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Indo-Nepal border a hotbed of artefact smuggling, forces on alert

Officials of Sashastra Seema Bal and the Preventive & Intelligence wing of the Customs department said a series of seizures of antique idols, especially along the Into-Nepal border, proved active involvement of smugglers

Sankha Ghosh | Silliguri |

The Indo-Nepal border at Panitanki in the Siliguri subdivision has proven to be the preferred choice for international smugglers dealing in antique idols. However, thanks to the efficacy of the intelligence wings of various central agencies and border guarding forces, a significant number of idols have been seized before being smuggled to other countries in the recent past, while experts have started pitching for awareness on the preservation of ancient idols.

Statuettes worth several crores of rupees were seized by the different agencies when they were being smuggled into Nepal.

Officials of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and the Preventive & Intelligence (P&I) wing of the Customs Department said the series of seizures of the antique idols, especially along the borders, have proved active involvement of smugglers.

“Investigations have revealed that Siliguri is a preferred corridor for antique smuggling. It is located near countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and also Bhutan. Therefore, this corridor has become a preferred route for the smuggling of antiques to Western countries,” sources said.

The open border between India and Nepal is a preferred route for the smugglers. Sometimes, the antiques are bound from Bangladesh to European countries and Middle East countries via Nepal, it is learnt.

It may be mentioned here that the Border Security Force (BSF) covers the 932.39 km-long international boundary with Bangladesh under its North Bengal Frontier.

SSB officials, meanwhile, said that following the introduction of the ‘G Branch’–the intelligence wing–the number of seizures, including that of antique idols, had gone up significantly.

“It is very important to have intelligence networks, especially when the borders are open. We have introduced efficient intelligence machinery and got positive results in terms of seizures. We have also undertaken various programmes for people living in the border areas. We are carrying out many drives to make people aware of the need to share inputs with us so that we can stem many crime. They also help us share information to prevent illegal activities,” a senior SSB officer at the Siliguri frontier said.

The frontier mans the 315-km Indo-Nepal border and 215 km of the Bhutan border.

“Since the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders are open borders, it is difficult to fully curb the menace of smuggling. However, with a strong intelligence network, Frontier Siliguri has been able to minimise smuggling activities in the area. In our effort to prevent smuggling in the border areas, we recently installed a scanner machine at the busy Panitanki transit point. There are reasons to believe that the racket is active in the region to smuggle valuable antiques, artifacts and relics to Nepal and perhaps there are buyers who are foreigners, principally who take them to Western countries,” the officer added. The seizures have blown the lid off the modus operandi of international gangs, the officials feel.

According to sources, around eight-ten idols on an average are seized every year in north Bengal. Idols of gods and goddesses generally made of magnetic stone, black basalt, sand stone, bronze and brass have been recovered in the recent past. The 41st battalion of the SSB had seized three statuettes at the border at Panitanki on 17 December.

Experts feel that lack of awareness on the preservation of antique idols is one of the reasons for the increasing smuggling rate.