Koh-i-noor, Yet So Far

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Ra­jyas­ree Sen

There are ways of spread­ing the ‘Make in In­dia’ mes­sage. Al­low­ing Bri­tain to keep the Koh-i-noor is not one of the best. But we’ve taken our role as hosts a bit too se­ri­ously. Usu­ally, we send off vis­i­tors with a lit­tle gift to re­mem­ber us by. Some­times it’s a box of kaju katli. It turns out that some­times it’s also a big fat diamond. When asked by the Supreme Court on Mon­day whether the govern­ment was go­ing to ask for the Koh-i-noor to be re­turned, so­lic­i­tor-gen­eral (SG) Ran­jit Kumar ex­plained the Cen­tre’s stand to the Supreme Court: “It was given vol­un­tar­ily by Ran­jit Singh to the Bri­tish as com­pen­sa­tion for help in the Sikh Wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen ob­ject.” Kumar’s state­ment on whether the diamond should be re­turned to In­dia was in re­sponse to a pe­ti­tion filed, ask­ing the Cen­tre to dis­close what its stand is on bring­ing back the diamond.

In re­sponse to this, Kumar told the apex court that the 105.602-carat diamond was given to the East In­dia Com­pany by Ran­jit Singh af­ter he lost the 1849 Sikh War. Kumar also cited the 43-year-old An­tiq­ui­ties and Art Trea­sure Act, 1972, which pre­vents the govern­ment from bring­ing back an­tiques re­moved from the country be­fore In­de­pen­dence.

“If we claim our trea­sures like Koh-i-noor from other coun­tries, ev­ery other na­tion will start claim­ing their items from us. There will be noth­ing left in our mu­se­ums,” he said thought­fully. As the good chief jus­tice TS Thakur pointed out to Kumar, this wasn’t pos­si­ble as In­dia hadn’t colonised any­one. (Com­pletely in- ciden­tally, Kash­mir should pro­vide such a nice cool re­treat dur­ing this time of the year.)

But let’s see what the his­to­ri­ans say. The diamond was ap­par­ently first men­tioned in 1306 as be­long­ing to the Ra­jas of Malwa. In 1839, Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh died and left it to his sons. Fol­low­ing Singh’s death, his three older sons were killed, and five-year-old Duleep Singh took the throne in 1843. In 1849, the Bri­tish won the Sec­ond An­glo-Sikh War and an­nexed Pun­jab un­der the Treaty of La­hore.

At this point, