During his visit to India in February 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Indian demand for returning the giant diamond known as Kohinoor (mountain of light) Britain forced India to hand over in 1849 after British conquest of Punjab cannot be conceded. Speaking on the final day of a visit to India to boost up bilateral trade and investment, Cameron outright ruled out the possibility of handing back the 105-carat Kohinoor diamond, acquired from Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, now on display in the Tower of London. The diamond was set in the crown of the current Queen Elizabeth’s late mother Queen Victoria in 1952. Indians voiced their claim over Kohinoor soon after independence in 1947. “I don’t think that’s the right approach,” Cameron told reporters after he became the first serving British prime minister to voice regret about one of the bloodiest episodes in colonial India, a massacre of unarmed civilians in Jalianwala Bagh garden in the city of Amritsar, Punjab in 1919. It is the same question with the Elgin Marbles, the classical Greek marble sculptures that Athens has long demanded be given back. Cameron thinks, “The right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions to do exactly what they do, which is to link up with other institutions around the world to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world. I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism’, as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.”If Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, who is second in line to the throne, eventually becomes queen consort she will don the diamond crown on official occasions. When Elizabeth II made a state visit to India to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain, many Indians demanded the return of the diamond. For the moment, Prime Minister Cameron is keen to take advantage of India’s economic rise, and says he is anxious to focus on the present and future rather than a journey back to history. Recently, there is great uproar in India when Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar declared that India would not seek the return of the Kohinoor from the British, to whom India had “gifted” it. The statement shocked Indians and evoked strong resentment that upset the government compelling it to declare they still want the jewel back. Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary General of UN and former State Minister for External Affairs, now a prominent columnist, hopes the government will stick to its commitment to secure the jewel which belongs to India and India alone. His writings have been posted to world press and online media including some dailies in Bangladesh.
The Solicitor General was responding before the Supreme Court to a suit filed by the All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front, an NGO, demanding that the government seek the return of the Indian diamond that adorns British crown. He claims that the Sikh Majaraja offered the gem to British East India Company as ‘voluntary compensation’ for the expenses of the just-concluded Anglo-Sikh wars. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, which does not permit the government to seek the return of antiquities exported before India gained independence in 1947, and, therefore the Indian government has no recourse to secure the diamond’s return. India has to overcome this contradiction if it really wants to get back the jewel. After all, gift and compensation do not carry the same meaning. Legal impediments have to be removed before bilateral negotiations or international mediation. The Indian diplomat-turned-politician castigates the British by saying, “what colonialism truly was: shameless subjugation, coercion, and misappropriation. Perhaps that is the best argument for leaving the Kohinoor in Britain, where it emphatically does not belong.” A recapitulation of history would tell us at least two more countries of the sub-continent, Bangladesh and Pakistan, have valid reasons to claim fair share of the cake. Although India may be trying to take it all, we deserve to be served with a small slice of shining pie.
The precious stone is believed to have come from a mine in Andhra Pradesh during the reign of Kakatiya dynasty in13th century. In early 14th century, Alauddin Khailji of Delhi sultanate grabbed it as a war booty. It remained with the Khilji dynasty and was later passed to the succeeding dynasties of the Delhi Sultanates until it came into the possession of Babur in 1526, renamed “Diamond of Babur”. Both Babur and his son Humayun mentioned this diamond in their memoirs. The fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan placed the stone into his ornate Peacock Throne. In 1658, his son Aurangzeb got it reshaped by an Italian stone craftsman. Following 1739 invasion of Delhi by Nader Shah, the treasury of the Mughal Empire including Kohinoor was looted by his army. Having seen it, he exclaimed in great surprise “Koh-i-Noor!” meaning mountain of light. This reminded him of ‘Daria-i-Noor’ (sea of light) in the Iranian crown. After assassination of Nader Shah in 1747 and the collapse of his empire, the stone came into the hands of one of his generals, Ahmad Shah Durani, Amir of Afghanistan. In 1808, Shah Shujah formed an alliance with England to defend against invasion of Afghanistan by Russia. He was quickly overthrown by his predecessor, Mahmud Shah, but managed to flee with the diamond. He went to Lahore, where the founder of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in return for his hospitality, insisted upon the gem being given to him, and he took possession of it in 1813. Prince Daleep Singh travelled to London to present the jewel, the latest in a long series of transfers of valuable stones as coveted spoils of war.
The last Indian owner of Kohinoor was Ranjit Singh whose capital was in Lahore, and his empire was predominantly in the area that is now Pakistan. It thus belongs to the whole of undivided India. Then, how can India solely claim ownership of Kohinoor? The India of today is as old as Pakistan and Bangladesh, all three being the offsprings of British-India, have jointly inherited the ‘highjacked’ gem. Former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote to his then counterpart, James Callaghan, in August 1976 asking for return of the diamond. The dispute over its ownership again flared up in 2002, when the crown was put on top of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth. The beautiful gem has also been claimed by Iran and Afghanistan. The plaintiff Indian NGO has made Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Culture of India, High Commissioners of UK, Pakistan and Bangladesh in India, parties in the case. It had also sought return of the “ring and talwar and other treasures of Tipu Sultan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani of Jhansi, Nawab Mir Ahmad Ali Banda and other rulers of India.
The Government of Bangladesh and some curious people must have been watching the developments concerning the Indian claim of the gem, but the government has so far remained silent about it. There is no reason why we should not put forward our rightful claim for an equitable share of this immense treasure, our common heritage, along with India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Against continued British intransigence, together we all can go to the appropriate international forum seeking its recovery.
The writer, a former civil servant, is Executive Director, Centre for Governance Studies.