Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Yankee Hindutva": What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I'd like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically issues like: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I'm going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What's at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad's book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called "Of Yankee Hindutva." They also feature in Prashad's essay in Sulekha, "Letter to a Young American Hindu."

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the "Yankee Hindutva" he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they've published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) are concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below, I'll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk. For now, let's start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people's various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya's post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn't be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the "pro Sonal Shah" side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this:

Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni? (link)

These seem like great questions, and unfortunately I don't think there are any solid answers. Things like "Diwali Against Communalism" come off as a little weak. Inter-faith conferences and events are also great, but groups that are targeted by people like Prashad (like HSS-US) regularly particpate in them, so how much work does the "Inter-Faith" movement really do?

2. Looking at Prashad's "Yankee Hindutva"

The only person I know of who has spent any energy investigating the American branches of South Asian religious organizations and youth camps is Vijay Prashad, and I don't find his account to be sufficient. I don't say that he's wrong, per se, but rather that I wish there were other people investigating these groups and filling out the gaps in our knowledge of them.

My first problem is with the narrow way Prashad defines his subject. Prashad explicitly states that he's not going to look at Sikh or Muslim camps or organizations, because in his view the "VHPA is far more powerful (demographically and financially) and is far more able to create divisions within the desi community than to draw us toward an engagement with our location as desis in the United States" (KoBF 134).

In fact, I don't think that's true even on the face of it. Khalistani groups (now mostly defunct) and conservative Muslim groups historically have done as much to encourage self-segregation within second generation desi communities as the VHP-A. It may be true that the VHPA is more "powerful," but without seeing membership numbers or financial statements, I don't see why we should assume that. With his exclusive focus on Hindu organizations, Prashad seems to be employing a double standard.

I'm also disappointed in Prashad's narrow focus on the VHP-A because, as a moderate Sikh, I'm curious to know more about how he sees Sikh youth camps and Sikh American organizations. (I attended Sikh youth camps as a child, and was even a counselor/teacher at a now-defunct Sikh youth camp in central Pennsylvania, in 1998.)

Prashad's chapter has many long paragraphs of political commentary, as well as several pages on a figure from the 1920s, named Taraknath Das. He gets to the topic at hand about 10 pages into the chapter, when he connects the VHPA to the Hindu Students Council:

The VHPA acts multiculturally through its student wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), which champions a syndicated Brahmanical Hinduism (of Hindutva) as the neglected culture of the Hindu Americans. The HSC subtly moves away from the violence and sectarianism of related organizations in India and vanishes into the multicultural space opened up in the liberal academy. The HSCs and Hindutva flourish in the most liberal universities in the United States, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what some consider to be the neglected verities of an ancient civilization.

Notice something familiar here? It's the exact same rhetorical move that's been made with Sonal Shah: though HSC appears to be more tolerant, accepting, and reasonable than the VHPA, that is only a front -- in fact, they are really just the smiley, tolerant-looking face of a Global Hindutva Conspiracy. Actually, I am far from convinced, by either Prashad or the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, that the HSC is a problematic organization at all. They insist that they have been an independent organization since 1993, and I have seen no real evidence to doubt that.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Several people have suggested to me that the links between VHPA and HSC probably were more sustained than this. I have also been told that some HSC groups — Cornell especially, before 2002 — and some of the leadership have said things with a communal bent. Those are important qualifications, but it doesn’t really alter my basic point, that HSC for its members is primarily a social organization for second generation college students, while VHPA has a firmer communalist focus, and remains more oriented to, and driven by, politics in India.]

Another problematic assertion arises a few pages later in Prashad's chapter, when he finally starts to talk about money:

Between 1990 and 1992, the average annual income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993 its income had gone up to $1,057,147. An allied group of the VHPA, the India Development and Relief Fund, raised almost $2 million in the 1990s (some of it via the United Way). This money is discreetly transferred into India. It is common knowledge that during the way of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe toward the erection of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry huge sums of money in cash or kind from the United States to India.

