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India needs to bring heritage-criminals to justice

NewsIndia needs to bring heritage-criminals to justice

Let’s take a moment and go back to 11 September 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, the USA decided to hit back with all its might. A provocation that lasted a few hours, has been followed up by decades of a “response”. The “war on terror” has already costed the US $2 trillion and will cost $6 trillion over the coming generation. To put that in perspective, that’s about $64,000 per American family — way much more than the average American family income for a whole year.

It makes one wonder if the response was disproportionate to what America saw as the upside. Now, that begets the real question – what really is the upside? Different theorists have offered differing explanations as to why Americans decided to hit back so hard. Explanations ranging from “control over oil reserves”, to “political exigency”, to “Hey, the US really hasn’t won a war since World War 2. They just need to showcase a win.”

While the “control over oil” explanation seems the most logical, it is intriguing that the US has excluded the real oil rich nations in that region (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Kuwait and Qatar) from such aggression. Backchannel diplomacy, trade agreements and lobbying are significantly more efficient ways to keep the oil flowing.

The most plausible explanation is quite simply, the “hitting back” theory. With banks and financial institutions and regulators housed in there, the World Trade Centre represented at its very core, the core of America — capitalism. That is precisely what the perpetrators wanted to attack.

Symbolic Destruction

Destruction of symbols is a huge part of any conflict. Not to belittle the issue, but my kids make sure they lick the last cookie on the plate. Dogs mark their territory by urinating around it. Bears scar trees in their area.

Humans, with their superior intelligence and dexterity, destroy symbols of a higher order. Therefore, in battle, the first thing you did was bring down the enemy’s symbol — their flag.

Jewish art was systematically looted by the Nazis. The Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by Taliban. More recently, ISIS razed Palmyra to the ground — all of this to destroy symbols and establish cultural conquest.

So when the terrorists decided to bring something down, they picked the Twin Towers; simply because it represented everything they despised about America. Because capitalism and progress were core to America’s identity; the terrorists decided, that core is precisely what had to be brought down.

The US, on the other hand, refused to look at the “war on terror” in return-on-investment terms. Their core was under attack, and they had to protect it. No matter the cost.

India’s core identity

Now contrast this with India’s core identity and how we respond when it is attacked.

While all our scientific and IT prowess has steered our image away from “the land of milk and honey”, India is still known and visited for its amazing heritage. No mention of India is complete without discussing the Taj Mahal or the amazing forts of Rajasthan or the mesmerising temples of Tamil Nadu. In short, heritage is India’s core identity.

That core identity, our heritage, has been attacked for centuries. The Mughals plundered our forts and temples, then the colonials did. This didn’t end with Independence. It is estimated that, since 1947, India has lost thousands of idols, maps, manuscripts, etc to the illicit heritage trade.

And how does India react? Well, we choose to showcase our “tolerant side” and “strategic restraint”. Since India’s independence, we have not brought even one significant heritage-criminal to justice. On many an occasion, in different parts of the world, I have been asked a variant of the same question — “If India cannot protect its most amazing assets, then what are you so proud of?”

India continues to languish with the out-of-date Antiquities Act, and even if we were to update that, it would be a toothless piece of paper, with no enforcement-wing to enforce such a law.

So in the end, when people attack our core, they know they will get away with it.

When USA and Pakistan share the podium…

Let’s go back to the US for a moment. Clearly, heritage isn’t core to them, in a way it is to India. Let’s see how they respond to the issue.

Democrat Bill Keating recently tabled a Bill in the US Congress — ‘HR 2285: Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act’. The strong Trump-Hillary friction is no secret and an overall mood of adversity (among political parties) prevails. GovTrack USA applied an algorithm and predicted a 34% chance of this Bill passing.

However, something amazing happened on 22 September 2016. This Bill was passed 415-0. Yes, you heard that right. Democrats and Republicans got together, across the aisle, to publicly recognise the issue, and decided that both parties need to come together to deal with it. To back their intent with action, they have always had the fairly efficient Cultural Property Division under the Department of Homeland Security, to enforce these laws.

Having said this, one is aware of the naysayers that will argue that heritage-protection is a “first world luxury”, and India will get to it when we are done with feeding our poor. Here sir, is a contrasting example, specially for you naysayers.

Let’s look towards our “friendly” next-door neighbour, Pakistan.

The recently enacted KP Antiquities Act, 2016 increases financial penalty on heritage-crimes by 40 times (compared to last year). The law also establishes the Antiquities Trade Control Wing to regulate and monitor the illegal trafficking of antiquities.

So there you have it — a study in contrasts. Both the USA and Pakistan have (a) a newly updated law to deal with heritage-crimes, and (b) enforcement wings to restrain heritage-criminals.

India has neither.

Personally for me, as a deeply patriotic Indian, it’s a sad day when India needs to follow Pakistan’s lead!!!

(To be continued: In part 2, we will discuss the scale of the loot, and India’s insufficient response to this threat.)

Anuraag Saxena is based in Singapore. He is passionate about Indian heritage and culinary history, and leads India Pride Project (www.ipp.org.in). He tweets at @anuraag_saxena


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