Modi pays tribute to Kalpana Chawla, receives stolen Indian artefacts in US

  • HT correspondent, Hindustan Times, Arlington/Columbia
  • Updated: Jun 07, 2016 21:21 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US attorney general Lorett Lynch during the ceremony for return of idols in Washington DC on Monday. (PTI Photo)

Jean-Paul Harrison, husband of Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-American astronaut who died in 2003, wore a colourful jacket to his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday.

Modi recognised it immediately. “He noticed it was a Gujarati jacket,” Harrison said after his brief meeting with Modi at Arlington national cemetery.

The Prime Minister began his three-day tour on Monday, his fourth to the US since taking office, by laying a wreath at the memorial to the unknown soldier at the cemetery to a 19-gun salute.

He met Harrison and other relatives of Chawla, who died in the crash of the Columbia space shuttle, just a short distance away at a separate memorial to the astronauts.

Chawla, who was born in Karnal, Haryana and was the first Indian-American woman in space, perished in the crash of the shuttle in February 2003.

Harrison gave Modi two books about Chawla, one of which, he said, was signed by her NASA colleagues. The other was her biography written by Harrison.

Sunita Williams, another Indian-American astronaut who holds the record for the maximum number of space walks by a woman - seven - too was at the memorial to meet Modi.

She brought along Deepak Pandya, her father whom the Prime Minister greeted in Gujarati and spent some time talking with. “He spoke to him more than me,” she complained with a smile.

Pandya, who met Modi in 2007 when he was chief minister of Gujarat, was mobbed by Indian journalists covering the event for comments, as Williams looked on fondly.

US returns stolen Indian artefacts

The US handed over to Modi 12 historical artefacts stolen from India and recovered by authorities in America — one of them dating back more than 2,000 years. The artefacts were handed over by US attorney general Loretta Lynch. 

“My gratitude to the US govt for the sensitivity shown to India's heritage,” Modi said, according to a tweet from the external affairs ministry spokesman. “This will evoke great respect among the people of India,” another tweet said.

Spokesman Vikas Swarup said the US has identified around 200 such stolen artefacts recovered in America that are in the process of being returned to India.

Lynch said: “The pieces you see here today represent just a fraction of the collection seized by ICE as part of Operation Hidden Idol, whose primary suspect is Subhash Kapoor.”

She added: “This operation uncovered one of the largest antiquities smuggling operations on US soil, resulting in the recovery of more than 3,000 artifacts – including religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta art that are over 2,000 years old.”

Collectively, the recovered objects are valued at more than $150 million.

Kapoor, a New York-based art dealer who has been called the “ultimate temple raider”, was arrested in 2011 and extradited to India in 2012. He is being tried in Chennai.

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