First, it's nice to see some dollar amounts here, though it would be even nicer if a source for those dollar amounts was given. Second, it may well be true that the VHPA has sent money to the Indian VHP, which was used for nefarious purposes. As I hope is clear, I have no interest in defending the VHPA or (and this should go without saying) the VHP/RSS in India. But it is simply not enough to say "it is common knowledge that X is occurring." Some direct evidence is important. Again, if we don't have it, it doesn't mean a progressive ought to write these organizations off as harmless.

But what that lack of direct evidence does require is a different tone -- we don't know how much money is involved, so it's misleading to write as if we do. It could be a lot, or it could be very little. It is a real possibility that the supposed financial might of "Yankee Hindutva" might be, in the end, somewhat overblown. The Indian branches of these organizations are huge structures, with plenty of independent ability to raise money.

Towards the end of the "Yankee Hindutva" chapter in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad makes a point that I think is very valid -- the way in which second generation South Asian youth are taught their religious traditions via religious organizations and youth camps is often rather distorted. He quotes the great C.M. Naim quite appositely along these lines:

[C.M. Naim:] "The religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation . . . is closer to an ideology than a faith or culture. IT has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation; and it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include." [Prashad:] In the United States there are mosques and temples but no dargahs (shrines), "not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would go together to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with god." [C.M Naim, quoted in Prashad, 149]

I completely agree with this, though it seems necessary to also point out that this process of religious consolidation that occurs in the diaspora has also been occurring in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The utopian vision of religious syncretism and blending is largely, now, a vision of the past. It is important to remember it and understand its legacy (Amitav Ghosh has often done that beautifully in his writings), but "strong" religion has largely displaced it in the Indian subcontinent in the present day.

As a Sikh growing up in the U.S., I have first-hand experience of the religious consolidation Naim is talking about. What we were taught about the Sikh tradition at Gurdwara and Sikh youth camps was often very different from what my cousins were learning back in Delhi and Chandigarh. Even the way it's practiced -- the actual ritual of visiting the Gurdwara -- is a little different. (In the diaspora, most people go once a week, and spend several hours. It's "like going to Church." In India, the devout tend to visit the Gurdwara every day, but they only stay a few minutes. Religious practices are more concentrated here in the U.S., and also more isolated from everyday life. Ironically, through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, this process of Westernizing means that the relationship to religion can become more intense, and perhaps more extreme, than it is for most people in the Indian subcontinent.)

Of course, all this is a bit beside the point -- as it's a phenomenon that is interesting sociologically, but it isn't really evidence of a rising tide of "Yankee Hindutva." The first wave of second generation children who were raised with this uniquely diasporic version of South Asian religions are now in the their 30s and 40s, and for the most part they outgrew what they were taught in those religious camps as teenagers.

Some quick conclusions:

1) Not everyone who attends or speaks at an HSS youth camp is a fanatic, as evidenced by the example of the blog comment I quoted above.

2) It would still be nice if there were more options for exposure to moderate forms of South Asian religion in the diaspora.

3) Prashad's decision to focus only on Hindu organizations and youth camps is overly limiting. It's not just because it produces a political slant and a double-standard; it's also analytically limiting, because there might be parallels and patterns among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and Christians? Jains?) that this limited scope doesn't allow.

4) I am not convinced that the HSC should be lumped in with the VHPA. The former seem to very clearly by oriented to ABDs on college campuses -- and serve primarily a social function. The VHPA is, by contrast, clearly tied to a communalist concept of Hinduism.

5) I agree that second generation South Asian Americans often get a somewhat distorted (more monoculturalist) image of South Asian religions because of what is taught by religious organizations and summer camps. But I am not sure this is really our most pressing problem.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shivaji: Beyond the Legend

The following post was inspired by the news last week that the government of Maharasthra is planning to build a huge statue of Shivaji off the coast of Bombay (that's right, I said Bombay), on the scale of the American statue of liberty. The statue will be built off-shore, on an artificial island constructed especially for the purpose.

