Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Treasure Hunting

During the 2003 fall of Baghdad invaluable artwork dating back to the origins of human civilization were stolen. This was attributed to the lack of security for the Baghdad National Museum, at the time of war. Following this widespread looting, the Interpol formed a team to track down the art and antiquities. The Interpol made this announcement after a panel of antiquities experts said it suspected some of the looting had been "commissioned" by collectors who had anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.[]
Further U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft also suggested that organized crime was involved. "There is a strong case that the looting … was perpetrated by organized criminal groups — criminals who know what they were looking for," Ashcroft said, praising Interpol's efforts.[]
U.S. Senator John Kerry also criticized President Bush during their first televised debate that the U.S. military guarded the oil ministry building in Iraq, but not the national museum.
Where did the stolen art go?
Again CBS news reports: []
Lynne Chaffinch, manager of the FBI Art Theft Program, says..” the thieves will attempt to sell most of the stolen pieces in wealthy countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland. People in the United States already buy about 60 percent of the world's art, both legal and illegal.”
News magazines also covered the role of the American Council for Cultural Policy’s (ACCP) role in the looting. “Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon officials, declaring their great concern for Iraqi antiquities. What that concern means is evident from the remarks of William Pearlstein, the group’s treasurer, who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities as “retentionist.” The ACCP deny that they want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the museum and library will effectively circumvent that problem if U.S. law on stolen art objects and archaeological material can be changed.”[]
In spite of the fact that most of the Iraqi art stolen is going to end up with private collectors in the developed countries, there have not been major questions raised at the U.S. administration by the media (which has already forgotten this story) or from the public. Chicago University experts say between 50,000 and 200,000 items were stolen from Baghdad museums after the city fell to U.S. forces. This should definitely rank with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C.
My contention is that much of the developed world’s officials and public still view artwork and natural resources of the developing world as “treasures”, legitimizing a “treasure hunt” mentality. This desensitizes the citizens of the developed world to violations of sovereignty of the states of the developing world and their ownership rights over artwork and natural resources.
A search in the net for the British Museum and Egypt brings up thousands of web pages marked as treasure. These “treasures” rightfully belong to the Egyptian people and yet even Egyptians have to travel a thousand miles to Britain to view them. Items include the Rosetta Stone and several mummies. One website describes the British Museum thus: “2003 marks the 250th anniversary of the British Museum. Back in 1753 the treasures that had been brought home to England from its many colonies around the world found a home in this palatial building.”(

During the British occupation of India many priceless artwork and jewelry were taken to adorn the British Museum. Among this are the peacock throne, the throne of the Mughal kings, and the Koh-i-Nur one of the largest diamonds in the world. The Koh-i-Nur resides in the Tower of London among the Crown Jewels of the House of Windsor. It was acquired by the British in 1849 after the Second Sikh War. In spite of repeated requests from the free Indian government, after Independence, none of these have been returned to the rightful owners. In fact any attempts to ask for these are routinely met with derision in the British media(
One of the beliefs widely held in the Western world is that the Industrial Revolution was somehow the indigenous byproduct of the ingenuity of the Western thinkers. On the other hand: “At this time, large amounts of silver and gold were being plundered from the Americas. This not only furnished the money that is credited with starting the Industrial Revolution, it seriously devalued Turkish money required to buy the tools of war. Thus the treasures gathered for centuries by the people of the great Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures were transported to Europe” (Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers [New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988], p. 16).
The ACCP’s Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School says in International Law and Politics vol.31:1:”The existence of a market preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them.” What Professor Merryman is implying is that Iraqis are not fit to take care of their art and that art is better transported to the living rooms of the rich in the developed world.
This is the same attitude shown towards natural resources, such as oil in the developing world. A few policy statements made by public officials in the U.S. administrations are chilling.
“We have 50 per cent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality ... we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.”
-- George Kennan, U.S. State Department Policy Planning, Study #23, 1948
These sentiments find echo in the current administration’s war on Iraq. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s comment on Iraq, when he was the CEO of Halliburton: “In the 04/01/96 edition of Petroleum finance week, then-CEO Cheney blithely dismissed the ethical concerns of doing business with brutal dictators, saying, "The problem is that the good Lord didn't see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments." []
Seeing the developing world merely as a provider of oil, artwork for the rich and cheap labor leads to public apathy over casualties in the developing world as the developed world pursues these objectives.
“The South is assigned a service role: to provide resources, cheap labor, markets, and opportunities for investment and, lately, export of pollution. For the past half-century, the US has shouldered the responsibility for protecting the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places them “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” as Winston Churchill put the matter after World War II.”-- Noam Chomsky, Year 501, (South End Press, 1993), Chapter 2
A substantial push for revamping the public mentality can only be done through education – by showing that being poor does not mean the developing world’s populace is somehow bereft of dignity and the right of ownership.

