The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) department has returned smuggled antique sculptures worth $1.5 million to India.
Indian media reports see the repatriation ceremony at the New York Consulate of India on Tuesday as a sign of thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations that were strained since the arrest and expulsion of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.
The investigation and repatriation of the artefacts signalled "the importance of growing institutional partnership, which is of great significance to both countries", Indian consul-general Dnyaneshwar Mulay said at the formal handover of the antiques.
HIS executive director James Dinkins was reported as saying, "The excellent cooperation between India and the US led to the recovery and return of these priceless antiques."
"Heartfelt gratitude to US authorities for having invested so much time, energy and resources in obtaining, securing and now helping us repatriate these to the place where they belong," Mulay was quoted by The Hindu newspaper as saying.
The artefacts included two sandstone sculptures weighing 159 kg and 272 kg of Hindu deities Vishnu and Lakshmi and the third of a black stone sculpture of Buddhist icon Bodhisattava. The sculptures date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
Reports say the idols were stolen from temples across the states of Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal and could have been smuggled into the US through a network across Southeast Asia.
Diplomatic circles view the return of the antiques as a welcome step to repair ties between the two countries. Khobragade's arrest during which she was reportedly strip-searched over allegations that she paid her Indian domestic help less than what was stipulated by US minimum wage laws, resulted in an unprecedented spat between New Delhi and Washington.
US deputy secretary of state William Burns hosted a lunch for India’s ambassador to US S Jaishankar where the two "affirmed the importance of US India strategic partnership" on Tuesday.
They announced that the two countries will "jointly continue to work on areas such as energy, climate change, defence, economic and trade engagement and counter terrorism", The Times of India reported.
The reports also said Jaishankar has raised the issue of tax exemption given to US nationals working in American embassy schools.
Burns was reported as saying that the US government takes these concerns seriously and will address them "through diplomatic channels".