Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project, talks about his team’s mission to bring back India’s stolen treasures from around the world.
India’s rich ancient history stretches back several millennia. And, over these same years, precious heritage treasures have been plundered, looted and smuggled out of the country. UNESCO had estimated that nearly 50,000 objects were smuggled out of India between 1979 and 1989 alone, and there has been no comprehensive study since then. “Historians disagree on the number, ranging from 10,000 to one million,” says Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project (IPP). “But we believe, even one is too many.”
Frustrated with the pace of restitution, Saxena assembled a global group of heritage enthusiasts in 2013 to locate and restore India’s stolen artifacts to their rightful communities. Saxena says he and a few other volunteers formed the India Pride Project because heritage experts “write research papers and blogs focused on theoretical aspects of the loot. It takes us nowhere when…[they] are too busy to work with the government and high commissions on actual restitution. It was time for real results.”
The project’s dozen core members have day jobs in business, banking, education and journalism sectors and include art historians and visual matching experts. They share the tasks of tracking stolen heritage, raising public awareness and lobbying with the Indian government to prioritize the issue. Saxena, for instance, goes on roadshows to build grassroots momentum, maintains an online presence, writes op-ed articles and speaks at universities and international conferences on the issue.
The India Pride Project team also includes a vast network of volunteers, mobilized quickly through social media to take on various pieces of research, advocacy and restitution activities. The online community is crucial to the project’s efforts. “Earlier this year, vandals destroyed a 1,000-year-old Ganesha statue in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, by pushing it over a cliff,” says Saxena. “This local issue turned into a national debate when an article about it was shared over 30,000 times [on social media platforms]. Self-organized volunteers from IPP supported the government’s restoration efforts, and the statue was restored and reinstalled within a week.” Saxena continues, “These are people who invest their passion, time and money from their own pockets. It just goes to show when people with the right intent get together, magic can happen.”
An online petition #BringOurGodsHome has garnered thousands of signatures from across the world. “When I started the online petition, I only expected a bit of crowd-sourced action. I never imagined it would grow into a movement,” says Saxena. “I’m thankful we have a digitally-connected prime minister who has clearly taken notice.”
During a 1998 visit to Texas, Saxena was struck by the irony that the United States, “with its relatively short 400-year history, takes care of an 80-year-old historic building, while our country’s museums, temples and forts dating back thousands of years lie in ruins.” The India Pride Project can claim credit for laying the groundwork for the high profile return of a 10th-century bronze Nataraja statue to India by Australia in 2014. Saxena says the Indian government has restored 27 of the thousands of lost heritage artifacts.
Credit is given to the United States, Germany, Australia, Canada and Singapore for wanting to “make it right,” when presented with evidence of looted Indian treasures in their country. Saxena points to the U.S. Bill, H.R.2285, for ensuring cultural heritage restoration, sponsored by Representative William R. Keating in September 2016, passing unanimously with bipartisan support. “It’s a great example of how politicians can rally behind this issue,” says Saxena.
Once a stolen item is identified, located and verified, the Indian government initiates a diplomatic process for transfer and eventual restitution of the treasure to the home country.
Restitution of stolen artifacts becomes even more crucial given its linkages with prevention of terror funding. In 2015, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199, condemning trade of oil, antiquities and hostages with Al-Qaeda-associated groups. “That was when the global narrative shifted from national pride to national security,” says Saxena. “The resolution finally linked heritage crimes with terror funding.”
Energizing the Indian public to lobby for repatriation is destined to happen, according to Saxena. “Unlike other causes where there’s two sides to an argument, there really is no counter when we’re against stealing our heritage.”
Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.