Last week, I was in Delhi discussing the value of a liberal arts education with representatives of higher education establishments, when I heard from a colleague that the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii had agreed to return seven Indian art objects as part of the Operation Hidden Idol (OHI) investigation undertaken against Indian art gallery owner Subhash Kapoor. Since then, 15 museums have been actively researching their Indian art collections with a clear commitment to returning the objects they bought from Mr. Kapoor in good conscience, if they are proven stolen; and another American museum has already returned an artefact.
What is striking in this is that OHI has been jointly undertaken since 2012 by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department of the U.S, and its Homeland Security Investigations department, without an official request by the Indian government. In other words, no one in India was tracking the activities of Mr. Kapoor, a well-known dealer of Indian art in the U.S. since the 1980s, and no one bothered to begin an investigation into his Indian dealings. Why is it that the U.S. government is attempting to catch a potential thief who may have stolen several hundred million dollars’ worth of ancient objects from Indian temples and archaeological sites, but there is a deafening silence on the part of the Indian officials? Equally importantly, what will happen to these objects once they are returned to India?
As an art historian, a former museum director, and as a one-time President of Association of Art Museum Directors in North America, I have been deeply engaged in the debates around the repatriation of art objects from the developed countries of the West to the formerly colonised countries of the global south. There is no doubt that when objects are proven to be stolen, they must be returned to the country of origin. But the issue becomes complicated when the “source country” neither shows much concern for the protection of its ancient heritage nor has the infrastructure to promote the deep values inherent in objects of its millennial past. This was evident in the destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul museum by Islamic State militants in Iraq and when the Taliban hacked the ancient Buddhas in the hillside caves of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. The world watched these destructions in horror, but helplessly.
Among art museum professionals, it once again raised the question of safety of art objects: would it not be better to have these objects be taken care of as symbols of world heritage in the safety of established art museums in the West? What happens when the country of origin is incapable of preserving its heritage and does not care about it? An unspoken part of that rationale was that, in addition to the unstable conditions in war-torn countries, there was also a lack of concern for ancient culture that expressed an ethos and religious practice different from the present ones.
De-privileging study of ancient culture There is a feeling in India that such barbaric acts cannot happen in the country. But it must be remembered that India has seen its own destruction of monuments in the name of religion (the destruction of Babri Masjid and the vandalism of several Muslim monuments during the Gujarat riots). But what is of more concern is the serious lack of commitment to the study of ancient monuments and the country’s rich millennial past in our education system. In its preoccupation with science, technology and material well-being, the Indian education system has systematically de-privileged the study of ancient culture and history, resulting in the lack of any deep concern for the value of ancient objects as living testaments to a rich culture. Ultimately, if there is little attention paid to the case of thousands of stolen objects from temples and ancient sites, let us not just blame the government. The responsibility lies equally with the citizens of the country who remain woefully ignorant of the value of a rich past for a more vibrant future.
(Vishakha N. Desai is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President and Professor of Practice, Columbia University, President Emerita, Asia Society.)
Post publication the author adds:
I should have noted that the Government of India was quietly involved in requesting the U.K. and the U.S. Authorities to track Mr. Kapoor's activities. But the bigger point is that such activities were going on for years without any public outcry for the preservation of ancient objects.