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Heritage crimes: Let’s get our past back

opinionHeritage crimes: Let’s get our past back

Legend has it that Mahishasura, the most powerful in the Asura kingdom derived his powers from Lord Brahma’s boon. Mahishasura had asked for immortality, but Brahma watered it down to a boon where Mahishasura “could not be destroyed by man, god, demon or beast”. Mahishasura, in all his arrogance, ignored that ‘woman’ was not part of this list.

Armed with this boon, Mahishasura started a campaign to conquer the three worlds and went about destroying the gods (devas). The citizens of devaloka resisted, but were driven out of heaven. They rushed to the higher gods for help.

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the citizens of devaloka pooled their powers together, and from it was born Durga. Each of her arms held a weapon gifted by the gods. Brahma’s kamandala, Vishnu’s chakra and Shiva’s trishul. A long battle ensued in which Durga finally vanquished Mahishasura; and restored order in the three worlds. Thereby earning her the moniker, Mahishasura Mardini.

In short, what could not be achieved either by citizens (of devaloka) or the gods alone; was achieved when they all got together against the common enemy.

The advent of the Parampasuras

Now, let’s draw a parallel with our modern-day asuras in the heritage-mafia. Let’s call them Paramparasura, the destroyers of parampara (heritage).

Paramparasura are the almost invincible asuras that loot and destroy devas and devasthanams; temples and forts across India. Like Mahishasura, they have derived their powers from a boon of perceived invincibility. A lack of consequence or punishment, notwithstanding how much they plunder.

Armed with this boon, the Paramparasura have run a very lucrative enterprise of destruction; exporting stolen Indian heritage across the world, where it is sold for millions. This destruction by the Paramparasura has run unabated for the last 70 years. 

Scale of Heritage-Crimes

UNESCO estimates that 50,000 idols and artifacts had been stolen out of India till 1989. Advocacy group Global Financial Integrity estimates the illegal trade of arts and artifacts is worth Rs. 40,000 crores a year. As an example, a single sandstone sculpture stolen from Madhya Pradesh was worth Rs. 100 crores in the international market.

It really is an existential crisis for Indian heritage.

Terror-funding, ISIS and other minor issues

In February 2015, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expressed its concern that the Islamic State (ISIS) “are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling in cultural heritage items (…) to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks”.

As a response, the UNSC adopted its resolution 2199, formally recognizing art and antiquities trafficking as a terrorist financing tool.

In August 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an advisory stating, “Purchasing an object looted and/or sold by the Islamic State may provide financial support to a terrorist organization and could be prosecuted under 18 USC 233A.”Many other countries recognise the challenge and have built enforcement-divisions to combat heritage-crimes.

The Interpol has a dedicated wing to combat “art and heritage crimes”, that maintains an enviable database of about 50,000 stolen heritage-objects. India unfortunately, neither contributes to this database, nor leverages it to track heritage-crimes.

India has the dubious distinction of being one of the biggest victims to this trade. A self-denigrating victim, that has for long, allowed perpetrators to loot our heritage. However, awareness of this rare, even disgraceful, honour is missing in most Indians’ minds. In one word – there’s the problem – Apathy!

The Solution

The question is this. Do we, as a nation, let Paramparasuras prosper, or do we destroy them once and for all? If we do choose to destroy them; then what can we do, as a nation, to permanently terminate the destruction and peddling of our heritage?

The answer simply is to form alliances like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva did with citizens of devloka, to bring down Mahishasura.

I suggest a five-point collaborative-framework to stem these Paramparasura:

  1. Heritage Squad: Let’s take an example of cyber-crimes. We don’t expect an average policeman to solve cases of computer-hacking, phishing or identity theft. Why? Because these are sophisticated crimes that needs sophisticated skills. Similarly, heritage-crimes involve international players, multiple currencies, complex shipping routes and reams of documentary evidence. Unless we have a separate enforcement wing with specific expertise in this area, we are unlikely to ever solve heritage-crime.
  2. Updated Legal Frameworks: Indian heritage and antiquities are protected by a law, that is considered out-of-date by the Minster-of-Culture himself. While there is widespread debate on the components of the updated bill to be placed in Parliament, there is no debate on whether we need a new one. I sincerely hope, we learn from the rest of the world and incorporate best practices that have worked in various countries. If Pakistan can have an updated Antiquities Act, so can we.
  3. National Heritage Archive & Database: Not to be dramatic about it, but a ration-shop owner today, knows what stock and assets he has in his ration-shop. It is paradoxical then, that we as a nation, have no comprehensive public record of our heritage-assets. Not only will such a database help in building a disincentive for the heritage-mafia (knowing that they can’t dispose off a stolen artifact, as its record exists somewhere); but will be  matter of great pride for heritage-enthusiasts and citizens to refer to.
  4. Diplomatic efforts & International Partnerships: In the last two years alone, five different countries have returned Indian heritage back to us. Of course, with effort from the Ministry of External Affairs. However, such restitutions cannot be ad-hoc affairs, neither should they stay limited to a handful of numbers, as it is now. India needs institutions and structures that build bridges with their international counterparts, and turn “ad-hoc restitutions” into a process. The world has taken a step towards India. It is time we reciprocated.
  5. Public Private Partnerships (PPP): The current government is channelling private-enthusiasm to solve public-issues through PPP models. But why limit PPP models to developmental and financial projects? Why not build PPP models in the social and cultural space as well? This is a emotional subject that is close to people’s hearts. This is also a subject where many privately run groups, India Pride Project being one, have shown (a) demonstrated success, and (b) established international relationships. If we invite private experts to run our ports, highways, schools and hospitals then why not bring in private experts to save our heritage?

Having made these points, the biggest risk is this – half-measures and half-solutions. Bureaucratic half-heartedness very often ensures that boxes are ticked, without it ever bringing the change it was meant to. As Prof. R. Vaidyanathan humorously puts it, “Operation is successful, but patient is dead.”

It will come as a surprise to nobody, if one or two of these measures are adopted and the rest ignored. Soon thereafter, the effort dies a natural death, simply because it wasn’t structured comprehensive and robust enough to begin with.

The real question is this – can we as Indians, sit by and let our heritage keep getting destroyed (emphasis on the present continuous tense); especially when we knew that it is so easy to solve. When we know we can all be Paramparasur
a Mardinis.

If a Mahishasura could be destroyed when citizens and their rulers got together; what chances do mere mortal Paramparasuras have?

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

Read the article in greater detail here:

India needs to bring heritage-criminals to justice

Heritage for sale: Stop the loot of India’s past

Time to vanquish the Paramparasuras


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