I'm not actually opposed to the idea of the statue -- as far as I'm concerned, it's all part of the great, entertaining tamasha of modern Bombay -- though obviously I think there could be some other figures from Indian culture and history who might also be worth considering (how about a 300 foot bust of a glowering Amitabh Bachchan, for instance?). But reading the news did make me curious to know some things about the historical Shivaji that go beyond the hagiographical myths and legends one sees on Wikipedia, so I went to the library and looked at a book I had been meaning to look at for a couple of years, James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

+ * +

In 2004, James Laine became a target of the Hindu right after the publication of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but as is often the case the people burning down libraries, and destroying priceless works of India's cultural heritage, clearly did not read the book. If one actually reads Laine's work, one finds that Laine is quite careful not to frontally challenge the myth of Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior. Indeed, there is much there that actually supports the pride that many Maharasthrians feel about Shivaji.

The conclusions Laine comes to after surveying the evidence on Shivaji were surprising to me. Though I obviously came to the book looking for objectivity as an antidote to the bloated mythology loudly propagated by the Shiv Sena, I presumed that "objectivity" and "secularism" would be more or less synonymous. The reality may be somewhat more complex in Shivaji’s case. Though he’s clearly not quite what his partisans believe he was, Shivaji’s story remains inspiring and heroic even after some scholarly scrutiny. And though he was more secular than many Hindu chauvinists will admit, Shivaji certainly did pointedly assert his identity as a Hindu and promote symbolic elements of Hindu religion and culture against the increasingly intolerant imposition of Islam during the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb and the final years of the Bijapur Sultanate (see Adil Shah).

Here is how Laine describes his project near the beginning of the book:

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge. . . . In the modern popular imagination, many of [the different strands of the Shivaji story] are woven together and reproduced in both bland textbooks and dramatic popular accounts as though the simple facts can be taken for granted. In other words, the dominance of a certain grand narrative of Shivaji’s life is so powerful that the particular concerns of its many authors have been largely erased. (8)

The scholarly debunker is sometimes a powerful ally in ascertaining the often complex and nuanced truth behind historical legends, but in this book Laine doesn’t see confrontational debunking as his primary task. Rather, he wants to get back to the fundamentals of the Shivaji story (i.e., what can be objectively known based on primary historical sources), before following the path of the revisionist, nationalist, patriotic remaking of that story through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laine starts by looking directly at the 17th century sources (in Sanskrit and Marathi) written by those who were close to Shivaji himself.

The primary texts he works with were written in Marathi and Sanskrit, both of which are languages in which Laine is proficient. Afzal Khan Vadh (“The Killing of Afzal Khan”) is a series of Marathi heroic ballads, authored by a poet alternately known as Agrindas or Ajnandas in 1659 (while Shivaji was still alive). Two other primary sources cited by Laine are written in Sanskrit, by Brahmin authors who were commissioned directly by Shivaji himself: the Sivabharata (or Shivabharata), an epic poem written by Kavindra Paramananda in 1674 (at the time of Shivaji’s coronation as "Chatrapati" – Lord of the Umbrella/Umbralla-Lord), and the Srisivaprabhuce, a historical chronicle written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad, in 1697.

The first surprise is that there’s little reason to doubt the best-known aspects of the Shivaji legend: the three works are surprisingly consistent with one another, especially regarding Shivaji’s childhood and upbringing, his emergence as a warrior with the killing of Afzal Khan, the punishment of Shaista Khan, the escape from Aurangzeb’s court at Agra, and the conquest of Simhagad in 1670. The most significant “humanizing” point Laine makes (and this is also one of the major sources of controversy) is his suggestion, late in his book, that Shivaji’s parents seem to have been estranged from one another –- Shivaji was brought up by his mother in one principality, while his father was a soldier for another, rival kingdom, who left before Shivaji was born. (Later hagiography would smooth over this aspect of the history, suggesting that Shivaji’s father sent him and his mother to Pune as part of a great plan.) The point of raising this is not to "take Shivaji down a notch" or find shame or scandal in the story. Rather, from my point of view at least, humanizing Shivaji in this way gives us a certain (modern) psychological explanation for why Shivaji was so driven as an adult: he had something to prove.

