Monday, June 1, 2009

1947: A story of theft of Gilgit manuscripts

By Tariq Ali Mir

 In the SPS Museum two empty engraved boxes await the return of their once prized possession: the Gilgit manuscripts, which were shifted to New Delhi in 1947 during Indo-Pak war for ‘safety’ reasons but were never returned to the state afterwards. 

 Heritage experts in Kashmir say that there is a worldwide movement seeking return of artifacts to their original places, but the display of Gilgit manuscripts in National Archives was a “brazen display of official theft of the state’s heritage.”
 Found by a shepherd in 1931 the 5th century Gilgit manuscripts were placed in the newly established SPS Museum on the orders of Maharaja Hari Singh. The then chief secretary of the Hari Singh, Ramchandra Kak, one of the earliest proponents of an Independent Kashmir, had invited renowned research scholars including Dr. Anil Ankishan Dutta. Dutta was a senior professor at the renowned Fort William College in imperial Calcutta and an international expert on ancient languages of India. Other scholars came from Japan, USA and England
The manuscript is the story of one of the first resistance movements launched by the native Kashmiri Nagas against the onslaught of Buddhist rulers.

 The team from Calcutta was led by Dr. Shyama Prasad Mokerjee, who was vice chancellor of Calcutta University at that time. Gilgit manuscript is the proof of separate Kashmiri identity.
 The manuscript is Kashmir’s link to central Asian republics where similar manuscripts have been found. However, it is the only manuscript written in Sanskrit and Pali.
 The manuscript traces the historical and cultural links of Kashmir and Gilgit. It has an engraving of a Chinar tree, which proves that Chinar is native tree and not imported from Persia as is widely believed.  
 Muhammad Yousuf Taing, who was the former Director of Archives department, says, “I have been a witness to how a part of Kashmiri history, the manuscript, was taken away from us by Delhi.” He said in 1947 when India and Pakistan fought first war over Kashmir, Jawarharlal Nehru requested Sheikh Abdullah that manuscripts be flown to Delhi for “temporary safe keeping.” Sheikh agreed and a special plane was flown in from Delhi to transport the manuscript to National Archives Delhi.
 Taing says that this shows the importance of the manuscript. “Even in war a prime minister remembered the manuscripts. What other proof do we need to highlight their importance?”
 After the ceasefire was announced, Sheikh asked Nehru to return the manuscript, but the reply from Delhi was that “Director General of Archives was out of country.” And when the DG returned, Nehru had imprisoned Sheikh for “conspiracy against India.” 
 In 1977 Sheikh as chief minister again asked then Prime Minster Indira Gandhi to return them. “I reminded Sheikh about Gilgit manuscripts and he was surprised that the Manuscripts had not been returned and immediately he faxed Indira Gandhi asking for their return.” But the manuscripts were not returned. 
 “But after that they flatly refused to return them, saying ‘they are part of the National Archives’,” Taing said.

(Tariq Ali Mir is Srinagar based journalist covering culture and heritage) 

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