Kohinoor and other quarrels over stolen artefacts

Source: The post is based on an article Kohinoor and other quarrels over stolen artefacts” published in The Times of India on 4th October 2022.

Syllabus: GS 1 – Art and Architecture

Relevance: concerns associated with repatriation artefacts in India

News:  There has been a demand to return the Kohinoor diamond to India after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Recently Australia has also returned 29 artefacts belonging to India during the visit of PM Modi.

However, returning cultural artefacts to their country of origin will be a struggle unless both national and international laws are strengthened.

What are the arguments for repatriation?

First, artworks or artefacts belong to the cultures which produced them and are part of citizens’ identities.
Second, restorative justice prescribes that stolen or looted property should be returned to the rightful owner.
Third, colonial ideologies seem to continue if artefacts are not being returned.
Fourth, people are deprived of the opportunity to view artwork created by their ancestors as travelling to Europe or the US is beyond their capacity.

However, there has been a counter argument from the West.

What are the counter arguments from the West?

First, many objects were legally acquired while some like the Kohinoor diamond were gifted. Therefore, they cannot be returned to the previous colonies.
Second, the kingdoms these artefacts were taken from are currently spread across different countries. Their exact location of origin is not clear. Hence, it’s difficult to return them to a particular country.
Third, by returning these cultural objects one cannot end the colonial history of the countries. Imperialism is part of modern world history.

Fourth, returning artefacts may endanger them since some of the countries of origin do not have the means to protect these cultural objects and face unending conflict. Therefore, they are well-protected and secure in Western museums.
Fifth, western museums showcase art and cultures from different countries. Therefore, they reflect the common heritage of mankind.

Moreover, there are international laws meant to return the artefacts to their country of origin.

What are the international laws for repatriation of the artefacts?

1954: The 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property was signed after the destruction of cultural property during World War II. The convention commanded its signatories to safeguard and respect cultural property.

1970: UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property permitted return of stolen objects to rightful owners if there was proof of ownership.

1995: UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects advocated the return of the illegally exported artefacts to their country of origin.

These conventions led France in 2017 and Netherland in 2019 to return the artefacts acquired during the colonization to their country of origin.

This shows that there has been some progress in repatriations. However, most repatriations need case-to-case intervention which is time consuming.

In the case of India, Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 seeks to protect our cultural properties needs urgent amendment.

What are the provisions under Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972?

Section 3 of Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 prohibits export of antiques or art treasures. It can only be exported through the central government.

Punishment for the offence under Section 3 ranges from six months to three years of simple imprisonment whereas Egypt and China have death penalty for cultural crimes.

Hence, cultural crimes are treated as minor offences in India and Indian laws are ineffective.

What can be the course of action?

First, there is a need to include art and culture in school and college syllabi as children do not have any knowledge of Indian art and culture.

Second, art and culture should not be confined to museums and its awareness should be spread within the public.

Third, NGOs trying to bring back art treasures should be encouraged. For example, India Pride Project.

Fourth, art objects and historical monuments at the local, state and national level need to be catalogued, photographed and geotagged.
Fifth, there should be strict punishment for stealing artefacts.

Print Friendly and PDF