British museums are virtually replete with the swindled items of Indian heritage. Besides looting from the sites of the protected historical monument, where artifacts are at least documented, there is industrial-level loot from around 5 lakhs unprotected sites of monuments!
“If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum would be empty!”— reply of David Cameron when asked to return Kohinoor to India.
In a welcome move, Australia has returned 29 stolen antiquities to India. Last year, the US had returned as many as 157 artefacts and antiquities to India. This takes the total number of restituted articles, since 2014, to a paltry 228. Needless to say, until and unless efforts are taken to repatriate the looted artefacts—as against the stolen ones—during the colonial rule, the repatriation will remain a joke. Sadly though for India, the United Kingdom, our erstwhile colonizer, has shown reluctance to such a move despite having indulged in unprecedented great heritage plunder of India.
The Grand Heritage Loot of India during the British Raj
“What is England now? A sink of Indian wealth.”— Horace Walpole, 18th century.
“There are few kings in Europe richer than the Directors of the English East India Company”— French ambassador to London.
“An opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels…”— Robert Clive.
The British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated that India’s share of the world economy was 24% of the world’s GDP in 1700, more than all of Europe put together. By the time the British left, India’s share in world GDP declined to a miserable 4%. The journey from 24% to 4% is not a mere matter of statistics but of untold suffering, and as is this article’s focus, of heritage loot.
The India that the British conquered was still a sone ki chidiya despite the centuries of plunder earlier by the Islamist invaders. The ingenuity and sweat of Indians ensured that India was the industrial hub of the world. Sample these words by J. T. Sunderland, British-born American Minister:
“Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilized world—nearly every kind of creation of man’s brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty—had long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or any other in Asia. Her textile goods were famous over the civilized world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, color and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal—iron, steel, silver and gold. She had great architecture—equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest shipbuilding nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea, which extended to all known civilized countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came.”
Thomas Pitt, the governor of Madras, acquired—either stole from the eye socket of a temple deity or got it smuggled via a poor miner—a diamond which is said to be the most beautiful jewel in the world. A secure Pitts soon gave up his governorship and bought for himself a seat in British Parliament. 15 years later, Pitt would sell this diamond to a Regent of France for £ 1,35,000. This handsome money will go in financing the generation of Pitts in becoming Prime Ministers of Britain—his grandson William Pitt and his great grandson William Pitt, the Younger. The diamond today is on display in Louvre (France) and is considered the purest diamond in the world.
Similarly, the juvenile Sikh ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh was forced to hand over to the British Koh-i-Noor, once the world’s largest diamond, weighing 793 carats.
Similar is the fate of other desi diamonds, e.g. the Blue Hope in US’ possession today; the pink Daria-i-Noor now in Iran; the Dresden Green now in Germany; Orlov in Russia, Nassak diamond in the US, etc. Most of them passed from Hindu dynasties like the Kakatiyas to Muslim rulers and then to the British raj.
Another curious case is of Amravati stupa, which was recklessly and continuously dismembered over time and now features in museums of France, Singapore, the United States and of course United Kingdom (“Amravati Gallery” in British Museum). A complete metal Buddha statue known as Sultanganj Buddha found itself in Birmingham museum and is today known as Birmingham Buddha. Other prominent plundered items are the Golden Throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the royal jade wine cup of Shahjahan, Vag Devi Saraswati idol, etc.
Many times, the perverted pretext for imperialists’ loot was to preserve the heritage—not in situ (on-site) but off-site, thus contradicting the recognized principle of preservation. Innumerable Chola bronze works, miniature paintings, exotic Indian artworks, literature and other artifacts were deracinated and sold at an exorbitant price back in England.
British museums are virtually replete with the swindled items of Indian heritage. When asked to return Kohinoor to India, the former Prime Minister David Cameron replied, “If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I’m afraid to say it [Kohinoor] is going to have to stay put”. It was the frank acceptance that British museums are nothing but a collection of the misappropriated Indian heritage. The articles of heritage, looted by the British, run in at least 5 figures, if not 6.
