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Why the idea of restitutions and reparations is complex

Plagued by injustices of the past, India tries to reclaim stolen artefacts, and Lloyd's of London apologises for its role in slave trade

A Black Lives Matter protester with a sign, in London.
A Black Lives Matter protester with a sign, in London. (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash)

The image of Devi Sita sitting patiently under the Ashoka tree waiting for Lord Ram to take her back to where she belongs is a familiar one. Last week a little piece of this history found its way to India in the form of a rock from Ashoka Vatika or Seetha Eliya in Sri Lanka — the place where Sita is supposed to have spent her days in Lanka when she was held captive by Ravana. A delegation from Sri Lanka recently visited the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya and presented the sacred rock to the upcoming temple. The rock is a gift from the Sri Lankan government, and will be used in the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

While in this instance, an ancient artefact has established a gesture of cultural ties between two countries, the UNESCO has estimated that India has lost from its soil, more than 50,000 artefacts, to the coffers of private collectors and museums scattered across the globe. People of colour have always faced exploitation — be it in the form of conquests or slavery, racism, or colonisation.

Not just India, but large swathes of the world too are plagued by misplaced or stolen artefacts and other such wrongdoings of the past. In June 2020, London’s leading insurance company Lloyd’s sought out archivists to investigate more than 3,000 of their organisation's artefacts — including paperwork, furnishings, paintings, and silverware. They plan to undertake research into their archives to ascertain what objects link to African and Caribbean history, specifically to slavery.

Lloyd’s accepted its role in the slave trade and issued a public apology in expressing deep regret and made a promise to provide support to charities and organizations involved in black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities. This was in response to the traction created by the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd. Widespread protests at the time had called for racial justice across the globe. It forced a relook into different facets of slave trade.

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The transatlantic slave trade transported about 17 million African men, women, and children across the Atlantic Ocean to work as slaves in plantations producing cash crops like sugar, cotton, and tobacco. The enslaved people were as perishable goods alongside cattle. Just like people insure their cargo, slave owners would insure their slaves and ships. Lloyd’s was the foremost player in marine insurance at the time and played a crucial role in the Atlantic slave trade by insuring the slave ships. Though Lloyd’s has acknowledged their history and have committed to focusing on taking reparative actions to shape a more inclusive future, the company has embarked on this journey of historical repair only after it was pushed against the wall. While the past can’t be judged with morals of the present, we have to engage with the past while acknowledging its inappropriateness.

Even as we see a large conglomerate grappling with the consequences of its past actions, we see our country grappling with consequences of the actions of others. There might be historical explanations to plunder and exploitation but there is no valid, lasting justification. In the past few years, India has started the repatriation process and is acquiring its lost artefacts.

Last month, U.S. authorities returned around 250 artefacts to India at a ceremony in New York. This transfer is said to be the largest return of artefacts to the country ever made. With a value of around $15 million, these items were a part of a long running investigation against Subhash Kapoor, an art dealer who has been charged with smuggling. The centre piece is a 12th century Shiva Nataraja statue, valued at $4 million. Australia has also committed to return 14 pieces of art to India from the 12th century.

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Restitution is complicated as only governments can recover lost objects. But these discussions open up a moral case and reiterate the point that tangible markers of history belong rightfully to their communities. And when large corporations like Lloyd’s steps up, the future looks promising. A spokesperson for the company acknowledges the mistakes made by Lloyd’s in the past, and says that “the organization’s historic participation in the transatlantic slave trade, and earlier failings to fully acknowledge this history, were anything but brave. We approach this process with profound humility and a spirit of openness, and we are grateful to everyone who continues to hold us to account.”

Even though Lloyd’s has stepped up when called out for the injustices of yore, the UK has been the most non-co-operative nation in the repatriation movement, failing to even acknowledge the number of Indian artefacts it possesses out of which the Koh-i-noor tops the list, followed by Tipu Sultan’s wooden tiger and a 7.5 foot Buddha statue displayed in Birmingham.

Yet, it is heartening to see some objects finding their rightful place, as it is heartening to see ethnic minorities finding their rightful respect and acknowledgement of their pain after so many years. The apology and the acknowledgement has opened up difficult conversations about the systematic and structural racism which has existed for centuries. It may not be enough to mitigate the pain which centuries of enslaved people and their descendants have faced, nor will returning some objects be enough for the sufferers of colonialism. But this is the beginning of a long and arduous journey which will only unfold with time.

Aditi Sarawagi is an independent journalist and writes books for children.

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