Dumped in Toshakhana, foreign gifts to go on display

August 6th, 2008 - 11:38 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Devirupa Mitra
New Delhi, Aug 6 (IANS) Carpets from Afghanistan and Pakistan, electronic items from Bhutan, jewellery and watches from the Gulf…The public could soon catch a glimpse of these exquisite foreign gifts given to Indian leaders! The government plans to display some of the items that have for long gathered dust at the Toshakhana, the official storehouse made up of three rooms at Akbar Bhavan housing a sizeable section of the external affairs ministry.

“We had approached the National Museum for putting some of the more historically significant items on display,” an official of the ministry told IANS on condition of anonymity.

“We are also looking at alternate ideas, like displaying them in Jawahar Bhavan (the new ministry building under construction).”

However, National Museum officials said while initial talks have been held with the external affairs ministry, they were not too keen on the idea.

“Right now, we can store the items, but do not have space for display,” said a senior museum official.

The Toshakhana, a veritable treasure trove, has a collection of 1,000 gifts spanning over two decades and kept behind code-protected strong doors. These were given by foreign dignitaries to Indian leaders and officials - from the prime minister to junior bureaucrats.

Under government conduct rules, any gifts received from foreign officials or leaders have to be deposited at the Toshakhana, which then asks the customs department to determine its monetary value.

If the value is lower than the limit prescribed by government rules, the receiver gets to keep it. Otherwise, it stays in the Toshakhana.

“If there are any gifts they would like to keep but their values exceeds the limit laid down, then they can deposit the balance with the SBI (State Bank of India),” said an official.

The prime minister and his cabinet colleagues can keep gifts that are valued at less than Rs.5,000, while officials, including secretaries, have a limit of Rs.3,000.

When the rules on foreign gifts were first stipulated in the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules in 1955, the limit was Rs.200.

The last clearance of gifts had taken place two decades ago through an auction.

A single MEA employee maintains the Toshakhana register that lists the gifts, the names of the giver and the receiver, the value of the gift, and the date on which it was transferred to the depository.

The most expensive item in the Toshakhana is a gift to the Indian prime minister from his Thai counterpart in November 2007 - a framed replica of the royal emblem and a gold miniature, studded with diamonds. Its price tag, according to the customs department, is Rs.1 million.

There are interesting gift-giving traditions in different countries. While Pakistani and Afghani carpets crowd the storeroom, electronics has been a staple present from Bhutan.

In 2007, the Bhutanese king had gifted the Indian prime minister a 40-inch Sony Bravia LCD television. Its cost was calculated at Rs.125,000.

That’s not all: senior ministry officials have been showered with everything from a Blackberry mobile phone to a laptop and even a Bose music system.

Arab leaders have been consistent givers of expensive gifts. During Saudi King Abdullah’s visit in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was gifted the sculpture of a horse with a timepiece embedded in it. It was valued at Rs.200,000.

Further, the prime minister’s wife, Gursharan Kaur, and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi were both presented with jewellery sets assessed at Rs.500,000 each.

Similarly, the Qatar ruler’s wife had, in 2006, presented a jewellery set worth Rs.190,000 to Sonia Gandhi.

Even India’s envoys have received lavish presents.

The Indian ambassador to the UAE received a diamond-studded wristwatch worth Rs.200,000 as a farewell gift. Similarly, a former Indian ambassador to Libya received a Rado watch that he deposited with the Toshakhana.

The Toshakhana also has some arms that were gifted to Indian leaders, for instance, a dagger worth Rs.160,000 from the Moroccan king to the external affairs minister in 2001.

According to records, there was also a gift of a revolver from the Russian defence minister to his Indian counterpart in 2001.

“We understand that at first, he (the defence minister) wanted to keep it, but then he changed his mind and sent it to the Toshakhana. Later, it was passed on to the Delhi Police,” said an official.

Incidentally, the Rashtrapati Bhavan has a separate repository for the gifts the president receives from foreign dignitaries.

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