The second surprise for me is Laine’s acknowledgment that all the evidence supports the idea that Shivaji was assertive about Hindu religion and culture. It’s still wrong to use him symbolically as some kind of nationalist Hindu "freedom-fighter," who devoted his life to killing mleccha invaders (for Laine, it’s more correct to say that Shivaji was a kingdom-builder). But it’s also not accurate to say that religion is somehow completely irrelevant to his story. This comes out first with reference to Shivaji’s coronation in 1674:

One important moment for the construction of an official biography was surely the grand event of Shivaji’s coronation. For the last decade of his life, he was relatively free of Mughal pressure, and in 1674, was enthroned chatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom in an orthodox lustration ceremony (abhisheka). The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions. In other words, there is clear evidence that at the end of his career Shivaji began to think in new ways about his exercise of military and political power, ways that drew upon ancient symbols of Hindu kingship. He called upon a prominent pundit from Benares, Gaga Bhatta, to establish his genealogy and claim of true kshatriya status before investing him with the sacred thread, performing an orthodox wedding, and then a royal lustration ceremony of enthronement. At this time, Shivaji lavished great wealth on all the Brahmins who were gathered to confer legitimacy, and he employed two poets to write laudatory epic poems about him. On was Paramananda, whom we have mentioned as the author of the Sanskrit Sivabharata, a text that is clearly composed for the coronation though never finished . . . The second was Kavi Bhusan, who wrote the Sivarajabhusan in the Braj dialect of Hindi. (30)

And Laine expands upon the implications of his interpretation of the coronation a few pages later:

Shivaji himself, growing up in Pune, at that time a remote and insignifican town far away from the Bijapuri court, was unlike his father and grandfather in being not only less content to be in vassalage to a Muslim sultan but also concerned to extend the scope of Hindu culture. Moreover, he dealt with sultans who adopted a more rigorous religious policy than their predecessors. I would argue that his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically. These may have been gestures of legitimation, but he could very well have chosen better-known Persianate ways of achieving the same end.

In other words, Shivaji was raised at some distance from what Laine is describing as the "Islamicate" culture dominant in north and central India in the 17th century. He also clearly went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time.

Laine continues:

This is to say that Shivaji was not only discontended with the idea of being Islamic, he was discontented with even being Islamicate, that is, he read his religion not as a strict constructionist or in purely theological or essentialist ways, but saw religion as broadly diffuse throughout culture. We might say that he saw ‘religion’ as dharma. Thus, although Richard Eaton has emphasized the new Islamic rigorism in the Adil Shahi regime after 1656, a rigorism that parallels the later policies of Aurangzeb (Eaton 1978), I would say that Shivaji was similarly disposed to see Hindu and Muslim subcultures —- not just theologies -- as distinct. There would be constraints on Shivaji’s religious agenda, as there were for Aurangzeb of course, and there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy. For example, he wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously, as well s being qt times quite willing to accept vassalage to the Adil Shah or Mughal emperor. But I would have to disagree with Stewart Gordon, who has written: ‘Shivaji was not attempting to construct a universal Hindu rule. Over and over, he espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu believes and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with Muslim states which surrounded him… even against Hindu powers" (Gordon 1993). I do not think I am disputing the evidence Gordon adduces, but my interpretation depends on how one uses the word ‘Hindu.’ (39)

This is a more complicated set of academic arguments, relating to how one interprets the idea of "religion" in an earlier historic moment, outside of Abrahamic norms. Putting it quite simply: to see Hindu religion as "diffuse throughout culture" doesn’t necessarily weaken it; rather, it was one of the ways Shivaji could find a new way of asserting it against the dominant powers of the time.

