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The West knows best?

India plans to send out a message to international collectors that our antiquities are up for grabs, writes Dilip K Chakrabarti.
None | By Dilip K. Chakrabarti
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2008 10:42 PM IST

One gathers that the Ministry of Culture is going to table a proposal that, if passed by the Lok Sabha, will enable educational research institutes and academic bodies outside India to get loans of Indian antiquities from museums or excavated sites. I wonder if the concerned people in the ministry have carefully considered the implications of this proposal. I am an Indian citizen who earns his living by teaching and researching the ancient Indian past in exactly such an academic body that will be entitled under the new law to bring over anything on loan from an Indian museum or excavated site. I suppose this gives me an insider’s point of view on this matter, and it may be worthwhile to lay bare this point of view both for our ministry and the concerned Indian public.

What necessitates the proposal in the first place? The existing set-up does not prevent foreign scholars from coming to India and study whatever ancient object or specimen they want to study. Why should they be permitted to take the objects out of India? All the scientific techniques currently employed to study the different vestiges of the past are available in the Indian laboratories. Any non-Indian keen on applying any of these techniques to an Indian museum object or excavated specimen can do so through a collaborative research project with the relevant Indian science group.

If the foreign-based scholar wants to have the specimen in his own space, there is reason to suspect his motive. The most charitable explanation I can offer is that the foreign scholar concerned is not interested in having an Indian collaborator in this regard and wants the result of his study to be entirely ‘West-inspired’. What is also likely in this case is that the result of this research will be in a foreign journal that will not be commonly available to Indians, even in their metropolitan libraries. This means that the result of this study of a segment of the Indian past will be closed to Indians unless they are willing to pay for that article in the online version of the concerned journal.

The reluctance of the Western specialists in ancient India to publish the fruits of their researches in India is well-known. To give an example, the Euro-American archaeologists interested in South Asia have been holding biannual conferences in Europe since 1981. With only one exception, the proceedings of these conferences have been invariably published in Europe and America. In most Indian university libraries, they are not available. So, however positive the perception of our Culture Ministry is regarding foreign scholarship in the field of ancient India and its material remains, that scholarship is not meant to be accessible to Indians.

Those concerned, for academic and not-so-academic reasons, that there should be an easier movement of India’s antiquities to non-Indian institutions and academic art collections for making foreigners better aware of the richness and variety of India’s past, may be told that enough of these specimens is already available in many centres of learning including the private art galleries in the West, where they are on sale.

Occasionally, I have been forced to wonder if some of the finest specimens of ancient Indian art have not already found their way to the rich academic institutions of the West and the collections of their super-rich private patrons. Some years back, a Bangladeshi scholar wrote a detailed monograph on the richly decorated terracottas of a site near Kolkata, basing himself, by his own admission, on what was already available in the US. All that one has to do to get an idea of what related to the Indian past is available in the West is to go through the catalogues put up by the major Western auction houses or published by different museums.

Some governments are known to monitor the appearance of their national antiquities in the international market. A Cambridge archaeological research institute has a specific cell to monitor the illegal looting of antiquity: ‘antiquity without context’. Scholars write learned articles on the legal and various other implications of these antiquities. If the present proposal of our Culture Ministry goes through, India will send a clear message to the international antiquity collectors (institutional or otherwise) that its antiquities will now be up for grabs legally — as a ‘loan’, as long as one can put up an academic and his research as a front. The situation will be a bit like the medical establishments with charitable status that we have in India. All of them have the word ‘research’ somewhere in their names but it is not really necessary to get any research done.

The proposal has some serious long-term implications for the study of the Indian past through archaeology. All kinds of excavation results fall within the purview of antiquities, and these range from the excavated clods of earth to different kinds of biological materials. If these samples are offered ‘on loan’ to foreign archaeologists in their own countries, a few things will happen. First, the Indian role in their studies will simply disappear and the results of these studies will also not be easily available to Indians.

Second, the point that has to be driven home is that the study of the past — even its science-based study — is not a universal discipline in the sense of physics, chemistry, mathematics or even economics. It deals essentially with regional data, and the scholarship that has evolved around it does not permit universal postulates, methods or answers. Even when the study of archaeological samples is based on various forensic techniques, themselves offshoots of various sciences, the answer is never one-to-one. For interpretation, there is always a wide arc in which the scholar will position himself, depending on his attitude to the country whose past he is studying.

This is where the element of politics enters archaeology. Socio-politics of the past is a recognised theme of modern archaeological research. What will happen is that this proposal will both aggravate and consolidate a trend which is already here — a trend where the Western archaeologists consider themselves as a group vis-à-vis the Indians. I have been in this game long enough to know that no foreign group can be given unhindered freedom to exert control over a nation’s past, even though it is ostensibly for academic reasons. As far as practicable, no nation does so.

Dilip K. Chakrabarti is Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University.

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