Mughal treasures looted by the British might never be displayed if they are returned to India, William Dalrymple has claimed. The Modi government has indicated many a times that it wishes to secure the return of artefacts taken from India during the days of British Empire.
But William Dalrymple, a British historian based in India, said the situation was “complicated” because the Hindu nationalist authorities do not want to celebrate the country’s former Islamic rulers.
“If you were talking about, say, Jewish art looted from the Rothschilds in occupied Europe during World War Two, every single person in this room would say, ‘Yes, of course that loot has to be returned to its owners.’ It’s completely clear,” Dalrymple told an audience at the Hay Festival.
However, besides the moral question of returning looted items to India, “an additional part of the problem is that, at the moment, India is ruled by a Hindu nationalist government that does not display Mughal items.
“(New) Delhi, which is a Mughal capital, does not have even an entire room where Mughal items are displayed. There was one in the Red Fort but that has been dismantled; there was a proposal to rebuild a new Mughal museum in the Red Fort and that has been put on ice.
“You can go to Delhi and not see a display, at the moment, of Mughal art at all. But it’s there, beautifully displayed, in the British Library, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“So these are not black and white issues. They are really complicated.”
Dalrymple is a renowned writer who authored close to a dozen books about India including The Anarchy, a history of The East India Company. He said that people need to be educated about the extent to which the British plundered India.
“The word ‘loot’ is a Hindustani word meaning plunder. It enters the English language in the 18th century to describe the sort of thing that was arriving in houses like Powis,” he said of Powis Castle, former home of Clive of India which currently houses his haul of Mughal treasures.
“It’s very important to realise the scale of this. Britain is basically a bottom-of-the-First-Division country until, on one hand, the East India Company gets going; and, on the other hand, the slave trade gets going.
“These two sources of wealth transformed this country, whether we like it or not, from the bottom of the First Division to the first in the world, and then the Industrial Revolution was built on the proceeds.”
He added that trading in slaves was “the only sin” that the East India Company didn’t commit.
Dalrymple said: “At this point in time, not enough people in this country understand how much of our national collections came through conquest, loot and pillage.
“You need first to educate people on the biggest thing this country ever did, which is to conquer.
“Today, there is a celebration somewhere in the world of some country’s liberation from Britain every six days. It’s the world’s most popular festival.”
Indian officials have indicated that they want to see the return of artefacts taken under “colonial coercion”.
Govind Mohan, secretary for the Indian ministry of culture, said that returning antiquities would form a key part of India’s policy-making, saying: “It is of huge importance to the government. The thrust of this effort to repatriate India’s artefacts comes from the personal commitment of prime minister Narendra Modi, who has made it a major priority.”