The Koh-i-Noor Matters, but to Whom Exactly?

The debates over cultural property are no longer about restitution or national pride, but rather are about cultural isolates being projected and promoted as identity markers.

Bahadur Shah Zafar's Dargah. Credit: DraconianRain/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Dargah. Credit: DraconianRain/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Kohinoor is once again at the centre of debate and dispute, with India and Great Britain both working around the issue of originary ownership, national claims and restitution. The debate, thickened by disputes around India’s rights and responsibilities towards its ‘past’ – given the tenor of the BJP’s approach to history and culture – is primarily about cultural property. Debates over cultural property are masked debates about the organisation of national and cultural identity, and very often construct the myth of cultural isolates in order to generate such an identity.

The Kohinoor controversy is not an isolated incident. There is also the instance of the Tipu Sultan sword, which, in 2004, was acquired by Vijay Mallya, who was then immediately praised for the ‘nationalist act’, but is now, ironically, ensconced in the UK, which refuses to repatriate him to stand trial in India. Tipu’s famous mechanical tiger (seated on an English soldier) and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s golden throne are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, while many of Amaravati sculptures are in the British Museum.

One assumes that these treasures are not the same as alienated and conquered land. To say that the Kohinoor has the same emotional or even commercial value as the land claimed by colonialism or nationalism – as for instance in the case of native American, tribal or aboriginal lands appropriated in the course of ‘nation-building’ – is awkward at best. So what then is the angst about?

In 2007, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 mutiny or war of independence, there was much public debate about bringing back the remains of India’s last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who died in prison in erstwhile Burma. The remains were not brought back, and one of the key markers of Indian history – the Mughal empire – has therefore been wilfully denied its place in this contemporary symbolic refashioning of Indian identity. Does it matter?

Cultural property and identity

Ethnic, communitarian, racial and national identities revolve around cultural property, a concept elaborated by the Hague Convention of 1954. The convention was a direct response to the destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War and has the distinction of being the “first international treaty with a world-wide vocation focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict”, as the convention puts it, in a self-congratulatory tone.

Art, religious artifacts, sacred sites and human remains constitute the medium through which identities are negotiated. Cultural property, therefore, is intimately linked to identity practices. Debates about cultural property as identity practices are also reflective of historical processes, such as colonialism or capitalist mercantilism (which often passes under the supremely ironic term ‘free trade’). These processes, always already unequal and exploitative in the economic and political realms, leave long-lasting effects even in postcolonial nation states because artifacts that would constitute the process of identity-making are denied to the new nations. Thus, the arguments over cultural property might be read as a debate over unending colonialisms and ghostly continuities of historical processes.

Cultural property debates are about contested and conflicting regimes of value in the age of the global.

Objects like the golden throne or Amaravati sculptures are examples of exemplary craftsmanship, cultural practices and art from the culture, region or country of origin. They are, therefore, invested with considerable emotional and cultural significance for the people from that region, who find their identities are at least partially narrative elaborations of those artifacts. Indians are from the land of the Taj Mahal, as an instance of such an elaboration.

Third, and in contest with the above two regimes of value, these artifacts and objects also present the spectacular heights of human achievement, wherever they originated. Thus, in this instance, they represent transnational, perhaps even universal, symbols, like the ‘seven wonders of the world. Here it could be argued that they represent the entire human race, irrespective of their provenance. With these three regimes of value, we now see traditional legal categories being invoked as well, thus complicating matters.

The Hague Convention focuses almost entirely on the universal and transnational significance of cultural property. The protocol:

…damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world … the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and [therefore] it is important that this heritage should receive international protection

It later does cite the local cultural and national property rights of the people from whose practices the artifacts have emerged, but the onus is on the transnational and international value of any cultural artifact.

It is because of this transnational valuation that there was a global outcry against the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra. It is not in the name of the loss of local cultural identity or local history but rather in the name of global cultural loss that there is international outrage. So the question remains whether these heritage sites and cultural artifacts are also now a part of global commodity culture, and therefore if any single country or community can lay claims to them or ask for restitution and restoration, especially when most of these cultures, originally were influenced by and influenced adjacent and even far-flung cultures through interactions, trade and travel.

Since most cultural practices have travelled, intermingled, been influenced by other cultures throughout history, claims to cultural property for individual regions, founded on the assumption of origins and borders sit uncomfortably with transnational perspectives and processes of the human world itself.

A further layer may be discerned in these regimes of value. If, caught up in postcolonial fervour, we assign a patrimony to cultural property, then we make these artifacts central to the ‘essence’ of the nation, argues Elazar Barkan. Such an essentialising would undoubtedly be contested and rightly so, especially when no heterogeneously constructed nations of the present day can assert such an essence. The risk, however, in demands for such patrimonising is precisely this: that these are veiled attempts to propose a uniform, homogeneous cultural heritage and therefore national identity. It is with reference to this very risk that I referred to the debate over Zafar’s remains. Does a country seek restoration and restitution of its multiple cultural and religious heritages, or only of a select few?

The problem with cultural isolates

Barkan further argues that the “restitution of cultural property … occupies a middle ground that can provide the necessary space in which to negotiate identities and a mechanism to mediate between the histories of perpetrators and victims”.

This is of course a version of the question of compensations for historical wrongs – such as slavery or colonialism – of which cultural property restitution is only one part. While one agrees that there is a mediating mode that is possible with cultural property restitution, the murky area is that of ownership and origin stories. How far back in historical time can one possibly go in order to enable the identification of historical wrong and therefore cultural property restitution? And how is one to decide with any degree of certitude the origin of something? This line of thought assumes that cultures and human groups did not move away from their places of origin, and finding an artifact here means they were always here, which need not be the case at all, given that humans have always migrated. To think in terms of cultural isolates – just as in the contemporary age geneticists like Spencer Wells speak of genetic isolates – is to harden cultural boundaries and reject the possibilities of cultural interventions, co-evolution and borrowings.

Ancestry information of the cultural kind that permeates debates about both cultural property and cultural-national identity is a massive grey area. Examining the genetic roots and routes of tribes, Joseph Pickerell and David Reach have noted how people of supposedly similar genetic ancestry and living in the same region have little similarities with their ancestors who lived in that region a few centuries ago. They conclude:

Long range migration and concomitant population replacement or admixture have occurred often enough in recent human history that the present-day inhabitants of many places in the world are rarely related in a simple manner to the more ancient peoples of the same region.

About India, they write:

Here nearly all people today are admixed between two distinct groups, one most closely related to present-day Europeans, Central Asians, and near easterners, and one most closely related to isolated populations in the Andaman Islands. Much of this admixture occurred within the past 4000 years.

Thus, the debate over cultural property is no longer about restitution or national pride but rather is about cultural isolates being projected and promoted as identity markers. Debates over what constitutes cultural property and whose rights over this property come first – the region from which it (might have) originated, or the nation, or humans as a race – are also reflections of the tension between global and local, between fluid and hybrid identities and discourses of cultural purity. Negotiating these multiple regimes of value is crucial because to allow the triumph of cultural isolates is to risk erasing the claims of several other identities but also the heterogeneous and multi-originary evolution of cultural practice itself.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad