The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 19, 2001

Nizamís jewels in danger
K.R.N. Swamy

ABOUT Rs 2000 crore worth of jewels of the former Nizam of Hyderabad are in danger! Bought by the nation as national heritage in 1994, the treasures were displayed shortly in the National Museum of India at New Delhi on August 14, 2001, and are to be later on permanent display in the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad. Controversy had arisen as to how safe they would be in the National Museum, and the National Archives and Museum Employees Union has wanted, microphotography of all the treasures, in order to prevent duplicate substitution. The Delhi High Court has asked the Central Government to take foolproof security measures. Earlier, the Delhi High Court had appointed a committee to ensure that prior to the exhibition there would be no duplication. Strangely, the Central Government has asked for a two-year period for the completion of the task! It appears that in the early 1990s, these national treasures were displayed in exhibitions in Italy and Singapore and some items were missing? Why exhibit the irreplaceable treasures before verification?

Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan: He bought the Jacob Diamond, priced at Rs 432 crore.
Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan: He bought the Jacob Diamond, priced at Rs 432 crore.

A nagging doubt has begun to creep among the heritage enthusiasts. Are our museums in India, safe enough for displaying these priceless treasures?. Insuring this heirlooms is impossible, for even at the proverbial one per cent, the premium would be more than 20 crore or more than what we spent on the National Museum annually. In 1998, a theft worth millions of rupees took place in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the home of the President of India, arguably the most guarded mansion in a museum-which had been set up by the former President R. Venkataraman in the 1980s to display the various fabulous gifts given to the Presidents of India since 1950 and to house the treasures of carpets/dinner services left by the British in 1947. Some thieves had removed centuries-old antiques from the Rashtrapati Bhavan.


With this incident in background, one has to say that, unless the both the famous museums ensure that the most modern surveillance equipment is installed in the vaults, where the Nizamís Jewels are to be displayed (including the Jacob Diamond priced at 432 crore of rupees) the treasures are in grave danger of being taken away by international thieves, who will find ready buyers for these centuries-old Mughal treasures in the West or the Sheikhdoms of the Middle East. Anybody who would have seen the famous cinema Topkapi, which showed-technically-how a famous diamond can be stolen out of the one of the world famous museums, would know that our museum security systems are no match for the international hoodlums.

In the 1950s, a complete ceiling panel fresco was cut out of the famous Bagh cave murals, as if slicing away a piece of cake, with such sophisticated modern equipment, that none of the nearby frescos were damaged. Only the fresco "ordered" by the foreign masters was removed by the "looters" and taken away. An enquiry showed that even the Archaelogical Survey of India did not have such a modern gadget.

Only in Moscow of the 1970s, where I had gone to have a look at the Diamond Reserve of the Soviets, in the treasure vaults of the Kremlin have I seen a security system that might, with the latest improvements in modern science-computer operated technology, enable India to care of the Nizamís Jewels. The Diamond Reserves of the Soviets, consisting of fabulous Russian national heirlooms and caskets holding hundreds of kilos of diamonds/rubies/emeralds was displayed in a hall which was a steel-lined safety vault in itself. Nothing was allowed inside the vault other than the dress you are wearing and even that was checked with metal detectors.

All the paraphernalia of the tourists, including ladies handbags/cameras had to be deposited in a security checkpost far away from the Diamond Reserves and you were accompanied into the vault by as many security guards as there were visitors. Once your group went into the vault, it was locked from outside as if you were inside a Godrej safe 100 feet by 100 feet. As I accompanied the English-speaking Russian guide explaining the history of the treasures, she paused in front of one huge diamond, embellished with carvings. "This is the famous Shah diamond "she said, " This is an Indian treasure that was taken out of Delhi by the Persian Emperor Nadir Shah in 1739 and presented by a later Persian monarch to the Czar of Russia, as an apology for the murder of a Russian Ambassador in Teheran". As she said these words, I went near the "bomb proof/bullet proof" heavy glass guarding the display case to have a look at the diamond stolen from India. Meanwhile the tourist group had moved away to other exhibits. As I gazed intently at the diamond, suddenly I was aware that I had been surrounded by three of the security guards (although those were the days of cordial Indo-Soviet relations). Only when I moved away from the showcase and joined the tourist group did the guards leave me. In the 1960s, Raj Kapoor, the most popular of our film stars was visiting the Tower of London, where the fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond is kept.

Accompanying him was the diminutive comedy actor Mukri. Raj Kapoor wanted to play a practical joke on Mukri. He went quietly to the security guard in the display room and whispered to him that Mukhri was an Indian terrorist, dedicated to take away the Koh-i-noor for India-its original homeland. In a second, Mukhri found himself surrounded by heavily-armed guards and no amount to apology/explanations from Raj Kapoor that he was joking could rescue the victim. Mukri was taken to the high security prison and only after the High Commissioner for India to United Kingdom, prodded by Raj Kapoor stood guarantee for Mukri he was released.

I was in the Gulestan Palace Museum of Teheran in the 1970s having a look at the Nadiri Peacock Throne and other Iranian treasures displayed there. Suddenly the sirens began to wail and all the doors of the treasure chamber came down with a rapid action, imprisoning the sightseers in the treasure room. Reason?... One of the tourists had gone too near the bombproof/bullet glass protecting the treasure display cases...It had set off an alarm. The sightseers were marshalled out of the vault by the security police and those who pleaded that they had not seen all the treasures, were allowed back after a careful search even of their "g arments", and had to reenter bracketed with two heavily armed guards. Most of the tourists decided to opt out of the second visit.

These were the sort of "Treasure guarding" in foreign countries in vogue 30 years ago. The computer security systems much be more alert and sophisticated now... As such unless the National Museum and the Salar Jung Museum invests in such "state of the art"precautions, we will find that what happened to a greater treasure (Mahatma Gandhiís spectacles) will happen to the Nizamís jewels also. The authorities of the Gandhi Memorial at Delhi, found that some visitor in the early 1950ís had walked away with the original spectacles of the Mahatma, displayed along with the blood stained clothes, worn by him when he was assassinated. The scared "security" staff went to the Juma Masjid area, bought a cheap pair of spectacles and kept it near the clothes! Only decades later the nation knew of the fraud. ó MF