“Let’s seek not heritage belongs to which nation,
Let’s strive to preserve it for every coming generation!”
-Sri Vidhya Jayakumar
Culture and Heritage is not a luxury but it is a basic need of mankind. Cultural Heritage can be described as the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group of people which is inherited from the past generations. This includes monuments, landscapes, structures, books, art, tradition, rituals, knowledge, language, etc. The Cultural Heritage is the mirror that shows how our ancestors led their lives and embarks the transformation, which has led us to this very day. The inherited cultural heritage is not only of great importance to the present generation, but also for generations to come. Therefore, rich heritage should be conserved and preserved at any cost.
Recently, the newspapers were flooded with articles on attacks on the ancient site of Palmyra by the ISIS militants. Palmyra is an ancient site which is located in north-east of Damascus, Syria. This site was a city wherein one could witness a blend of many cultures such as the Armanese, Arab, Greek and Jewish. Palmyra was the last human-inhabited point before the Syrian Desert. The travellers during the period between first and second century B.C., used this place as a caravan stop before sailing through the desert. This ancient city had temples, sculptures, idols, columns, theatre, houses, walls and streets, the traces of which can be seen till today. Out of the total 1007 UNESCO World heritage sites, the temples and other structures of the Palmyra site, are included in the list.
There have been reports that the ISIS militants have stormed a central Syrian city and are just meters away from the great site of Palmyra. The fighters entered the Tadmur city after the Syrian forces failed to resist them. The militants have not yet damaged the site however; they have severely damaged the monuments, idols and scriptures in the past. The militants have, through videos, assured the world that they would not harm the ancient site. However, only two days after such an assurance, the ISIS militants were seen damaging the idols of the ancient goods. ‘Lion God’ was among such idols, built in the first century, that was reduced to dust as the militants feel that idol worship is against the commandments of Allah.
Apart, from the conquest of the ancient site of Palmyra, the ISIS militants blew up a Syrian prison were, the political prisoners were held up and were tortured. In early 2015, the city of Hatra was completely destroyed which was UN World Heritage Site. Similarly, City of Nimrud was also destroyed entirely. In July 2014, ISIS destroyed the Mosul Shrine of Nebi Yunus and then loaded trucks with rubble so as to remove even the traces of the shrine. The palace of Khorsabad is no more on the map now. Dura-Europos, was an ancient site built during the third century, was looted by the militants to fund their war on humanity. There have been reports that ISIS has a separate battalion that is specially assigned to destroy artefacts, scriptures, historical and religious sites. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO condemned the attack on the site of Palmyra and said that such acts are ‘war crimes’ and the state parties should make efforts to stop the destruction of the ancient site. Therefore, these sites being of a great cultural importance, the attack on the sites should be treated with an iron hand and we condemn the ISIS’s war on history.
The question then arises, what are our duties as citizens of the countries having such rich cultural heritage to preserve and safeguard the richness of the country which is in the form of natural and cultural heritage. Looking from the International perspective, The Constitution of UNESCO, embarks that the purpose of UNESCO is conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance. Each state party should endeavour and support other state parties in regard to their efforts for conserving and identifying the heritage and to make sure that these sites are passed over to the coming generations. Further that, every state party should (i) adopt a general policy which aims to give cultural and natural heritage, a national importance; (ii) to develop scientific, technical, operational methods which would ease and assist in the task of heritage management; (iii) to take appropriate scientific, legal, administrative and financial measures to preserve the heritage; and (iv) to undertake educational programme to create awareness among the people.
An interstate party called the World Heritage Committee is established by virtue of Article 8 of Constitution of UNESCO. This committee works for the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage in any of the member states. The World Heritage Committee shall submit a World Heritage Report, mentioning the particulars about the natural and cultural heritage. World Heritage Fund is established under Article 15 of Constitution of UNESCO which provides financial assistance to the state parties, when request is made. There are many other obligations under the international law aimed at preserving the deteriorating heritage. A few amongst them are: Convention for Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed conflict (1953), International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavation (1956), Prohibiting and Preventing the illicit Import, Export and Transfer of ownership of Cultural Property (1970), Protection of Moveable Cultural Property (1978), Convention for safe guarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), etc. India, is a member to the UNESCO and is signatory to most of these conventions.
Apart from the obligation under the International Law, India has recognised the importance of the cultural and natural heritage by incorporating this ideology in the Constitution and other laws for safeguarding 32 world Heritage Sites in India. Recollecting the glorious school days, the Pledge provides that “I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage”. Therefore, the education system of our country from the very initial years of schooling inculcates values and respect for the rich and prosperous heritage of the country. Article 51A (f) of the Constitution provides that it is the duty of every citizen to value and preserve the rich heritage of the country. Entry 67 of List I (Union List), Entry 12 of List II (State List) and Entry 40 of List III (Concurrent List) declares that ancient and historical monuments are of national importance.
In addition to the Constitutional provisions there special statutes for preserving the rich heritage of the Country such as: The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, etc. There are authorities such as the Heritage Conservation Committee, Archaeological survey of India and National Monuments Authority. There are penal provisions for persons intentionally damaging heritage monuments.
There are various mechanisms put in place by different authorities at a national and international level. However, due to militant activates, fickle mindedness of people and the reasons best known to the haters of the heritage, the world heritage is passing through a bad phase and there are a few sites which are on the verge of wrecking. Nonetheless, one should make constant efforts to safeguard the rich heritage and preserve it for the generations to come.