2017 is going to be a year of celebration and a year of reflection for BACSA.
It will be a year of celebration because it marks the 40th anniversary of our founding. We owe a great debt to Theon Wilkinson for his vision of an organisation dedicated to cataloguing and preserving the many graves and cemeteries across South Asia populated by our forebears, and by so many who played a part, however small in the history of that sub-continent.
40 years on, BACSA continues to thrive. It has a membership of around 1,100, and its finances have never been stronger. Great work has been done in cataloguing graves, and the archive to prove it is in the British Library. Much has also been done on the ground and is still being done, either by BACSA on its own or with grants made by BACSA towards restoration projects of others. But there is an almost infinite number of projects still to be tackled. There are many graveyards and cemeteries with important histories which BACSA has not yet been able to explore. New sites are being identified every year, and as access to one part of South Asia becomes more difficult (North West Pakistan), access to another begins to open up again (Myanmar). Graveyards and cemeteries, once restored, need to be maintained. Rather like the painting of the Firth of Forth railway bridge, maintenance is a never-ending commitment.
If, as I believe, the database of cemetery records is the golden egg which results from all this effort, BACSA can look forward to exciting developments in the near future. We can take a leaf out of the book of our colleagues at FIBIS (Families in British India Society) who have begun commissioning photographs of graves, which can be viewed on line. Another recent project, which has captured my imagination, is the provision of barcodes by graves in restored cemeteries, enabling the visitor to obtain immediate access on his smartphone to a biography of the deceased (see Chowkidar Vol. 14 Number 4 “Garden Cemeteries of the Future”). Digital technology of this kind is making it possible to bring graveyards and cemeteries alive as never before. BACSA has a real contribution to make here. I should like BACSA to identify some major cemeteries in South Asia where, as part of any restoration, it could introduce such technology. It could be our 50th anniversary project.
But where will BACSA be in 10 years’ time? I said that 2017 was also going to be a year of reflection. We must reflect on the future of BACSA. How are we going to ensure that BACSA is still flourishing after 50 years?
The Working Party set-up to consider our relationship with FIBIS has concluded that, for the present, closer cooperation should be the aim rather than a merger. Although we share certain goals, the profile of our two organisations is different and neither side is sufficiently enthusiastic about combining them into one.
However, if BACSA is to continue its activities on the present scale, it needs new recruits and young blood. The closure of OSPA (The Overseas Pensioners’ Service Association, the body representing retired members of the former HM Overseas Colonial Service) later this year is a recruitment opportunity. The Executive Committee has resolved that we should do everything we can to encourage members of OSPA to join BACSA on the demise of their Association, and we trust that many will. Yet that may not be enough. To be blunt, BACSA needs a substantial number of new members under the age of 60 if it is to have a constituency from which its executive positions can be filled, and its Area Representatives appointed, in the decade to come. I am going to propose to the Executive that it launches a campaign before this year is out, asking every member to try to recruit at least one new member under the age of 60.
Part of our reflection in 2017 will undoubtedly focus on members we have lost who did much to make BACSA what it is today. In recent weeks, we have learned of the deaths of Merilyn Hywel-Jones and of Henry Brownrigg – both of whom made a considerable contribution to BACSA. I would like to think that their passing will be a spur to increasing our membership. BACSA would not be celebrating 40 years of such achievement, if it was not for their contribution and the contribution of many others who are no longer with us.