Secondly, Laine is arguing that though it’s wrong to read Shivaji as a kind of proto-communalist, it’s also a mistake to see him as someone who primarily espoused "tolerance and syncretism." He was actually somewhere in between.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

"Satyagraha," by Phillip Glass

The New York Times has a behind-the-scenes look at a new version of Phillip Glass's modernist opera, "Satyagraha," which is playing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York until May 1. There is also a companion video piece, which I could watch but not listen to from the computer I'm working on this morning.

The libretto uses the Bhagavad-Gita as a source, and the opera as a whole aims to index some of the key events in Gandhi's early political awakening in South Africa with the plot and text of the Gita. That alone might be a little confusing, since the central question facing Arjuna in the Gita, as most readers will know, is whether or not to fight -- and Gandhi's signature political contribution ("Satyagraha") is the philosophy of non-violent resistance. The choice could of course be defended depending on your interpretation of the Gita, and indeed, I gather that Gandhi did his own translation -- with commentary -- of the Bhagavad-Gita in 1924. I haven't read Gandhi's version, though I should note that it has recently been re-published as a volume called Bhagavad-Gita According to Gandhi.

The current interpretation of Glass's work adds some new elements, including a strong focus on newsprint and newspaper culture as a theme in Gandhi's story (that at least seems dead-on). There are also towering puppets, made of "newspaper, fiberglass kite poles, light cotton cloth and lots of latex glue," which symbolize historical figures from Gandhi's past (Tolstoy), present, and future (MLK).

It seems like an interesting work, though I have to admit I'm not sure I personally would enjoy it. (And most tickets under $100 have already been sold out, so it's not something where a person would go casually...) Has anyone seen this? Is anyone planning to?

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Taking "Looting" to A Whole New Level: Vaman Ghiya

There's the makings of a nice suspense novel in a recent New Yorker piece on one of India's greatest -- and most evil -- contemporary antiquities smugglers, Vaman Narayan Ghiya. Ghiya operated a transnational smuggling network out of Jaipur, which included three Swiss shell companies that bought and sold smuggled vast quantities of Indian antiquities, ultimately so the priceless works could be acquired by London auction houses -- and "legally" sold at Sotheby's and Christie's.

Ghiya, who was extremely cautious in his business operations, was brought down by a dedicated police officer, Anand Shrivastava, who essentially dedicated years to learning about the workings of the international antiquities market in order to better understand the criminal side of it. Almost miraculously, Ghiya wasn't able to bribe his way out of prison, nor was bail allowed in his case -- and his case is currently in process. Just to give you a sense of scale, here's what the police found when they raided Ghiya's house and his various warehouses:

Then Superintendent Shrivastava and his men searched the house, spending hours rummaging through the elegant rooms. Behind the wood panelling of Ghiya’s private study, the officers discovered a set of secret cupboards, which held hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures: graceful stone figures of the deities Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati and Parvati’s elephant-headed son, Ganesha; Jain Tirthankaras and Chola bronzes; dancing goddesses with many arms and melon breasts, festooned with delicately rendered ornaments. The photographs were color snapshots, and the objects pictured sat outdoors, in patches of grass or mud. Many evidently had been roughly pried away from temple walls and were missing limbs or heads. The police also discovered sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

This stash seemed to confirm Shrivastava’s suspicion that Vaman Ghiya operated one of the most extensive and sophisticated clandestine antiquities rings in history, and that he had grown rich in the past three decades by smuggling thousands of Indian antiques to auction houses and private collectors in the West. The police found no sculptures in Ghiya’s home. But, in the days that followed, Shrivastava’s men raided half a dozen properties that Ghiya owned around Jaipur, his farm outside the city, and various godowns, or storage facilities, in Mathura and Delhi. They discovered antique paintings, swords and shields, marble panels, stone pillars, three hundred and forty-eight pieces of sculpture, and a dismantled Mogul pavilion the size of a small house. (link)

