Major General William Kincaid was a British officer posted in India in the late 1800’s. Unlike a typical gun-slinging and swashbuckling armyman, Kincaid led a rather insipid career, dabbling between “adjusting boundary disputes” and playing “political agent”.
What one does though, when faced with annual appraisals and proving loyalty to the Crown, is plunder the country one has colonized and send “gifts” back to the Crown. This is apparently what Kincaid did. While posted in Bhopal, he pilfered some murtis and dispatched them to London.
The most controversial amongst this loot, have been the murtis of Goddess Saraswati, taken from Bhojshala in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh. These murtis were commissioned by Raja Bhoja (incidentally after whom Bhopal is named), and were the object of reverence for centuries.
But back to the controversy. The loot of the Saraswati murtis became controversial for three reasons:
- The location and temple has since become a mosque, where namaaz is offered till today.
- The return of these murtis have become an election mudda over the last decade.
- PM Narendra Modi is the first Indian head of state to demand (and personally receive) stolen antiquities from the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Australia and other nations.
One of the thousands
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’s not just a National Pride issue now, but a National Security issue.
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.
You would imagine a certain level of seriousness, to therefore bring the Saraswati (and indeed others) back home.
Saraswati : Drawing Adversaries Closer
Shashi Tharoor made the case for the larger issue of reparations, at the now famous Oxford debates. Regardless of party affiliation or personal opinion about the gentlemen himself, this call of his needs our unequivocal support.
Subramanian Swamy, during his visit to Dhar, lent his voice to the issue demanding that this murti be brought back. This follows closely, the famous London Nataraja case, which India won successfully in the UK.
PM Narendra Modi, in his earlier avatar as the CM has promised to bring this murti back at an election rally in Dhar.
So you see, the Bhojshala Saraswati Devi finally had the divine power to get adversaries to agree.
Britain’s envy, India’s pride
In June 2016, I was invited to speak at an “Art Crimes” Seminar in London. Many members of the audience were eminently supportive of our #BringOurGodsHome program, where we demand that heritage should go back where it belongs. Post-conference conversations revolved around “How can we help?” type of discussions; with wide consensus on Britain’s moral obligation to return what is rightfully India’s.
Lo and behold! A few months later, in September 2016, one of the audience-members actually DID return a Brahma-Brahmani murti that was stolen from India earlier (located painstakingly by Mr. Kirit Mankoti). Fascinating that it was the first ever piece of heritage that came back to independent India from the UK, a historic occurrence by any measure.
Is there hope?
Well yes and no.
On one hand, PM Modi has been the first Indian head-of-state to focus on the issue. But on the other hand, his bureaucrats can’t seem to deliver on the PM’s commitment. As an example, 200 heritage-objects were offered to PM Modi in June 2016. Of the 200, only a dozen seem to have been brought back by officials.
On one hand we are seeing a Hindu resurgence of sorts, where more and more people are realising the value of our cultural heritage. Issues of reclaiming temples and bringing our gods back are slowly but steadily become dinner table conversation and social media discussion. While the conversation around this is reaching a crescendo, on the other hand, there are people who take a step further and lead community driven awareness campaigns like #BringOurGodsHome, #ReclaimTemples, #YearofTemples etc.
While community outrage on political issues and the nitty gritties of the Lutyens charade is important to keep the discourse on track, we can’t possibly choose to sacrifice Maa Saraswati at the altar of seemingly frivolous conversation. It is my personal hope, that perhaps one day, our collective energy will create something beautiful, the seeds of which are already being laid by Hindus consolidating. Perhaps one day we as a people would decide to pool and channelise our anger and stress a simple idea in one, united voice :
History belongs to its geography.