In 2019, a renowned human rights activist Geoffrey Robertson claimed that the British Museum is the largest receiver of stolen property in the world. He is an advocate of the repatriation of stolen articles by colonizers to the owner countries. The issue has now again been raised in 2023. India received many artefacts from different countries in 2022, which were looted by colonizers. Such antiquities belonged to states like West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat. Some peculiar artefacts included an idol of the goddess Durga killing buffalo Satan from Gujarat, a Laxminarayan idol from Rajasthan, etc. Germany, last year returned hundreds of artefacts and antiquities belonging to Nigeria. France too repatriated 26 artefacts to Benin. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York agreed to return many sculptures to Greece.
AN ERA OF LOOT REDRESSAL AND NON-GOVERNMENTAL PLAYERS
An interesting fact has been pointed out by Benedicte Savoy, a professor of Art and History at the Technical University of Berlin. He states that around 1900, there was intense competition amongst European nations to collect the best artefacts and sculptures from around the world. But now there seems a competition of being the first one to repatriate what had been stolen. Some non-governmental actors play a significant role in furthering the process of repatriation. For example, Nigerian students demanded the restoration of Benin bronze figures which were stolen from Nigeria when it was under siege by the British. Pressure groups work to generate distress in the countries to return what was stolen and decorated in their museums. One such instance happened at Cambridge University when the university created pressure on authorities to remove the stolen artefacts and figures from public display.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR AND AGAINST REPATRIATION
There are many museums in the United States and European countries, which claim to act as protectors of global heritage. They assert that by functioning as repositories of heritage, they help in the propagation of understanding of art. Such a view reflects a sense of superiority by claiming themselves to be solely capable of protecting the heritage. Some others opine that artefacts taken from countries like India, Egypt, and China were discovered by British officials who had a major role in the resurrection of amazing sites like Sachi, Ajanta caves, etc. They further contend that the mentioned countries had little to no resources to preserve such heritage. If such a bizarre logic is accepted, then now the artefacts should be repatriated as countries presently have adequate resources to protect and preserve their heritage.
TO RETURN THE LOOT IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE WRONG
Countries, primarily former colonizers, by returning the figures, idols, and artefacts acknowledge the crimes committed by them, which though cannot erase the atrocities but may soothe the past wounds to a minuscule extent. It is quite possible that in the process of repatriation, the world’s largest museums like the ‘Louvre’ in Britain would become a space devoid of any valuable heritage. But it has to be understood that past colonizers cannot be regarded as owners of heritage. Currently, we are witnessing a demand by Indians to get the Kohinoor diamond restored. The principle of restorative justice finds relevance here. Restorative justice favours the return of looted property back to its rightful owner. Countries all around the world, especially the ex-colonizers should not only seriously consider returning the entire loot but also take concrete steps in this regard.