Ghiya was able to operate for so long partly because he had a legitimate crafts shop as a front in Jaipur. Ghiya was also helped by India's notoriously "flexible" customs system:

Ghiya’s handicrafts business had many hallmarks of a front. India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, passed in 1972, is a particularly stringent measure, which requires that any privately owned work of art that is more than a hundred years old be registered with the government. Since it is generally illegal to export such objects, to be an antique dealer in India with an international clientele is also arguably to be a criminal. But Indian customs officers are required to check only ten per cent of any large shipment of exports, and smugglers frequently bury a single priceless statue in a giant case of bric-a-brac. (link)

Alongside Customs, Ghiya's business was facilitated by India's underfunded Archeological agency, the Archeological Survey of India -- which has never even fully indexed all of India's major archeological treasures, much less employed staff to protect and maintain them. Ghiya also had an ingenious system, where he would commission the production of fakes of particularly important works he stole, and have the ASI officially certify that the fakes were in fact fake. He would then attach the "This is not an original" slip to the original he had stolen, so there wouldn't be a problem at Customs.

Of course, part of why Ghiya's crimes are particularly troubling is the fact that many of the stolen religious sculptures were in fact still being actively worshipped:

For religious Hindus, images of the gods are not merely representational; they can be inhabited by the deity they depict. The faithful anoint the statues with oils, camphor, and sandalwood, garland them with flowers, and make offerings of food, incense, and music. (The word “idol,” though largely abandoned by Western academics because of its perceived pejorative connotation, remains in use in India to describe these objects.) When, in 1986, the Indian government sued for the return of a twelfth-century bronze Shiva that had been looted from a village in Pathur, it did so on behalf of the offended god himself: Shiva was named as a plaintiff in the case. “In the south, people still don’t tell lies in Shiva’s temple,” Ashok Shekhar, a former state arts and culture official in Rajasthan, told me. “These are very hotheaded deities.”

This aspect of Hinduism seems not to have bothered Ghiya, who was more concerned about how much his western buyers were willing to pay than whether his actions constituted desecration on an extaordinary scale.

Of course, Ghiya is not the first to pillage India's treasures -- this goes back to the British Raj (and perhaps before; but let's not get into Vijayanagar again...). But this is fresh pillaging, and in some ways worse: what's striking is that western buyers, which includes museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum, as well as smaller museums (the Cleveland Museum) continued to buy "newly discovered" antiquities from India even after it was made perfectly clear that the export of such antiquities was forbidden by modern Indian law. Are any of these museums planning to return the stolen antiquities now that Ghiya has been arrested and his network exposed?

Sotheby's London at least has been deeply affected by Ghiya's arrest. Ghiya's contact at Sotheby's was a dealer named Peter Watson, who was forced to resign once it became clear that he had been extensively engaged in acquiring smuggled goods from Ghiya. Eventually, it spread: Sotheby's entire antiquities wing in London was forced to shut down.

The law itself might be part of the problem. Japan, which has also had its share of looting and pillaging, has what might be a better system:

The antiquities law has many critics. “The law as it stands doesn’t benefit anybody,” said the scholar and curator Pratapaditya Pal, who came to the United States in the mid-nineteen-sixties and built several renowned collections, including Norton Simon’s. The law is self-defeating, Pal believes, because it makes no distinction between a masterpiece and any generic antique. The result is a black market that the government lacks the resources to control. Pal prefers the model adopted by Japan, which identifies art works of national significance and keeps them in the country, while allowing everything else to be sold on the open market.

Yes -- taxes could be extracted on the sale of works deemed not of national significance, and those taxes could be directly channeled to the ASI, which would then be better able to protect and maintain the artifacts that are of national significance.

And there are many other issues raised by this article, which I unfortunately don't have time to get into at present. I would strongly recommend readers to check out Patrick Radden Keefe's whole article -- journalism like this pretty much justifies my New Yorker subscription.

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