Artifacts are the legacy of the cultures that created them. These are the hallmarks of the nurtured citizens of their respective cultures.
Justice demands that stolen or looted property be returned to its rightful owner.
If the plundered possessions were not returned, it would reinforce the impression that the earlier nonsense that the colonies were degenerate was still not lost.
The same people would not be able to see the artifacts of their ancestors because it was not their own thing to go to Europe-America.
Look at the Western excuses
Many items were taken legally. Some valuable and historical objects like Kohinoor were gifted. So the question of sending them back to the old colonies does not arise.
The princely kingdoms that later took these things, now spread over not one but many kingdoms. In such a case, their true origin is not known for sure. And then return them, then to what country?
No country can get rid of its colonial past even if it gets things back. Colonialism is a fact of modern world history.
The countries that are the rightful owners of these goods have no proper means of protecting them. Many such countries continue to be in a period of continuous conflict. In such a case, returning their goods would increase their risk. They are safely stored in museums in the West, so what’s the problem?
The art and culture of different countries are exhibited in the museums of Western countries. Hence, they can be said to reflect the general culture of mankind and the cosmopolitan behavior of the people.
Look at weak international laws
Following the massive destruction of cultural heritage in Europe during World War II, the Hague Convention was held in 1954 to discuss the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflicts. In this conference, the most important objects from the point of view of the cultural heritage of each person were brought under the scope of the definition of cultural property. Such objects range from architecturally significant monuments to works of art. Signatories to the Hague Convention are bound to protect and respect cultural property.
This was followed by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Prohibition and Suppression of Illicit Import-Export and Illicit Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It states that illegally traded or stolen cultural property must be returned to its rightful owner upon presentation of proof of their rightful ownership.
However, as the illegal export of cultural property began to grow exponentially, the UNIDROIT Convention was convened in 1995 to mandate the return of stolen or illegally traded cultural property to their rightful countries. However, the time limit for filing the claim is fixed. Almost all international conventions, not just UNIDROT, refer to time limits in the rules formulated.
These conventions and friendly relations with its former colonies prompted France to issue a report in 2017 recommending the return of objects of cultural significance seized during its occupation of West Africa. However, France is reluctant to return the Egyptian antiquities housed in the Louvre museum.
Similarly, in 2019, the National Museum of World Culture in the Netherlands announced that objects marked as ‘Colonial Stolen Property’ would be returned to their rightful owners. These countries’ initiatives at their own level are good, but they don’t work. Colonized countries of the past need to suffocate the roots of their old thinking. The long and complicated process of returning items of cultural significance starts somewhere.
Our law is very weak
Section 3 of the Antiquities and Art Treasurer’s Act, 1972 prohibits the export of valuables and antiquities. However, the central government has given relaxation in this. But surprisingly, for violating the law, simple imprisonment of six months to three years is provided for the exporter. That is, cultural crimes are considered normal in the country. Meanwhile, in countries like Egypt and China, it is punishable by death. Indian laws are not fully effective and therefore have no special meaning.
So these steps need to be taken immediately
Give a prominent place to arts and culture in the curriculum of schools and colleges. Now children know nothing about the difference between Dravida and Nagra style of architecture.
Bring art and culture out of the confines of museums and auditoriums and into public spaces.
Join Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like the India Pride Project in the campaign to bring back the artefacts.
Cataloging and geotagging the best photographs of artifacts and historical monuments at the local, state, and national levels.
Finally, make stricter laws and harsher punishments for the crime of stealing antiquities.
RS Chauhan is the former Chief Justice of Telangana and Uttarakhand High Courts.