Crimes against the common heritage of humanity


The Nazi mass murderer Herman Goering would undo the buttons of his gun holster every time he heard the word ‘culture’. With their passion for simplifying matters, the VHP and Bajrang Dal mobs have shown that they would rather reach for the sledge-hammer every time they see a symbol of humanity’s common cultural heritage.

Within a day of the Godhra outrage, the VHP mobs that have held Gujarat in their terrorist grip for over a month had demolished the tomb of Wali Gujarati. The state government that has allowed tens of thousands of citizens to become refugees living in dread of the next visit of the vengeful mob, then showed a rare appreciation of its civic responsibilities. Even as the protests began over the wanton destruction of an important cultural landmark, it paved over the spot where Wali’s tomb had stood. It was obviously working on the belief that effacing every evidence of a cultural monument would obliterate all the rich traditions that it served as a reminder of.

Wali is acknowledged almost universally by all with an authentic appreciation of the evolution of Indian culture, as the founder of the modern Urdu poem. Born in Aurangabad in 1667, he was known during his brief lifespan as Wali Aurangabadi or Wali Dakkhani. He travelled widely over India, his visit to Delhi in 1700 and his interactions there being an especially significant event in the growth of the ghazal as an art form. He was a frequent traveller through Gujarat and wrote lovingly of its urban centres, especially Surat. He died in Ahmedabad in 1707 on one of his numerous visits. The people of Gujarat, then living in more enlightened times, built a tomb for him in Ahmedabad and proudly laid claim to his legacy by bestowing upon him the title of Wali Gujarati.

The mobs seem intent on defiling even more recent memories of the cultural traditions to which Gujarat has been heir. Early this month, the tomb of Ustad Faiyaz Khan in Baroda was attacked and wreathed in burning tyres. Extensive damage has been inflicted on the façade of the structure commemorating the man who was, in 1912, declared by the erstwhile ruling dynasty of Baroda as the greatest singer in the realm.

Faiyaz Khan’s musical lineage is considered to go back to Tansen himself. Though renowned as a performer and a practising teacher, he was also associated with the academic efforts of Pandit Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande and others to revive and systematise classical Indian music forms during the first half of the century. As nationalist India began the rediscovery of its cultural heritage, he set new canons of musical interpretation and appreciation. When he died in 1950, an informed critic noted: ‘He was the last of the race of giants. The like of him will not be born again.


He was a gift, a national asset. As time widens the gulf between the noble dead and the hopeful living, he stands out as a beacon, a bulwark of genius and tradition, whose inspiration will not be wasted even on the most cynical among us.’
This critic obviously did not foresee the depths of depravity that could be plumbed by the rampaging VHP mobs. Yet these two are by no means the only recent instances of the wanton destruction of cultural monuments in Gujarat. The Indian History Congress has pointed out that the mosque of Malik Asin (Asas, Imadul Mulk) at Ahmedabad, built in the reign of Sultan Mahmud Begada (1458-1511) has been destroyed. A protected monument built in stone, this structure was destroyed within hours in an operation involving the use of bulldozers. At around the same time, the mosque of Muhafiz Khan at Ahmedabad was badly damaged.

The Hague Convention of 1954 (or the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict) recognised that the preservation of ‘cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world’, and that ‘damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind’. India is a signatory to this Convention. In 1972, a protocol to this Convention was adopted, which identified ‘cultural heritage’ as, among other things, ‘monuments, architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science’. Every State that had acceded to the Hague Convention, it held, recognised that ‘the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State’.

At its General Conference meeting in 2001, UNESCO adopted a resolution that sought to define the circumstances under which an act could be construed as a ‘crime against the common heritage of humanity’. It reiterated the need for all member-States to accede to and observe the various conventions it had evolved over the years. And it authorised the Director-General of the organisation to formulate for the next session of the General Conference, a ‘Draft Declaration’ which would define the circumstances under which the ‘Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage’ could be deemed to have taken place.

By these norms of international conduct, the BJP-led government at the Centre is in gross and flagrant default. And quite apart from its horrific crimes against the living, the Narendra Modi government’s crimes against the common heritage of humanity are adequate to earn it the most severe indictment in the court of universal cultural values.

National Street Theatre Poster 2002