Time to hew a new antiquities law

The construct around a civilisational history frequently emerges from untouched archaeological sites. Consequently, the premium has long been on archaeologists guiding a nation on what constitutes its history, memory and culture. This ingrained notion has foundationally resulted in the framing of India’s laws based on a singular view of what constitutes an antique. To hang onto this view in today’s age is destructive as can be seen from the fate of antique collecting across India. The prevalent assumption that is constantly alluded to is that every object held by an institution or a collector must have been surreptitiously removed from a shrine or a sacred site. But a civilisational history cannot be constructed purely by an archaeological agency. While it is an important component, other groups such as littérateurs, historians, anthropologists and curators also contribute valuable insights into our material culture. However, the framing of our laws has not happened in conjunction with any of these disciplines. This was because at the time of law framing, the agenda was to preserve India’s material culture which was then under threat much like material heritage of several source countries across the world was. What was thus valid for India at the time of Independence no longer fits in with the requirements, reality and needs of a confident modern-day state that seeks to understand its past. Need for reform The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 has consequently long outlived the purpose for which it was drafted. While a promised amendment has been floated on the website of the Union Ministry of Culture, its status is still largely unknown. The laws that consequently govern the ownership of historical objects, their purchase and sale have, with increasing frequency, been a disincentive for the average collector. Cultural vigilantism and the presumption of guilt without trial, public shaming and the resultant media trial have led to a state of affairs that is dangerous — casting a long shadow on the production of knowledge of our past. Registering antiquities with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has long been a cumbersome and difficult procedure for most collectors, with the state simply not equipped to handle the needs of a growing populace of collectors. Compounding this is the rule that every object over a 100 years is an antique. To ascribe importance by virtue of religious sentiment, age or provenance (seldom proven) to every significant and insignificant work of art will sound the death knell for scholarship or our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful work of art or even a significant national treasure worthy of appreciation. To promote a view that once sacred objects today only belong to temples and thus deny the process of regeneration of these living cultural sites is a myopic view stemming from a lack of understanding of the role and purpose of these objects, the temple economy that maintained them, and also the constant process of renewal that occurred within historic sites.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/time-to-hew-a-new-antiquities-law/article25282137.ece

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