That people often valorise colonisation, and remain blind to its vandalism is a surprise to me.

The British historian Andrew Roberts in 2009 wrote that the Indians were lucky to have been colonised by the British. In his response to a group of Bollywood celebrities demand from the British crown to return the Koh-i-Noor, he says, “Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

All the above is untrue. Linguistic unification was a farce; agrarian advance ensured industrial retardation; Indians fought tooth and nail for democracy and representation.

That a scion of the empire would celebrate the exploitation of the brown savage is not surprising. But many Pakistanis agreeing with his opinion is astonishing. They see colonial buildings and the railways as imperial innovations that gave their people civility. They see the poor as the savage, not yet ready for the right to vote. They feel relieved to see their cultural heritage in the museums of London, Berlin and Paris. They thank the white man for saving their heritage. They remain in perpetual gratitude to the white man for protecting “our cultural heritage” as if the locals were savages, who would only pillage and destroy. They point to the current Indian annihilation of Mughal history as proof that the Koh-i-Noor deserves to be in the care of careful white royalty.

But this annihilation of histories in India like the destruction of the Babri Mosque, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban, is no different from acts of colonial vandalism. These acts ranged from stealing, trading and profiting from our relics, to its demolition and destruction when it suited them. It was willful extermination of a past not valued by a ruling force. The colonial master was no different from any of our present and past demons, and worse as it convinced us of our “second-rateness”.

In 2004, Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, wrote about the neglect of the Taj Mahal. He lamented the neglect of Victorian graveyards where Indian Christian squatters had done little to arrest its decline. His whine that Gandhi’s shrine is still lovingly tended is nothing but his grudge against people of colour. He was upset that entire families live in the wall of Humayan’s tomb and that washing have draped the blue minarets in the neighbourhood. His words are a depiction of a deeply problematic attitude. It’s the one that mourns the burning of Notre Dame and keeps criminal silence over images of dead Syrian, Yemeni, Rohingya and Kashmiri bodies.

The colonial respect and care for eastern art and development is a myth. The native neglect of the same is a function not of cultural apathy. Poverty, limited resources and endless wars exacerbate the process of “neglect”. The native eye sees art objects not as just art, but as functional pieces of everyday life.

The benevolent colonial master built modern cities with modern conveniences for their administrative officers, but these were exclusive zones not intended for the “natives”. In 1911, 69 per cent of Bombay’s population lived in one-room tenements. The same was true of Karachi and Ahmedabad. After the Second World War, 13 per cent of Bombay’s population slept on the streets. As for sanitation, 10-15 tenements typically shared one water tap.

R. Nath, in his ‘History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture’, writes that that scores of gardens, tombs and palaces that once adorned the suburbs of Sikandra at Agra were sold out or auctioned. Relics of the Mughals were destroyed or converted beyond recognition. “Out of 270 beautiful monuments which existed at Agra alone, before its capture by Lake in 1803, hardly 40 have survived.” These monuments survived colonial rule not because the British thought them beautiful and worth protection, but because they could function as garrisons. The forts in Agra, Delhi and Lahore, became barracks. Marble reliefs were town down.

British officers would have picnics at the Taj Mahal and would take with them hammers and chisels to chip out precious stones from the marble frescos. Mughal gardens were trampled, and ancient architecture was destroyed. Officers would climb to the minarets of the Taj Mahal and carve their names on it. The mosques on either side of the Taj were rented out as bungalows to honeymooners.

Lord William Bentinck, (governor-general of Bengal 1828-33, and later first governor-general of all India), wanted to demolish the best Mogul monuments in Agra and Delhi and remove their marble facades. These were to be shipped to London, where they would be broken up and sold to members of the British aristocracy. This came true for Shahjahan’s pavilions in the Red Fort at Delhi that was stripped, and the marble was shipped off to England for King George IV. The Taj Mahal would have been the next to go if the transport of pavilions had not been so expensive. Do our artefacts stay alive because of western care? A closer look at our history suggests otherwise. The treasures in Western museums are just a small percentage of the total loss to cultural communities in the Indian subcontinent.

But what we have left is still in disrepair and disappearing fast. Because of this, apologists for colonial rule exist even today. Many historic buildings in the Walled City of Lahore have been lost to its commercial activity. Old havelis have been knocked down and become shops and warehouses. The heritage loss is unfortunate, indeed. But this has happened not because of a lack of modernisation and “civilisation”.

In reality, modernisation has accelerated the demolition of cultural heritage. It was the price of modernity and economic progress. Native protectors of native art have always existed in the form of Imams, caretakers of old hammams, local guides, writers, critics. Protectionism of antiquity did not come into being all at once because the West educated us to do so. It existed in non-colonial forms. If our people could not protect our art, they would not have been master architects, miniaturists, and artisans.

Colonial buildings survived because they inhabited few people and built on destruction and eviction. Artefacts in museums survived because they were isolated from their everyday use. Our miniatures were meant to be read in books, our pashminas and carpets were meant to be worn and felt, and our buildings to be lived in. I often hear the argument that had we not seen the colonial rule, we would not have modernised and learned to respect our cultural heritage. I beg to differ. Had we contended with our “regional monarchies”, and not lost millions in revenue to colonial rule that broke the most vibrant textile economy of the world, modernity and development would still have reached us, and maybe at own terms. We would still have had wars, and divisions, as is normal in the conduct of men, but it cannot be put aside that colonial intervention was something alien, sinister and altogether destructive to indigenous culture, power, and self-respect. It is time to recognise our agency and value.

If we have been neglectful of our monuments, it is not because we are a savage and uncivilised race. We lack money, power, health and privilege on our side to protect our heritage. And these are things that take time to percolate into values and policies.