India – Your Majesty: Thou shalt not steal

April 21, 2018

I wonder if the Archbishop has had the “Thou shall not steal” conversation with Her Majesty.

In fact, I wonder if his predecessors had one with those that adorned the throne before her. I’m guessing, at some point in the last 500 years, someone might have questioned the gory conquests and colonization, and if they are compatible with the Ten Commandments. Perhaps, even disrespectful of them.

The issue of colonial-era loot and Britain’s moral obligation to return heritage to communities they were taken from, is not new. Greece has been asking for the Elgin marbles since 1925. Over 350 Ethiopian manuscripts, forcefully taken after the Battle of Maqdala, are still a matter of dispute. George Clooney and his wife Amal have campaigned for the Parthenon sculptures to be returned. Nigeria has been demanding that the Benin Plaques be returned since 1960. Ironically, Michael Walker, a private citizen that came to possess some of these plaques, has shown higher moral bearing than the British Government by returning them to Nigeria.

Dealing with denial

Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, famously made the case for reparations at Oxford. The fact that almost five million people have watched the video online suggests that there’s an undercurrent of resentment. Why shouldn’t there be? Nations have institutionalized ways to deal with the excesses of their past, of ensuring moral imperatives aren’t ignored. Germany had the Nuremberg trials and the public acceptance of guilt. South Africa had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Israel has the Jewish Holocaust Center. What does Britain have?

When it comes to acknowledging its own colonial-past, and finding ways to move ahead though, Britain sadly remains in denial.

The “past is in the past” narrative might seem very tempting to the Brits, but it just doesn’t cut ice any more. Sure, you are not responsible for the actions of your ancestors. Sure, you can’t undo colonial-era oppression. Sure, you can’t reverse the effects of cultural-cleansing, where Britain wiped out the collective memories and cultures of people it oppressed. Sure, there’s no way you could bring back millions of indigenous peoples that gave their lives for freedom.

What you could do though, is reverse the colonial-era plunder, especially symbols of our culture — our heritage.

Two steps behind France

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