“THE trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.” The words were spoken by notable British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC last year. Robertson has been leading an initiative that is urging British and US museums to return looted objects they have pilfered from around the world. In the particular case, Robertson also mentioned an alleged ‘secret’ tour in which visitors would be shown the most famous looted objects, the Easter Island statues, the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles.
The allegation set off a debate among the British and Americans, who, despite the truth of it, felt it required a counter-narrative. “We’re trying to reset the balance a little bit. A lot of our collections are not from a colonial context; not everything here was acquired by Europeans by looting,” one curator from the British Museum said. We get it; not everything from the museum is looted, but a good bit of it might be. Of course, that isn’t really news to the rest of us, those who belong to nations that lost the material history of their past to the British.
The looted item that would be of interest in the subcontinent is not held at the British Museum but the Victoria and Albert Museum, which as it happens is another repository for stolen artefacts from various colonised countries. Here, in a display case, is Tipu’s Tiger. The mechanical tiger, which stands atop the body of a British soldier, is an example of 18th century mastery. The top of it opens to reveal a musical instrument which can still be played. It is displayed next to some of Tipu Sultan’s clothes and his turban. The tiger, it must be reiterated, was Tipu Sultan’s symbol, displayed on all of his swords and armour and his throne. Even the bronze grenades made for his armies were in the shape of a tiger’s claw. It was a symbol of resistance for a man and an army that were unwilling to simply cede to the British.
The tiger was stolen right after the British won the siege of Seringapatam in 1799. After the brave and martial Tipu Sultan, a man who tried to unite Indians and build a coalition against the British, died on the battlefield, the town and Tipu’s treasury were looted. The items in the treasury were distributed among the British soldiers by rank. The wooden tiger, however, was shipped off to London, where it was displayed at the newly created East India Company Museum, which was created for the express purpose of displaying objects taken in conquest and establishing the domination of the British over India.
The iconic tiger should come to Pakistan, which, being the Muslim successor state after colonial India, should have a right to it.
That was more than 200 years ago, and it is time that the tiger came to Pakistan, which, being the Muslim successor state after colonial India, should have a right to it. While most people in Pakistan have heard the story of Tipu Sultan, very few of them have been able to see this creation that represents the resistance of colonial Muslim rulers against the British. This piece of history, of the mastery that produced the tiger and the valour of the man who owned the tiger, has never been seen by those whose historical ancestry is integrally connected to the history of Muslims in the subcontinent.
It is crucial and necessary and advisable for the government of Pakistan, like the governments of other countries whose artefacts are displayed in the British Museum, to send a formal request that the tiger be returned. The question on the Pakistani side is where the tiger, and anything else that the British may return, would be kept and displayed. One terrible and annoying problem with historical artefacts in this country is that as soon as they are on Pakistani soil, or excavated from it, they are taken away and secretly purchased by the Pakistani elite. The pages of the original Akbarnama have suffered this sort of hiding and hoarding; the pieces of tombs from Chawkandi and the heads of Buddhist sculptures are all items I have seen displayed in drawing rooms.
One worries, then, that even if the tiger were returned, it would never actually be seen by the public. (Given that the tiger symbol has been appropriated by the PML-N, one worries that there would be a particular interest in the animal from that quarter!) One despairs that the tiger, once returned, would become part of the drawing room décor of the elite, and destroyed as it is transported and displayed and touched and battered and bruised.
This is the question for Pakistanis and many other postcolonial nations. Being robbed of history has meant that local publics have little appreciation for it, that corrupt rulers and other elites want to hoard and hide it. Even if these publics are entitled to have the objects of their heritage returned, the governments of these countries have the job of creating that appreciation. All current museums in Pakistan are the subject of neglect and disrepair, with the most precious artworks simply ‘disappearing’ from view.
Undoubtedly, the worst thing about the tiger would be that it, too, after being returned to Pakistan, would disappear. In this sense, Tipu’s Tiger would face the same consequence that it suffers from now: most Pakistanis could not see and appreciate it, and most Pakistanis would not be able to see it. Here, then, is the ultimate postcolonial conundrum: whether it is Tipu’s Tiger, or any other historical object, or colonialism that has left us loathing ourselves and, in turn, our history. A population robbed of its history can demand that it be returned, but then comes the yet unanswered question of what must be done with it.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2020