Gifting tales from the Indian subcontinent: Toshakhanas have a curious history

While India inherited the British-era law regarding accounting of official gifts received by government leaders, Pakistan and Bangladesh enacted their respective laws only in 1974, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor 

Mahendra Ved Sep 24, 2021
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Toshakhana of Government of India

In diplomacy, there is an unwritten rule that gifts received in an official capacity are not for keeps – they must be accounted for and sent to a depository, which most countries have. This universal norm has a special context in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Toshakhana is a Sanskrit/Persian word for treasury/treasure house.  During British rule, East India Company officials would deposit gifts they received from local princes and other dignitaries in the company in the toshakhana.

They were not allowed to accept diplomatic gifts, often weapons or jewels from Indian or Middle Eastern rulers and their subjects. The procedure required was once an official received any gift, he would deposit it in the company's toshakhana. The objects were later used for exchanging gifts with other rulers when it was deemed appropriate to enter into an exchange.

According to historical records, the norm was enforced after too many Company officials returned home to live like ‘nabobs’ (as Muslim rulers were called).  Centuries on, some of the estates in England still have private collections of objects from eras preceding the establishment of the toshakhana or those that were brought home in violation of rules, in other words, they were not deposited in the treasury.

What happens when a gift spawns graft? Is there a political fallout for violation of protocol?

It all happens silently because what happens within the confines of the government does not get easily known outside – unless someone leaks it, to raise controversy. There are also occasions when the individual greed gets known, or when things turn political.

Pakistan court battles

When public access is refused before the court, citing national security and relations with countries whose top officials gave/exchanged those gifts, a new twist is added.  This has happened in Pakistan.

For the past many months, the incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and its National Accountability Bureau (NAB) are pursuing cases relating to the previous governments of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif as part of its anti-graft drive. Media reports quote unnamed officials supervising the toshakhana who allege that no inventories were maintained and no deposits made when it came to expensive articles like jewelry and cars.

Alleging ‘misuse’ of toshakhana, in a detailed charge sheet, the NAB told the Lahore High Court that auctions of the gifts were either not held or when held, the then government functionaries,  now in the opposition, purchased items by paying ‘fake cheques’.

The final hearing of the case, before the Lahore High Court, ended this week. Chief Justice Muhammad Qasim Khan observed that the individual rulers had no right to receive gifts from their foreign counterparts as “they are in fact gifts from one state to another.” Such gifts needed to be preserved in a museum instead of putting them on sale at cheap prices.

The law applies to all. The Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) approved a petition by one Abrar Khalid under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. Opposing it, the Imran Khan government has said it cannot jeopardize relations with countries whose governments gave the gifts.

Strictly speaking, a gift is a gift whose misuse by way of absence or delay of declaration and subsequent processes like auctioning/sale and the evaluation should be the subject matter, not which country gave the gift to the official in which government. Unless, of course. political aspects are under scrutiny.

On September 21, the cabinet division challenged the PIC order seeking details of the gifts presented to Prime Minister Imran Khan since August 2018. It claimed before the Islamabad High Court that the PIC order was “illegal, without lawful authority”. The government took the stance that “disclosure of any information related to Toshakhana jeopardizes international ties.”

While India inherited the British-era law regarding accounting of official gifts received by government leaders, Pakistan and Bangladesh enacted their respective laws only in 1974. Bangladesh revised its rules in 2012.  

Bangladesh, India gift tales

Some of the gifts Bangladesh’s founding father and first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman received in the early 1970s are exhibited in his memorial museum. His daughter and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has alleged that many gifts received during her earlier tenure in 1996-2001 were ‘destroyed’ by her rival, (then Prime Minister) Begum Khaleda Zia’s government because they bore her name or carried the ‘boat’ symbol of her party Awami League. The gift inflow prompted her to inaugurate a five-storey building in 2018

In any country, gifts, including perishables, cannot be stored indefinitely. They are evaluated by official committees, to be auctioned off. Indian rules allow the recipient to keep a gift valued below Rs 5,000 (USD 70). Those valued above are evaluated to allow for purchase by the recipient on payment of the difference. The rest are auctioned off.

By order, the government has just amended an over 50-year-old rule to allow Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service officers to retain gifts received from foreign dignitaries while being members of the Indian delegation. But they must declare them if they are worth more than Rs 25,000 (USD 340).

India has a longer toshkhana history, also of the rules being circumvented. Individual greed, as anywhere, has played its role. Many years ago, a minister who received an expensive gold-plated watch from a Gulf Sheikh, told the legislature when caught that being "busy" he had “forgotten to declare” the gift.

While toshakhana rule applies to the President, the Prime Minister, ministers and presiding officers of legislatures in many countries, in India, the net is cast wider to include even middle-level bureaucrats. The Ministry of External Affairs that maintains the toshakhana is thus required to issue a quarterly list. Gifts received at home are also accounted for. Countries/governments from where the gift is received are not mentioned.

As per a June 1978 gazette notification, every gift received by a person during an official visit should be deposited in the Toshakhana within 30 days of his return.

Gifts for Modi, Army chief

A scan of the last few quarterly lists shows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, although he did not go abroad for almost two years till recently, is the highest recipient of gifts. Their value ranges from Rs 1,000 to Rs 100,000.

As per the toshakhana records, Modi had deposited 16 items and is the highest contributor to the treasure trove which include the bat of cricketing legend Sir Garfield Sobers; a silver boat encased in glass worth Rs 100,000 (over USD 1,300); three commemorative silver coins, one watch (evaluation of price is under process), and a statue of Vajrapani worth Rs 100,000 (over USD 1,30). Besides, carpets, books, framed paintings, photo frames, one set of ties and cufflinks and several other gift items which Modi received, have been contributed to the Toshakhana.

He is followed by Indian Army Chief, General M M Naravane, possibly because the exchange of gifts and mementos is part of the armed forces’ culture. Then comes Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. presiding officers of Parliament and state legislatures also receive and give gifts.

Officials at all levels also have to declare the gifts received by them in their official capacity. Vikram Doraiswami, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, has declared a lapel pin (Mujib 100 marking gold with diamond border),  a memento in connection with the centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Its evaluation is under process.

The choice of gifts has changed over the years. In the early years after independence, the government was known to dispatch elephants as gifts to friendly nations. Mangoes were, and remain today, a favorite. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent them to then US President George W Bush. Pakistan and Bangladesh have also been engaging in this fruit diplomacy.

The preference now is for something durable that carries a message. Modi began as prime minister by giving the Bhagavad Gita to global leaders.

Since Modi took office in 2014, at least 230 Indian officials have received around 2,800 gifts. If sold in the market, they could fetch India over a million dollars. These gifts are sold through specialized shops and apps in cyberspace.

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)