Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought back home 157 artefacts and antiques handed over by the United States during his three-day visit. The Prime Minister expressed his appreciation for the repatriation of these invaluable antiques, including items like an exquisite 12th C bronze Natraj. Behind the scene, Anuraag Saxena has been making a case for India’s heritage to be brought home. ‘India Pride Project’ which he cofounded in 2014, has been engaged in advocacy, policy, and legislative interventions to augment the Government’s effort in reclaiming India’s heritage. In an exclusive conversation with Organiser representative Deepti Verma, Anuraag Saxena talks about the idea behind India Pride Project, the challenges it has met with, and the euphoria and pride with the successes it has found along the way. Excerpts:
What was the idea behind starting this project that has now become a movement? You have said somewhere that the idea started as you and your friends, like most boys, loved sleuthing like James Bond. Was it that simplistic? Or was there a greater motivation at play?
You know, I regret not having a cool story behind it. I think it’s a fairly bohemian and romantic idea to say; I woke up one day and got hit by an epiphany—to do something for the nation. It wasn’t that. Initially, I was just frustrated about the state of our temples and forts and that there was a lot of research, lots of talks, but no action. So-called activists were not even aware that we needed to engage with the system to bring a solution.
But I am honoured today that this has become a movement with really able volunteers and strong supporters. Now that the idea is seeded and acceptance is there, the cause is not dependent on anyone to succeed.
Do you think it’s easier now because of social media? Many volunteers spot these artefacts and post about them on social media, helping each other navigate.
Absolutely. Let me tell you about a sting operation that we conducted in New York 3 years ago. And this was done by the United States(US) volunteers who I hadn’t even met. This was at the Asia Art Week. It’s a one-week event displaying art from Asia. About 70-80 per cent of Asian art is sold within this week. A year before this, this event was raided by Homeland Security, so they had gone underground. We suspected that questionable heritage art was being sold. So we tracked it for days, gained entry, took pictures secretly, and put the images in the public domain. Dealers should know they can be breached, and there is no haven for them. Creating a disincentive is important, especially with people that are shameless about peddling our stolen heritage.
'If the United Kingdom (UK) starts returning all of its artefacts and antiques to their places of origin, their museums will become empty banquet halls, fit to host weddings. We have to first get over the hurdle of entitlement; we can’t discuss solutions until that is crossed'
Though restitution can be a more complicated issue, only Governments can recover. No matter who claims what, only Governments can have this conversation between themselves. Our role is only to make the moral case: that history belongs to its community. The big victory here, and I say this without any political bias, is that the current Government is interested in doing the right thing. Between 1947 and 2014, a total of 13 antiquities were brought back—roughly one every five years. In the last seven years, we have 200 offered back, 50 have come back, and the rest will follow. This shows India’s growing position from a geopolitical perspective.
You have also carefully chosen the word pride. For the matter, India Pride Project’s name is fairly neutral and can be applied to any sphere and not restrict itself only to art. Was that deliberate? Do you think we need to reclaim our Indianness, no matter what field or space? Are you driving that conversation as well?
The words: India, Pride, Project, are all very intentional. Step one is to be able to claim the symbology of what makes us Indian. We have to reverse cultural appropriation, starting with material objects but then reversing it in the intangible space as well.
We have started reclaiming Yoga and Ayurveda from vested interests that wanted to patent it. Indian knowledge was always open source, as it should be. At the same time, we should ensure that credit goes to the source of this deep scientific knowledge. We need to stop being shy about our greatness.
So it’s not just theft. You are talking about colonisation and what it does to the Indigenous people.
At this time, we are driving the moral conversation around “White Privilege”. The sense of entitlement in the West, and trauma and PTSD within India and Indians. The sense of feeling inferior. That needs to be reversed. Indian PMs used to wait in queue to shake hands with their Western counterparts. Today, Angela Merkel goes on stage with PM Modi, returning a “murti” illegally brought into Germany. You see how that shifts our position, how there is a reversal of the feeling of inferiority that was so deeply internalised.
Did this shift in conversation happen with the India Pride Project? Or do you think you synced with something that was happening before?
