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The AC Digs Into: The India Pride Project

October 3, 2017

Anuraag Saxena is a Chartered Accountant and an MBA and lives in Singapore.

Indian and Asian antiquities are illegally procured and sold around the world. Anuraag co-founded the India Pride Project as a response. Anuraag focuses on restitution, advocacy and awareness building programs to bring back India’s stolen heritage. He has been published in both, mainstream and niche publications; and has been invited to speak at Universities and Conferences across the world.

You can connect with him on Twitter at @anuraag_saxena 

The work of the India Pride Project—in conjunction with high profile media investigations and criminal prosecutions—shows that India’s rich history has been a big target of looters and traffickers. Do you think this is a recent development, or has it been ongoing and just recently brought to light?

India has historically been a victim of colonisers and mercenaries from across the globe.

Let’s not forget Christopher Columbus was looking for India, when he lost his way to America. Funnily, in his “letter of first voyage” explaining why he was looking for India; he mentioned the word “Gold” 17 times, while mentioning “Lord” and “God” only once.

The Mughals and the British actually got to India; and enriched their coffers for centuries. So in short, India’s wealth and heritage has been the subject of civilisational conquest and plunder for ages. The greed is ages old. However, the format is new.

We now have heritage-criminals; looters, traffickers and many more; that are part of a complex machinery delivering illicit heritage globally.

As an example, more than 50% of heritage imports into the USA last year, were of Indian origin. There’s got to be a reason, for the world to want our heritage.

The looting has been described as an ‘attack on faith’. Could you describe what that means and the effects that heritage crimes have on the public in India and beyond?

Indian temples have been central to our way of life, much like churches are in the west, where significant events in your life have a church as a focal point. Think christening ceremonies, weddings and funerals.

Temples, on the other hand have been all that, and much more. We’ve had Gurukuls (schools), Natyashalas (performance arts) in temple premises. We’ve had temples run custodial functions, as repositories of inscriptions and original manuscripts. Thousand-year-old libraries if you will.

We’ve even had social-activism come out of temples. You know, while the world is still denying climate-change, India had the Chipko movement (literally “hug a tree”) decades ago.

So you see, a Temple is much more than a “place-of-worship”, as some other cultures may define it. This holistic, beautiful, social-fabric is torn, when you remove the deity or vandalise a place-of-worship. The good news is, the corollary is also true. Which is probably why my video went viral; and it resonated with ordinary individuals, that were proud to see their heritage come home.

So the next time, when an idol is stolen from India, don’t just look at it in terms of the price tag. Also know there’s a backstory – of schools, libraries, social-movements and families that have been destroyed; and now need healing.

What have been the successes of the Indian government in combating this issue, and what are some improvements that can be made with their approach?

Just over a year ago, we suggested a five-point collaborative-framework to the Indian government. I’m glad the current Government is taking this issue seriously and has started moving the needle.

Half a dozen countries have started returning heritage-objects to India. A dozen heritage-criminals are being prosecuted across the country, as we speak. A new Bill is to be tabled in Parliament, that will strengthen law-enforcement around heritage-crimes.

So you see, from a broad brush perspective, things are moving in the right direction after 70 years of indifference. Without complicating the issue too much though, all that the Government needs to do now is:

  1. Emulate best practices that have worked in other countries; and
  2. Bring in experts with established intent and credentials, who know how to solve the issue.

But you see, countries like India are still dealing with issues like poverty, food-security, healthcare and basic education. I can see why some might feel heritage-crimes are a “higher-order” problem. Which explains why I’ve had to set up India Pride Project as a volunteer-led effort; to support the larger national endeavour.

When I look back, it makes me really proud. Its been a fascinating journey elevating this subject (heritage-crimes) from an inward looking, theoretical-exercise; to pretty much a mass movement that plain, simple  citizens associate with.

In your opinion, what are the next steps that should be taken in protecting India’s cultural heritage, not only be governments but by the art market and the general public?

Let me now wear a larger global hat.

The most serious threat to the issue is the bundling of art-crimes and heritage-crimes into one category. The last two decades have shown us that criminals that deal in stolen heritage, are very different from those that steal art. Illicit heritage is procured differently, handled differently, sold differently, and bought by different sets of buyers.

The narrative though, doesn’t capture this huge difference. We’ll be doing ourselves a favour by acknowledging the difference and updating the narrative globally.

Secondly, the global focus on this issue has been largely academic. While there is a space for speeches and platitudes, there is a long, cumbersome process of restitution that follows. No one cares for it because it is boring. In a sense, we are edifying the diagnosis, but ignoring the treatment.

The end result though, is that the art/heritage community is incentivised to chase the theoretical dream. At the risk of sounding provocative, let me just say this –  I really hope that someday, do-ers will be as celebrated as researchers.