One of the London’s V&A Museum’s most popular artefacts can be found at its permanent display, “Imperial Courts of South India.” The wooden figures of a tiger and man, known as Tipu’s Tiger, have long been a symbol of colonial relations. Having been made specifically for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore - the sculpture depicts a tiger attacking a man dressed in European clothing as a way of expressing the ruler’s hatred for the British and their presence in India. 

As much as Tipu’s Tiger is important because it signifies the turbulent relations between British rulers and the citizens of the places they colonised, it is equally significant because it was attained as loot after British soldiers stormed Mysore.

When I first came across the artefact displayed at the V&A, I didn’t quite know how to feel. As much as I loved visiting museums in London and learning new things about history, there was a part of me that was just so angry at seeing the South Asian exhibitions so neatly categorized and displayed, when our history with colonialism has been anything but neat.

Seeing the artefact safely preserved in London two years ago was a jarring reminder of the fact that not very long ago, Britain - where I now lived - saw my ancestors as little more than savages.

 
 
 
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Anjali*, a 24-year old now working in London, says that she’s often confused between what she feels when she visits museums and sees the collections. She points out that she saw a note near one of the African exhibits detailing the history of the objects and ownership, but that its sentiments felt hollow. “Seeing that extra note in museums chock full of objects based on multiple colonial regimes was just a reminder of how easy it is for Britain to retain control over the objects and display them as a part of their histories, while many people around the world do not have the privilege to interact with such exhibits,” she said. 

Of course, not every artefact on display in Britain has been looted. Author and historian William Dalrymple categorises the artefacts present within British museums into roughly three categories.  

“Some were straight up loot. There was this understanding that if a city resisted and it fell, looting would take place. If it surrendered there would be no plunder. But other items were commissioned specifically by British officials, and some were given as gifts or sold by Rajas in an attempt to raise finances,” he told me. 

Below: a screengrab from the V&A Museum's website

Wine cup of Shah Jaya on the V&A museum website

The issue of ‘gifting’ artefacts is a contentious one. Despite the British government’s claim that the infamous Koh-i-Noor diamond was a gift, and therefore something that should remain in their possession, South Asian countries have long refuted that claim. While media reports generally focus on Indian claims on the jewel under the Modi government, it was actually the Pakistani government under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that was the first to ask for the contested diamond to be returned.

In my conversations with others around this topic, I also realised that being able to stay neutral on this issue was a privilege - one that I didn’t have on account of being a Pakistani who like many of my fellow South Asians felt robbed of my own history. The truth is, I don’t feel like I want to politely ask for these things back, I want to take what’s rightfully meant to be ours all along. 

 
 
 
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What Pakistan incidentally hasn’t asked for is the return of much of the Buddhist collection of artefacts currently at The British Museum, and while Dalrymple applauds recent attempts to renovate the Peshawar Museum, he questions whether the artefacts would remain protected under the current government and shifting religious sentiments in the region. 

“The questions of who artefacts like the Koh-i-Noor should go to, or what needs to be done to protect them once they are returned are hard, but they’re questions that only South Asians can answer - not the western world on our behalf,” says Hafsa Khawaja, a graduate of South Asian History at Columbia who is now teaching History and Political Science at the LUMS University in Lahore. 

Khawaja also shares that going abroad to study her own history revealed to her the lack of access that South Asians and many other colonial countries have to their own histories, and how that can inhibit learning.

“So much of what I needed for my thesis was available at small town universities in America, or in libraries and archives in the UK, and it made me realise how the average South Asian citizen would not have the resources to access these documents and information about their own history,” she shares. Her experiences were ones I myself could relate to, because when I wanted to do my research for my dissertation in Pakistan, I was told information wasn’t available there. 

Below: The Koh-i-Noor diamond as it lives now, as part of the British Crown Jewels

There have been attempts by groups and individuals across Europe to bring the real histories of these objects to light, but beyond those isolated efforts, international efforts seem lacking in attempts to repatriate colonial objects. Art historian Richard Morris points out that while French president Macron acknowledged the importance of repatriation of looted artefacts, the British government has a very different stance. 

“This [British] government seems to care very little about art, and about the interests of others. Museums and their directors can only do so much to change as they risk losing funding if they don’t toe the government line,” Morris told me. 

And while not being able to prove ownership from so long ago does make it easier, Khawaja points out that the lack of action also comes from a lack of unity within South Asia. “As much as you and I might want for these objects to be returned [and] can write, sign petitions and all, the front that is needed to create a pressure has to be done on a government level,” she says. 

While citizens of countries across the globe struggle to access their histories, the display and collection of these key objects and documents in British museums serves as a reminder of the power play that has long symbolised European colonialism. By grandly showcasing those pieces, these exhibitions seek to remind the world that those power dynamics still exist, and that foreign powers are still in control of narratives that should have long ago been returned to their own people. 

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