04 August 2014 Society Calcutta: controversy

Museum Of Little Secrets

Sunil Upadhyay, a crusading conservationist of Indian Museum, disappears. Most suspect foul play.
Museum Of Little Secrets
Sandipan Chatterjee
Museum Of Little Secrets

Clues To The Mystery

  • Sunil Upadhyay’s colleagues in the Indian Museum claim he was a whistleblower and crusa­der against corruption in top positions there. He may have been ‘removed’ or ‘silenced’, they say. He was said to have been pressurised to withdraw his application for the post of deputy director.
  • Upadhyay was suffering from depression, which may have been related to ‘office politics’. His colleagues say he had been made a scapegoat in a recent scandal—the Lion Capital case—in which a sculpture of high value was destroyed because of manhandling.
  • He was ill and was on medication, and had complained of chest pain and breathlessness. He was scheduled to undergo a battery of tests on the day after he disappeared. He also had a chronic, crippling, ailment on his foot.
  • He had reportedly chided workmen renovating the museum’s roof. A top museum officer says, “Hundreds of crores of money changes hands when contracts are assigned to different firms for renovation/restoration. Contracts are often bought by mafia groups who do not like being told what to do or questioned, which is something Sunil does.”
  • Of a spiritual bent of mind, he may have taken off and renounced the world
  • He may have been kidnapped for ransom, though no call has yet been received


Around seven in the evening on July 3, a 35-year-old scientist stepped out of his rented apartment in South Calcutta’s posh Swiss Park area in nothing but his bedroom slippers, a casual half-sleeved shirt and trousers. He left his cell phone at home—on silent mode, under his pillow. A half-read book, One Minute Mindfulness: How to Live in the Moment by Simon Park, sat mindfully on the window sill next to his bed. Evidently, he was not planning to go far. But after three weeks, Dr Sunil Upadhyay, chief heritage conservationist at Calcutta’s Indian Museum, has disappeared without a trace.

Calcutta Police handles hundreds of ‘missing person’ cases every year—but this one is not like any of them, says Pallav Kanti Ghosh, joint commissio­ner. “Sunil Upad­hyay’s case is different. In most of the other cases, motives are not difficult to establish. They include all kinds of things...you have elopeme­nts and you have kidnappings for ransom. Sometimes, they’re even related to murders, when bodies are discove­red. The present case involves a very important scientist associated with a prestigious institution, but there are a number of possible scenarios which could have led to his disappearance.”

At the top of the list of ‘motives’ is one that suggests a link to the Indian Mus­eum’s vast trove of ancient art. The theory is that Upadhyay was a ‘whistleblower’ who was ‘removed’ because he was in the process of exposing widespread—and high-level—corruption in the museum. “He is an exceptionally honest man with a sense of integrity, intolerant of slackness or immoral conduct, not to mention irregularities in financial dealings,” says a colleague of Upadhyay. “Unfort­unately, corruption is rampant in the museum, which houses works of art and antiques valued at crores of rupees and conducts dealings worth crores also.”

The Indian Museum, which has a vast trove of antiquities, was recently in a spot over a ‘fake Tagore painting’ exhibition.

Upadhyay is considered a crusader against corruption at a time when the Indian Museum is reeling from the shock of several high-profile scams, including the ‘fake Tagore painting’ scandal, which broke in March 2011. That month, the museum had exhibited, at the Government College of Arts and Crafts adjacent to its premises, ‘Tagore paintings’ valued at crores as part of the Nobel laureate’s 150th birth centenary—they were later revealed to be fakes. The allegation—a PIL was filed in the Calcutta High Court by sculptor Tapas Sarkar—was that the paintings were imitated via a complex process of duplication, which could not have been done without the consent and knowledge of senior persons who organised the exhibition in order to ‘endorse’ them as ‘authentic and original’ so that they could subsequently be sold for crores of rupees. Upadhyay, says a colleague, “had a watchful eye and was constantly complaining, cribbing and carping about the corruption happening right under our noses and really wanted to do something about it”. Other colleagues told Outlook on condition of anonymity that “Upadhyay had announced his decision to apply for the post of deputy director and was under severe pressure from the top to withdraw the application. When he refused, he may have been removed and silenced”.

The investigation is taking into account every aspect of the mystery. “We cannot leave any stone unturned,” says Murli­dhar Sharma, deputy commissioner (south), who is dealing with the case. “Our investigation has thrown up the issue of his conflicts at the workplace and we are beginning to interrogate people.” Sha­rma points out that arrests cannot be made without evidence, but every suspicious lead or person is being probed. Though initially only a ‘missing person’ diary was registered at the Charu Market police station, the family has now been advised to file an FIR saying he was ‘kidnapped’.  In fact, it is the ‘silencing of a whistleblower’ theory that has featured prominently in the outrage over Upadh­yay’s disappearance, which is spreading bey­­ond his immediate context. A candle- light protest was organised at his alma mater, Delhi University, and a Facebook page dedicated to Upadhyay’s unexplai­ned disappearance has appeared.

