Last week, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a sensational story with an equally sensational headline, India to force Britain into colonial ‘reckoning’ with treasure demands. The article reported that India was preparing to use diplomacy and trade negotiations in order to ensure the repatriation of historical artefacts from Britain, including the Kohinoor diamond and the Amaravati marbles. It was described as “the largest repatriation claim faced by the UK, on a scale that would dwarf Greece’s demands for the Elgin [Parthenon] Marbles.”
An article like this would have caused a stir at any time, but it is especially explosive given that India is in the international spotlight currently as the chair of G20, the intergovernmental forum comprising 19 countries and the European Union. The Indian government responded immediately to The Daily Telegraph piece calling it a “significant overstatement” and “unfortunately misleading”. It clarified that India would pursue repatriation efforts but not as aggressively as this report suggests. In other words: from the foreign policy perspective, we have bigger cats to bell.
In the world of museums, however, conversations on the repatriation of objects continue to evolve and encounter new complexities. Among the positive outcomes of such dialogues is an initiative to repatriate Naga artefacts from the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. The Museum houses 213 human remains as part of a large collection of Naga relics collected by the British during their colonial rule. An effort to return these human remains to Nagaland, where they can be laid to rest with dignity, is being led by anthropologist Dolly Konyak and social scientist Dr Arkotong Longkumer, and facilitated by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR).
FNR and other members of Naga society have formed a team called Recover, Restore and Decolonise(RRaD) to work with the Pitts Rivers Museum to effect this repatriation. According to a Press Trust of India report, the team has conducted interviews among the community back home in India to gauge reactions to this effort. While most respondents welcomed it, some Naga elders expressed unease that bringing back these human remains would only reopen old wounds. To respond to these concerns, Dr Longkumer, Meren Imchen and RRaD have published, A Path Home – A graphic novel on Naga Repatriation—read it here.
Apart from India’s Naga community, Pitts Rivers has also been engaging with other indigenous people in a broader program of reinterpretation and repatriation. In 2017, the Museum launched an initiative called ‘Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces’ that works with the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania. Since then, more British museums have gotten involved in the effort. Its guiding principle is powerfully articulated in this statement by Samwel Nangiria, a socio-environmental scientist and representative of the Maasai tribe: “We are a living culture, not a dead one, and a museum should not be our mausoleum.”
Among the Naga artefacts to be repatriated are relics from the Konyak tribe. Get to know the community through Phejin Konyak’s fantastic lecture for Sarmaya Talks
References & additional reading
India to force Britain into colonial ‘reckoning’ with treasure demands, The Daily Telegraph, 12 May 2023 • 9:00pm
Not planning large-scale request to U.K. for return of cultural property: Centre, The Hindu, May 14, 2023 02:29 am | Updated 09:07 am IST – London / New Delhi
Process To Repatriate Human Remains Of Nagas From UK Museum Underway, NDTV, Updated: April 24, 2023 1:20 pm IST
A New Approach to Repatriation, Museums Journal, 2 November 2020