So before we started the India Pride Project, this was a fairly academic issue. It remained in that space. Professors, PhD, historians discussed it, but nobody took it on. In fact, Organiser and Panchjanya were the first ones to back this project. Three-four years after we started the project, the film Monuments Men came out, about allied forces combining to get back Jewish art looted under the Nazi regime. This whole idea of the oppressor taking away your pride by stealing your symbols really hit home. This conversation also became mainstream then. After that, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray did a press conference, where they said that the UK needed to give the Parthenon marbles back to Greece. So internationally, it became a relevant conversation. But as far as India is concerned, we are glad that this conversation is taking place with an unprecedented level of seriousness.
That brings us to the UK. Has it been the most non-cooperative nation in this movement so far? Germany and Australia have promised to return many Indian antiquities, and the UK has refused even to acknowledge a lot of it.There is a very simple reason for that. If the UK starts returning all of our antiques, their museums will become empty banquet halls, fit to host weddings or play football. But jokes apart, we have first to get them over their entitlement; we can’t discuss solutions until that is crossed.
How is India playing its part today better vis-à-vis its art and culture? Do you think the current Government is spreading enough awareness, creating enough space and museums? Is preservation as important as repatriation?
Absolutely. We have not been kind to our heritage ourselves. We have not been great at conserving our heritage—in fact, the opposite of it. So many places we see “A loves B” carved with a compass etc. That mindset needs to change. At the same time, it’s amazing to see that after 75 years of Independence, at least these returned objects are finding their rightful place and the respect they deserve. Those in Delhi must visit this museum in Purana Qila. The last time I was in Delhi, I took young students to see these recovered objects. It was fascinating, with just a Rs 20 ticket, we could witness the whole story of the origin of these objects, their journey—where they got stolen from, where they were smuggled to—and their return to where they belong. That really helps reverse the feeling of inferiority and instils pride.
Did you meet any challenges and resistance within India?
I think purely from an anthropological point of view, India was not at a stage where we could worry about things like art and heritage. Nobody saw these things as symbols of our identity, nation, or civilisation. We want people to start using that lens. We are asking the question — if you can’t reclaim your civilisational symbols, how will you reclaim your civilisational values?
What is your favourite milestone or achievement in this entire process?
For me, the most significant milestone has been how ten years ago, no politician wanted to touch this issue. Today they do. Ten years ago, no media wanted to tackle this issue; today, national media and international media like the Washington Post & BBC are also acknowledging it. It’s good to know our cause has found acceptance everywhere in a polarised world. To me, that is a big achievement. I believe results happen only when people are able to get over their need for validation and attention and focus only on results.
Are you planning to extend yourself beyond this project and champion any or all of these causes?
We need to change the anti-India narrative that is often peddled through opinion pieces. I mentor DataReveals, along with like-minded friends like Mohandas Pai, where we counter opinion-based narratives with actual numbers and facts. We just take these opinions and test them empirically. It is fascinating how these narratives get busted by simply using data.
'Organiser and Panchjanya were the first ones to back this project. Three-four years after we started the project, the film Monuments Men came out, about allied forces combining to get back Jewish art looted under the Nazi regime. This whole idea of the oppressor taking away your pride by stealing your symbols really hit home. This conversation also became mainstream then. After that, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray did a press conference, where they said that the UK needed to give the Parthenon marbles back to Greece'
Beyond this, we need to create a startup ecosystem of activists. A group of us that pick up a problem, chase it relentlessly, solve it in 3-5 years, and move on to the next. If a hundred of us start doing it, we’d have made a thousand tangible, visible, measurable changes in our lifetime. That’s the idea we need to incubate.
Any figures you wish to share? We believe it’s hard to put a value on the things that are coming back to India through this project?
You know I said it on a TV show once, and it got edited out. I said, what value will you put on a sixteen-year-old Yazidi sex slave? The fact that someone wants to put a price on a woman itself makes them criminal. Just like that, these murtis are our gods, our deities, our pride. They were not meant to be showpieces or traded. The very act of putting a price on them is criminal.
The theft in India has been by three kinds of parties –the invaders, who mostly vandalised barbarically, the colonisers—who were more cerebral and stole out of greed, and post-independence, the smugglers, who did it commercially. No matter what the motivations behind dismantling our heritage might have been, today, it must be preserved and rehabilitated.