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

Then there are the other issues for the police to consider. “He was ill and on medication,” Sunil’s elder brother Anil Upadhyay, who’s the railway station master at Sul­tanpur in Uttar Pradesh, lets on. The youn­gest of four brothers, Sunil is eight years younger than Anil, and was always seen as “the pride of the family”. Anil was at Sultanpur the night of July 3 when he got news of the disappearance over the phone from his cousin Saroj Upadhyay. (Saroj and his wife lived in the same Calcutta apartment with Sunil.) “He was always a brilliant student. Though we were from a backward village, he has gone far by sheer grit and the dint of hard work and dedication,” the brother adds.

Anil says he didn’t know about “office politics and corruption” till he rus­hed to Calcutta with his other brothers. He had thought that Sunil might have suffered a heart attack and taken to hospital by strangers. In fact, in the last three weeks since the disappearance, the brothers have searched every hospital in the city in the vain hope that they would find him there. The theory that Upadhyay is lying somewhere gravely ill gains ground from the fact that he had been on medication and was directed by his doctor to take bed rest after he fell ill on July 1. Anil remembers his phone conversation with his brother that day. “He called me after returning from office and told me he was feeling very unwell and had chest pain. I could hear him wheezing on the phone. He was clearly having trouble breathing. I told him to go to a doctor right away. Saroj took him to the Rabindranath Tagore Hospital and the cardiologist prescribed medicines as well as a series of medical tests.” These were to be conducted on July 4. Upadhyay disappeared the day before.

There are two likelihoods that offer an alternative theory: Sunil was an ailing man, and also a deeply spiritual one.

Another plausible explanation is that Upadhyay walked out on his own, either because he was depressed, mentally disturbed or because he was embarking on a “spiritual journey of renunciation”. Saroj, a garments trader in New Market, points out that “Sunil was very influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and used to read all his books. He also believed in the power of good and worshipped Goddess Kali.” A large wall calendar with a glossy Kali adorns Upadhyay’s simple room, with only a single bed and an ergonomic chair with wheels for furniture. The book on the window sill, exhorting one to “live in the moment”, has the photograph of a meditating man on its cover.

Upadhyay’s family wears a confused look. “If he left on his own, why didn’t he tell us?” Saroj’s wife asks. “He never used to step out without saying. That day, he just left without saying anything.” Saroj’s wife, who had recently arrived from their UP village to live with her husband, used to be rather “daunted by his personality and was afraid to approach him”.

Saroj has lived in Calcutta for the last 20 years and had recently moved in with Sunil in his two-bedroom rented apartment (“We are brothers; why sho­uld we live in separate places?” Sunil had told Saroj when he moved to Cal­cutta from New Delhi and rented the apartment). Since they stayed together, Sunil had confided in his cousin: Saroj knew about the office politics that was plaguing Sunil and the resultant depre­ssion. He admits to having consulted ‘pandits’ and soothsayers after his disappearance. “Strangely, all of them said that he was being held captive, was alive and well, but those around him were not good people,” says Saroj.

Saroj and his wife admit to feeling “extremely scared”. “Unlike the rest of his family, we live in Calcutta and could become targets of these unknown people who may have kidnapped him,” says Saroj. “My wife lives in dread that something would happen to me too.”

At the other end of this narrative is the Indian Museum, set up by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1814, and celebrating its bicentennial year. It’s one of the lar­gest rep­ositories of ant­ique Indian art objects, collected over the many decades under British rule and thereafter—boasting everything from 2nd century BC Gandhara busts to Chalukya-era Vengi sculpture from a millennium later to countless natural history specimens. The space crunch in the museum is such that a lot of its holdings are just stocked in the basement. Against this, consider the exi­stence of an old and flourishing global market for Indian antiquities, with its points of acquisition being often shrou­ded in mystery and stealth. Plus, there is the talk of corruption over funds relea­sed by the Centre for museum upkeep.

Whether all this has any bearing on Sunil Upadhyay’s vanishing will only be known when something tangible pops up. All police stations across Ben­gal and beyond have been alerted and Sunil’s photo circulated. For now, we have only a bemused and scared family, trying to come to terms with the  empty feeling in a house they shared with a young, idealist man. That, and a half-read book.

By Dola Mitra in Calcutta

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