The list of Indian artifacts that were stolen in colonial times and are now in the UK is long. After all, the British Empire was the greatest colonial power of its time, and India was its largest colony, the “jewel” in the crown.
Artifacts that the British have seized, looted or taken away as “gifts” include the 105.6-carat “Koh-i-noor” diamond, which adorned Queen Victoria’s brooch and, subsequently, the Queen’s crown. mother.; the Buddha shrine at the Amaravati monument in south-eastern India; and a wooden tiger which was seized from Tipu Sultan, a ruler of southern India, after being defeated by the British in the 18th century.
Today they are on display at the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), among others, which also has an impressive collection of bronze statues from Benin. These were acquired by the British during a punitive expedition at the end of the 18th century to the Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria.
Many of these statues landed in Germany, which recently announced that it would return them to Nigeria.
The Koh-i-noor, seen here on the Queen Mother’s crown (a young Queen Elizabeth is also on the right)
Volunteers around the world try to recover stolen works of art
Many Indians are still sensitive to the artifacts that were stolen during the British conquest of India and have yet to be returned. “You took our lives. You took our natural resources. You took our inheritance. You cannot give back our lives and our natural resources. At least give back our heritage,” said Anuraag Saxena, who founded the India Pride Project (IPP). in 2014 to bring back historical artifacts that were taken to India during colonial times and after the country’s independence in 1947.
“You haven’t really decolonized a nation unless you give it back what is its own,” he added.
Since its inception, IPP has launched many projects, some of which have sparked controversy. For example, in 2018, members of the group visited UK museums and took photos of Indian statues with bubbles containing statements such as “How did I get here?” and “I am a deity, not a centerpiece.”
In a written statement to DW, Saxena said IPP was a network of global volunteers who built “the case for India’s stolen heritage to be brought home.” According to the activist, who believes that “history belongs to its geography”, nations, museums, citizens and officials need to understand why this is the right thing to do.
“We have taken an academic issue and made it into a social movement,” he says, adding that debating the issue purely from an academic perspective would be “glorifying the diagnosis, but ignoring the treatment”.
So far, the IPP has managed to track down statues stolen from countries like Australia and the United States, but most of them were artefacts stolen from Indian temples after 1947. For example, one statue that was stolen and later appeared in Germany was returned to India in 2019, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited New Delhi.
Return of works of art
Anuraag Saxena, founder of the India Pride Project
The “Koh-i-noor”, whose name means “mountain of light” in Persian, has been claimed by at least four countries, including Iran and Pakistan. While India has always claimed the diamond as its own, the story of the coveted gemstone took a new turn in 2016:
That year, India’s solicitor general, the country’s leading lawyer, told a Supreme Court hearing in New Delhi that the diamond “had not been stolen or taken … It had was given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh [the king of Punjab] to the British in compensation for aid in the Sikh wars [in the 19th century]. “
The statement emerged shortly after Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, traveled to New Delhi and met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If Prince William ever ascended the throne and the Duchess became Queen Consort, she would have to wear the crown with the diamond. By the way, the diamond is traditionally considered “unlucky” for men.
The Indian government’s statement sparked a public outcry, and four years later the government again called on the UK to return the treasures. Subsequently, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied: “The British Museum Act 1963 prevents our national museums from removing objects… the government has no intention of changing the law.
By law, museums cannot dispose of objects from their collections, except in a few special cases and unless it is necessary to remove them “temporarily for any purpose connected with the administration of the museum and the maintenance of the museum. of its collections ”.
Despite the legislation, some British institutions have gone ahead and returned historic items to former colonies. These include the University of Edinburgh, which returned nine skulls of the Vedda people to Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, which returned 43 objects to groups natives of Australia the same year.
However, others, like the V&A and the British Museum, say they cannot return historical artifacts, either because of the Museums Act or because keeping the objects in the UK would be in the interest of the world community.
Ethiopian artifacts seized in colonial times on display at the V&A Museum
In a 2019 trial for The GuardianV&A Director Tristram Hunt explains why museums should not automatically give in to demands for the return of exhibits purchased in former colonies. For Hunt, a discussion of the restitution of colonial exhibits is particularly important to the V&A Museum, which he says has developed “in line with the growth of the British Empire.”
“In the British colonies and spheres of influence, the practice of collecting was closely linked to the mainstream psychology of colonialism,” he wrote. Either way, Hunt’s argument is this must separate works of art from their context for decolonization to be successful.
He therefore advocates the creation of “universal museums”, not only in Europe, but also in Africa and Asia, which would separate “the universal encyclopedic museum from its colonial conditions and reinvent it as a new means of cultural understanding”.
Problems in India
The path to restitution is tricky not only in the former colonial power, but also in India, where there is no established process to take back artifacts and some experts claim that Indian authorities are not dealing properly with them. these objects.
Theft of assets also remains an endemic problem, with UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, saying poverty in the country fuels the theft of antiquities and poor protection of historic monuments also adds to the problem.
In Blood Buddhas, documentary on stolen historical treasures, filmmaker Nikhil Singh Rajputt discusses the manipulation of objects returned to New Delhi. Most of the approximately 28 artifacts returned between 2014 and 2018 by the United States, Australia, Canada and Germany were turned over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a government agency responsible for cultural monuments.
They are stored in an ASI warehouse at Purana Qila in Delhi (“Old Fort”) without adequate protection against theft or atmospheric stressors.
But in the eyes of some people, these are hardly the reasons for restitution. As Indian deputy Shashi Tharoor put it in Blood Buddhas: “The fact that these things are only protected to a certain level in India does not allow someone else to steal them and say, ‘We can take care of this better.’ In any case, they don’t. Didn’t steal them because they could take better care of them; they stole them first and found the justification later. “
Saxena of the India Pride Project also agrees that the Indian government’s standards for conservation of heritage assets are falling short. But there is hope: “A piecemeal legislation exists, but not a holistic framework. We will get there, ”he said.