Home » IIIM News » Illicit trafficking of cultural property in India

Illicit trafficking of cultural property in India

Illicit trafficking of cultural property in India






In a recent interview conducted by UNESCO India, Prof. Galla talks about the illicit trafficking of cultural property in India. Below is a extract from the conversation.

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was created in 1970.

We asked Professor Dr. Amareswar Galla, the Founding Executive Director of the International Institute for the Inclusive Museum (http://inclusivemuseums.org/) to share his views on its status and implementation in India.  He has worked on the implementation of the UNESCO 1970 Convention in 49 countries including all the sub-regions of the Asia Pacific.

Question: The Member States of UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, in November 1970. (Hereafter 1970 Convention)  Do you think further efforts are needed to increase its acceptance as well as strengthen implementation by its States Parties?

It is a significant Convention that is often located on the access of the Global North and the South. Where there is a hand to buy there is a hand to sell. I have argued consistently that poverty is also one of the main factors that need to be addressed in relation to this Convention. It must also be addressed with in the UN Agenda 2030.

Illicit traffic of all kinds, especially cultural property is rarely bilateral and mostly multilateral. In order to minimize it we need every member of the UN to become a State Party and to have compatible national legislations and develop appropriate national policy frameworks that could be implemented with relevant capacities and capabilities.

Question: In view of the recent demand in cultural artefacts in India, has there been an increase in its illegal trade?  Why do you think the issue is still not much talked about?

In July 2003 a historical joint Parliamentary Forum was convened in New Delhi at the Parliament House under the program – Parliamentarians for Human Development. I addressed it as a keynote speaker arguing that the commitment and actions of India as a State Party to the 1970 Convention were critical as the country’s cultural property is being looted. During the Forum one of our major concerns was the illicit traffic from Afghanistan and Iraq that was across the borders of the region. I held up major catalogues of auction houses which featured stolen and illegally acquired cultural property from India and the region.

The telling point was made by a major supplier from Mumbai when she said over lunch that the Parliament can do what it wants but they cannot stop the traffic. She underscored the point that Indians really did not care.
It was obvious compliance was only part of the implementation and that it was hard to monitor in a large country. Far more important is advocacy and awareness raising. Not just in the major cities, but most importantly at the state and local government levels. Media, especially social media needs to play a major role in India. India needs to participate proactively to affirm its commitment to the 1970 Convention and play a strategic role within the country, the region and beyond.

Question: India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but how have the central laws helped to prevent loss and damage to arts and antiquities, in the country.  What do you think are further urgent steps that the Government needs to take?

India has the requisite compliance measures to minimise illicit traffic in cultural property. However, the scope of cultural property needed to be broadened from the predominance of focus on ‘antiquities’ as understood from a bygone era. For instance, industrial and craft heritage is often looted in India for export – vintage cars to parts of locomotives and even significant parts of ginning mills and weaving looms. While working on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway soon after its inscription on the World Heritage list, we found out that the DHR badge or insignia was a collectible that was often removed to the UK.

Temples and various places of worship are targets for the looters. But most of the items in such places is rarely inventoried and accounted for. Similarly, sacred objects stolen from tribal communities are recognised as being significant for rituals, initiation ceremonies and spiritual well-being among indigenous communities, especially for intergenerational education and immersion of children and youth.

In the past two years India has been receiving artefacts that were illicitly removed in the past, often voluntarily returned by Heads of Government as good will gestures. This is within the context of bilateral, a kind of soft power approach in global geopolitics and improving trade relations. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. For every return there are thousands that are stolen through various channels.

India is spending considerable resources on digitisation of collections in national heritage institutions. This is different from inventorying. Digitisation is  a means to and not an end in itself. inventorying  and preventive measures are needed at the site and local institutional levels.

India has been spending resources on cultural mapping. But at a national seminar I convened last year in Amaravathi, it was obvious that the majority of the funded organizations and project consultants are not heritage or collection conscious of the tangibles. Cultural  mapping needs to be better understood and used as a tool for safeguarding heritage of all kinds. Mapping should lead to strategic planning. One of the outcomes could be the protection of the movable heritage of India.

Question: What are your recommendations for enhancing the understanding and international cooperation to combat the illicit traffic of cultural property, especially among the countries with shared borders with India, such as Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan?

Prevention of illicit traffic of all kinds is multilateral. It is rarely bilateral. Borders are porous. Third country transit from the source to destination is common and difficult to prevent without multilateral cooperation. In this context regional collaborations are critical. At the turn of the century, I ran a series of workshops for the ten countries of Southeast Asia in partnership with ASEANPOL and Customs and UNESCO to develop a strong regional network. ASEAN Heritage Charter Provided a useful framework in Southeast Asia. A similar approach should be undertaken through SAARC Collaboration as a starting point, but we must be conscious that illicit traffic is far more global.

The Dhaka and Kandy Declarations on Culture by SAARC provide the broader framework. A regional workshop I conducted in Sri Lanka with SIDA funding emphasised the need for a regional thesaurus of heritage terminology that could be provide a shared understanding of object nomenclature between heritage agencies and police and customs. OBJECT ID training is needed at all levels using such tools. Even though OBJECT ID not a substitute for inventorying, it could be a starting point. UNESCO could play a very important role in the subcontinent. But it is up to the State Parties to the 1970 Convention to mobilise to safeguard their heritage assets.

Read the complete interview here.