A founder of the India Pride Project, Anuraag Saxena, says his group has been instrumental in finding and bringing back art treasures to the country, including a Dancing Shiva statue, which was returned by Australian prime minister Tony Abbott to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in 2014.

by NADEEM BADSHAH

BRITAIN’S museums have been urged by a campaign group to return “colonial” treasures to countries including India, instead of just relabelling them.

Leading institutions in the UK are hiring staff to revisit their colonial- era collections.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London recently employed a ‘provenance and spoliation research curator”, while the British Museum is adding new research into its audio guides and striving for “very honest” labels on items such as the Hindu statues it houses.

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is advertising for a research assistant on a salary of £32,236- £39,609 to manage a labelling project to “identify and find ways to redress a range of ethical issues in the current displays”.

However, the India Pride Project, a group set up by art enthusiasts to identify artefacts that were taken, said the move does not go far enough, and wants treasures from the Empire era to be returned.

Anuraag Saxena, a founder of the project, told Eastern Eye: “We shouldn’t have to prove what was ours for centuries. Museums need to prove their right to own our heritage.

“Lip service about ‘transparency’ is pointless, unless museums are ready to acknowledge the violent circumstances under which each piece of heritage was extracted from India.

“Faith objects were not meant to be show pieces.

“The key word is consent. Heritage acquired under duress is as illegitimate as the act of duress itself.”

He added: “You haven’t really decolonised a nation unless you’ve given back what was theirs.

“We’re not asking for much. Just to do what’s morally right.”

“We need a ‘coalition of the colonised’ – ordinary citizens demanding back what was always theirs.

“Academics categorise this issue under archaeology or faith or artcrimes. It really is
not that trivial. It’s about repairing a squalid, oppressive and bloodied past.”

The Indian government has long demanded that the British hand over the 105.6 carat Kohinoor diamond it took after the Anglo-Sikh wars in the 1840s. Britain has insisted
that the diamond was a “gift.”

Rajinder Dudrah, professor of cultural studies and creative industries at Birmingham City University, said the campaign from India to have historical pieces returned is due to “cultural identity, but in the current moment, [it is also] heritage and tourism”.

He told Eastern Eye: “It has benefitted countries in western centres, fuelling tourism in London and the US for example.

“India would like a bit of their history back and enhance their world-level resources.

“[Relabelling artefacts] a good first step but a lot needs to be done. They will claim it was cultural circumstances in the colonial era, but who owns it in principle?

“They are treading very carefully but the compensation needs to go much further due to legal ramifications and international relations.

“It could have a domino effect and be a test case for other nations around the world like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Latin America.”

Last year, academics hit back at V&A museum director Tristram Hunt who claimed returning treasures to countries would be “historically wrong and inaccurate”.

He said giving back colonial artefacts would be a denial of history as he discussed items from the East India Company which form part of the museum’s collections.
On the relabelling, Hunt said: “Through exhibitions, conservation work, provenance research, talks, and events, the V&A is committed to exploring our own colonial history
with rigour and transparency – and to building platforms for collaboration around the world.”

The British Museum said it has “not received any official requests about returning objects to India”.

It added: “The museum has gained these objects in many ways – as gifts, through collectors, excavations or sold with conscious intent.”