Govt Hands Over Custody Of Stolen Treasure ‘Back To Thief’: Scholar

SRINAGAR — Expressing shock and anguish over the government decision to nominate an accused in the theft of priceless elephant fossil case as a member of the probe committee, a noted Kashmiri historian has written an open letter to government demanding  return and installation of the fossil at a secured place back in Kashmir.  

The Governor Administration on September 11 accorded sanction for the constitution of a committee to suggest necessary measures for safety and preservation of Elephas nomadicus fossil discovered on 30th August 2000 at Galandhar, Pampore and is presently lying at Jammu University.

In a letter to Khurshid Ahmad Ganai, Advisor (G), Department of Culture, author and former bureaucrat Khalid Bashir Ahmad says: I am writing this mail in the backdrop of the Government Order No. 1369-GAD of 2018 dated 11-9-2018 (copy attached) with regard to the fossil elephant discovered at Pampore in the year 2000, to express shock and anguish over the insensitivity and thoughtlessness that this order reflects. There cannot be any other instance as brazen as this where a Government has literally handed over the custody of a stolen treasure to the thief himself.”

It is an old adage that when Governments want to obfuscate an issue they hand it over to a committee, the scholar says. 

“Indeed that is precisely what the current J&K Government appears to have done about the theft of the fossil elephant from its discovery site in Kashmir. It has constituted a committee, apparently after public and media uproar for the return of the fossil. However, completely ignoring the basic demand of return of the fossil and rather than mandating the Committee to identify the people involved in the brazen heist and recommend action against them, the Committee has been asked to suggest measures for the safety of the fossil and identify its age.  This is a clear sign that the Government does not intend to attend to the basic issue – return of the fossil and punishment to the culprits.”

He adds: “A look at the list of persons constituting the Committee is beyond belief; it is in fact very offensive to both public sentiment and demands of legal morality. The 5-member Committee includes the alleged mastermind and implementer of the fossil heist. Rather than hauling him to face criminal charges the Government has bizarrely honored him with the membership of the Committee. How could he be asked to decide about the property he is alleged to have stolen?  Moreover, it is common sense that his presence on the Committee would hamper efforts of bringing back the fossil to Kashmir. Over the years, he is on record to have tried every manner to justify the criminal act of stealing the fossil from Kashmir, depositing it with the Jammu University and, against all internationally accepted norms, retaining it there, illegally.” 

Ordinarily, the Khalid Bashir writes, what was expected of the Government was to, on priority basis, first order return of the fossil, and other discovered archaeological items, to its place of discovery (Kashmir) in accordance with law and international norms, and simultaneously, though belatedly, file an FIR with the concerned police station about the theft for initiating due process against the culprit(s) and partners in the crime. 

“The preservation, determination of the age of the fossil, outcome/response of the international labs/bodies on the samples, etc. as included in the terms of reference for the Committee, could follow.”

With due respects to their persons and professional experience, the scholar says, there is a serious doubt about the ability and expertise of the members of the Committee to determine the age of the fossil. “None of them, I fear, is a vertebrate paleontologist. It is no less than a joke to ask them to determine the age of the fossil which involves highly technical and sophisticated science, when the University of Jammu with one of the oldest PG Departments of Geology in India and one of the Members of the above referred to committee on its staff, has not been able to do it for the last 11 years. What would be the worth of the finding of this committee whose supposed ‘only expert’ among its members [Dr. G. M. Bhat], in a bizarre and unprofessional manner and without conducting any investigation, declared at the excavation site itself the find as “a 50,000 year old mammoth fossil” [The Asian Age, 29 November 2000] and ‘the largest ever found in the world” [The Reuters, 6 September 2000]. He reportedly also made unsubstantiated claim of striking oil, gas and coal from the site if enough money was made available to him, apart from ‘misbehaving with media persons at the excavation site’ [The Asian Age, 29 November 2001]. What good does the Government expect from such an unprofessional ‘expert’?”

He further adds:  “I do not know if you have gone through the elaborate write-ups published by newspapers here on the discovery of the fossil, its theft and the alleged criminal connivance by the Jammu University in its illegal removal from the site of discovery, and equally criminal negligence and lack of will displayed by the Kashmir University to bring back the stolen property. I hope and urge that you find time to go through the write ups (here, here, here)  to appreciate the seriousness of the issue and how badly the Government has addressed it.”

In the meanwhile, the scholar says, he finds it worthwhile to broadly rewind here the sequence of events leading from the discovery of the fossil to its theft to help you recognize the folly of the Government’s action.

“Two teachers of the Department of Geology, Degree College Sopore initially located the outline of the fossil at an earth excavation spot at Galander. One of them, Dr. Abdul Majid Dar, happened to be the former research student of Prof. G. M. Bhat at Jammu University. At the time Dr. Bhat was on lien from Jammu University and had joined as Reader only a few months earlier the new Department of Geology & Geophysics (since re-christened Department of Earth Sciences) at the University of Kashmir. Dr. Dar contacted Dr. Bhat to seek help which in due course of time led to the excavation and extraction of the fossil as well as some stone implements of archaeological significance. The whole excavation process as well as securing the fossil from any damage from elements (through creating a tin housing until it was shifted to a well-designed and designate place in the University campus) was funded by the University of Kashmir. For whatever reasons, the fossil was not shifted from the site of discovery to the University of Kashmir or the State Museum and one day in 2007 the news broke out that it had been stolen from the site and taken to the University of Jammu.”

While the theft of the fossil and other stone implements caused uproar in Kashmir, Dr. G. M. Bhat who is now the member of the just constituted Government Committee, was reported by the media bragging about illegally taking away the fossil from Galandar and installing it in the University of Jammu. 

“He was even quoted challenging a reporter to go to the court, if he must, against him. The shameful manner with which the University of Jammu financed and assisted stealing of the fossil also was highlighted by the media. The matter was agitated in the State Legislature also and reportedly the former Governor had taken a serious note of and called for a report on the matter. The matter rests there. The University of Jammu has not returned the fossil despite assurances by its Vice Chancellor to this effect and the University of Kashmir has failed to get it back irrespective of its commitment on record,” adding, “As you (Ganie) would appreciate from the history of the case, the foremost important thing for the Government to do is to restore the stolen fossil to where it belongs (Kashmir), place the responsibility of the theft and proceed under law against the culprit(s). The preservation and identification of the fossil and other archaeological items would follow. Handing the matter over to the accused amounts to granting infinity to the illegal holding back of the fossil by the University of Jammu, besides mocking at law and justice.”

As regards relevance of the fossil and other finds from Galandar with the Triassic Fossil Park ‘coming up’ at Guryul Ravine, Khonmoh, it is premature, the scholar says. “The proposed Park is only at the conceptual stage, save a chain-link fencing of an identified piece of land.”

Having said that, Bashir hopes that advisor would take a fresh look at the matter and take immediate, urgent and appropriate steps to, first, recover the fossil from the University of Jammu and, later, ensure its identification through a team of experts, and installation at a relevant and secured place in Kashmir. 

“In the end, I am tempted to recall an incident of similar nature and how differently the Government of the time reacted. In 1931, an elephant tusk and bones were excavated from the same area at Pampore by Dr. de Terra, then research associate at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. On his return, he took the mammoth with him and installed it in New Haven. When Maharaja Hari Singh came to know about it, he ordered its immediate return and, believe you me, Dr. de Terra had no option but to bring it back.”


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