The politics of dynasties

Recently I have been reading Ralph Nader’s book on contemporary American civic society called “The Good Fight”. Mr.Nader describes how the “corporatization” of America has left consumers with few choices and ever increasing debt.
It got me thinking about the electoral scene in India. The last Lok Sabha elections, the recent Maharashtra elections all stand out in their total lack of choice to the electorate. In most states the incumbent always loses. The incoming administration talks about change, and then 5 years later gets voted out for sure. Ten years back intellectuals were extolling the virtues of a two-party system and sometimes even about a presidential form of government. Now, we virtually do have a two-party system, but nothing has changed.
Do the major political parties at least differ in policies and their implementation? Not exactly, as far as economic policy goes. The BJP bought into Congress initiated reforms. There is little difference between even the Communists’ policies in West Bengal and the AIADMK’s policies in Tamil Nadu.
Why should this be a matter of concern? We are the largest democracy in the world…aren’t we?
One of the important reasons why we should not consider ourselves a democracy is precisely this lack of choice. But there is another more pressing concern. This is the “corporate” behavior of our political parties. In these times, the term corporate has become synonymous with professionalism and efficiency.
But corporations are also profit-focused and in India, mostly privately owned.
Most of Ralph Nader’s complaints about giant corporations can also be made against our political parties. Increasingly India’s political parties have become privately owned, this ownership passed on from generation to generation. Political parties have become totally focused on power and profit.
The ticket granting power that the party “high command” possesses has been used for bringing inordinate pressure over local party committees. The Election Commission’s efforts to enforce inner party democracy have actually become a farce. Joining a political party or rising through its ranks is increasingly not a choice for any honest person. In fact, being a politician is such a stigma that we rejoice when a non-political person such as Dr. Manmohan Singh ascends the highest office. One of the qualifications for Sonia Gandhi is that she was not a politician till a few years back.
Let us think about how our parties should work ideally and then survey the current travesties.
Ideally political parties are supposed to represent people. This means that local party memberships should still be held by ordinary citizens not interested or not having the time for active political engagement. In each ward political parties should have membership drives. These lead to regular ward level meetings in which citizens participate. At the time of elections, the local ward level nominees have to be chosen by the people, not by the “high command”. People should at least have a power of veto if the high command chooses a nominee. This process leads to nominations at any level up to the legislative assembly.
The tragedy in India is that the commons of ward level political process has been ceded by the people to privately owned parties. One of the reasons is historical. Our political activism from the time of freedom struggle has been influenced top down. But post-independence, successive administrations could have corrected this by educating people about the necessity of their participation in local politics. Even now, this is not a part of our educational curriculum. This has helped political parties enormously, and they intentionally maintain the myth that citizens do not have any say in party functioning except at the time of elections.
A couple of months ago, when the “tainted” ministers’ controversy stalled parliament, the Prime Minister made the comment that corrupt legislators should have been voted out by the electorate. Since these ministers won the elections, he argued, people are actually fine with the corruption. Back to business. Again he is reinforcing the myth that parties can nominate or give tickets to anyone for elections; it is up to the electorate to discern the good from the bad. He is wrong. Political parties are supposed to be our first line of defense. Parties should NOT give tickets to anyone they please. Their argument: Do whatever it takes to win in a constituency. Political parties are playing in the game of politics to win. In the end ordinary people lose. See what I mean by corporatization?
It is the same with Sonia Gandhi’s leadership of Congress. The BJP focused on her foreign origin and at the end of last elections, we were told that people had voted for her and against the foreign origin issue. Is this true? Almost all of our voting is based on local issues; many people who voted for the Congress actually voted against the incumbent. Apart from this, the focus is not Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. The crime was committed much earlier, in 1997, when the Congress party leaders in all their wisdom, offered the leadership of the most powerful party in India to Sonia Gandhi, a political novice, with no demonstrated skills in politics, law, management or debating. The Congress Party’s answer: It is an internal party matter. No, it is not. Offering leadership to her demonstrated a total disregard or concern for ordinary citizens and sent a clear signal that dynasties were back in fashion.
The BJP and the communists are no different. If their leadership line is not dynasty based, it is still secretive. They still defend their decisions on un- principled alliances and criminal nominees.
Take a look around the Tamil Nadu political scene: The AIADMK has no second line leaders and is a totally individual owned party. The DMK which makes a show of inner party democracy, still nominated Dayanidhi Maran, the grandson of M.Karunanidhi, another novice and now he is a central minister. M.K.Stalin, son of Karunanidhi is touted to be the future Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The PMK leader Dr.Ramadoss appointed his son to the Rajya Sabha and he is now another central minister. G.K.Moopanar’s son Vasan is another political novice brought out of the blue to inherit the Congress Party leadership in Tamil Nadu. All too frequently, film stars are nominated so that they could win constituencies based on their popularity and charisma. How qualified are any of these people? What difference could they possibly make in the miserable lives of hundreds of millions?
We, as a people, watch this spectacle of ever changing alliances and unqualified nominations from outside, totally divorced from the political process. We laugh at the foibles of Lalu Yadav and Jayalalitha. We cynically comment on Pawar’s alliance with Sonia’s Congress. Then we carry on with our daily lives pretending that none of this has anything to do with us. Meanwhile, our cities are entirely unlivable, our air and waters polluted and millions prepare to die of AIDS and tuberculosis.
There are no shortcuts to take the parties back to the people. These parties now command huge private armies. I personally saw one of these gangs wreaking havoc in Chennai after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, venting their “grief” on small shopkeepers. These parties have control over the police forces. They have the backing of the criminal underworld. They have access to huge amounts of slush money. Remember Sukh Ram, our former central communications minister who had 3 crores in cash at his home? He is back and being courted by all parties!
If we imagine that we can be globally competitive and be a technology “super power” without any kind of civic initiative, we are living in a dream. Good governance, stopping government waste, collecting taxes efficiently, improving the road and railways infrastructure – none of this can take place simply out of policy initiatives by the Central government. To be a true democracy, there is no way out but to take on private political parties by mobilizing civil society. This mobilization should at least be in the scale of our last freedom struggle. Then there was no internet, lower literacy, no telephones, no email, little respect for human rights, even lower life expectancy – yet see what our founding fathers accomplished!