The Ongoing Loot
We will be naïve if we think that the civilizational loot has stopped with the departure of the British. In fact, India is the hot spot of heritage looting, illegal digging, site plunder and temple theft. According to UNESCO, till 1989 alone, an estimated 50,000 antiques were stolen. Every decade, thousands of cultural properties worth thousands of crores get stolen from India.
Besides looting from the sites of the protected historical monument, where artifacts are at least documented, there is industrial-level loot from around 5 lakhs unprotected sites of monuments! Out of an estimated 7 million extant antiquities, only 1.3 million are documented. Worse, India neither leverages Interpol’s vast database of stolen heritage objects to track heritage crimes, nor it adds to this database the known cases of antiques stealing. Archaeological Survey of India never participates or collects data on Indian antiquities put on sale by Sotheby’s and Christie’s (CAG report, 2013).
Add to that the poor conviction rate in cases of heritage plunder and big fish not getting caught. One of the few big fish caught includes Subhas Kapoor, from whose possession was confiscated 2622 items worth $107.6 million—not by India but by the US authorities. Even if confiscated, the restitution further suffers from the lack of documentation—if you do not have documents, how would you prove ownership? Back in India, such a large-scale confiscation is unthinkable because, except Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu, there is not even a dedicated monument preservation task force in other states!
In-situ and open-air sites are particularly vulnerable. Thanks to our apathy and lack of policing, we are on the verge of losing Bhot Bagan Math in Howrah, the first Tibetan monastery in the plains of India; the entire site of Garh Panchakot, a medieval city under Manbhum; Chandraketugarh, one of the early pre-historic urban coastal sites. Even the cases of theft from museums are aplenty. 157 rare items were stolen from the heavily-guarded National Museum in New Delhi in 1968. 1750 miniature paintings were once stolen from Jaipur Palace Museum. Shame!
Way Forward for India
This is high time when heritage crimes stop, and India makes a case for its looted heritage to be restituted. The context is being proactively set by European countries like the Netherlands and France. Britain’s reluctance can be countered by India—the biggest victim of heritage theft—naming and shaming Britain by juxtaposing its stand vis-à-vis that of the Netherlands, which has returned 1500 of its looted artefacts to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, followed by a return of 27 artefacts to Benin and Senegal.
The Netherland has a plan in place for the return of all looted artifacts from not only its former colonies but also from source countries colonized by other European powers. The move has large political backing as well despite the absence of a requirement of retroactive effect in any of the international conventions on looted heritage. The underlying principle is: what was stolen must be returned, thereby redressing the injustice.
Other countries in Europe, too, have discussed the option of proactively restituting the looted artifacts. France is towards putting in place the conditions to facilitate the restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa.
Seeking international agreement, esp. of Britain should just be one leg of our strategy, the other leg being setting our house in order. Fast-tracking documentation of each and every artifacts must be undertaken in priority. More unprotected sites must come under preservation policing. Sensitizing the locals better be an agenda. One national enforcement wing for cultural preservation is a must. India, as a big stakeholder in stopping heritage loot, should also push for international cooperation in preventing heritage crimes anywhere in the world.
Heritage loss results in the loss of cultural identity and socioeconomic complexity. This cultural carnage may lead to the falling of moral standards and the rise of violence in society. A collapsed culture carries the possibility of reverting to a more primitive state or being absorbed into a stronger society. An example would be Afghanistan and Pakistan, which once were expansive theatres of a superior culture, art and ancient civilization. The gradual loss of heritage and heritage memory, aided by the State, has resulted in the history books of Pakistan starting from the 7th century onwards. Just contrast their present state with a much more advanced ancient civilization (Indus Valley Civilization).
Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s are a cautionary tale of the risk in forgetting our roots and history that accompanies the loss of tangible heritage. The plundering of heritage is plundering of the past. Looting of heritage is depriving mankind of history.
Our heritage can’t be let to belong to the inheritors of an asymmetrical history, to the benefactors of art crimes. History and heritage must belong to geography and people thereof.