on the retrieval of antiquities, the RTI applicant BKSR Ayyangar knocked on the door of the CIC. On 20 August, Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu, appalled by the justification issued by the PMO in transferring the RTI to ASI and Ministry of Culture, pulled up bureaucrats at the highest government office for not applying their minds on such an important issue.

"Instead of routinely transferring it to the Ministry of Culture, the PMO should have applied its mind, taken guidance from higher officers or the concerned minister, or found out from Ministry of External Affairs to provide information sought. The PMO should not have transferred the RTI application at all. Instead, the PMO should have chosen to answer to avoid assumptions by the people or appellant that there were no efforts at all," said Acharyulu.

File image of Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu. Screen grab from YouTube

File image of Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu. Screen grab from YouTube

He also asked, "How can the ASI or officers above say anything to the appellant about the Kohinoor and other high valuable artifacts of our ancient times?"  Acharyulu said information requested under the RTI demanded an initiative from the PMO to secure the details from the concerned ministries and to take necessary measures. He further observed that the applicant and people will be disappointed if nothing was done, noting that it should at least have been stated whether or not measures were taken, or if they are still in the process of doing so — that information could be satisfactory.

"Unfortunately, there was no such exercise from any office including the PMO," Acharyulu said, adding that the PMO should collect the required information sought by the applicant within a month. The CIC is also of the view that the efforts to secure the return of the artifacts is a high-level exercise depending on India's relations with the relevant countries, goodwill established by the leadership of the Government of India and strategic steps by the officers of the external affairs ministry. It also said that the Ministry of Culture and ASI are dutybound to respond to queries of organisations working to preserve India's cultural heritage, with the aim of recovering stolen artifacts.

However, if any such efforts are gaining results, it could possibly be within the reach of the PMO. The CIC further said that if the Government of India had done something to regain those symbols of the country's glorious past either through diplomatic means or independent organisations like Association for Research into Crime against Art (ARCA), the PMO would be better equipped to inform the information-seekers.

The bureaucratic muddle

The applicant in this case wanted a simple bit of information: What is the government doing to bring precious treasures back to India? And since he apprehended that ASI may not have such information, he filed the RTI with the PMO, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Culture. The subsequent event provides a peep into the classic babudom in the system. For months, the file moved from one department to another.

The ASI was perplexed upon receiving the file and it provided a simple response saying it had no authority to process the case of retrieval of these items. When asked why the RTI request was not transferred to the PMO or Ministry of Culture, an ASI officer said, "These applications were filed at first with them only. I didn't understand why they were sent to us."

Perturbed about this hide-and-seek of babus, the CIC added that it was surprising that officers of PMO and Ministry of Culture completely ignored the lack of authority in the ASI and routinely transferred the RTI application without even verifying whether they had any information in their records. Flagging an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the government in 2017, the CIC further said when the ministry assured the Supreme Court that it would continue efforts, it was for the ministry to inform of measures or progress if any.

"Knowing that the ASI had no legal power to recover pre-Independence artifacts from the British, how could the PMO and Ministry of Culture conclude that the RTI application 'is more closely connected with the functions of the ASI'?. The PMO and Ministry of Culture have every duty to inform the appellant and transferring RTI requests to ASI would amount to a breach of that duty," the CIC said.

The CIC, however, acknowledged the efforts made by the Narendra Modi government in bringing back some historical pieces from abroad. It mentioned that since the NDA came to power, Modi's efforts led to the retrieval of a 10th Century statue of Goddess Durga from Germany, the Parrot Lady from Canada, antique statues of Hindu deities from Australia and hundreds of precious artifacts from the US in 2016.

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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 10:36:55 IST

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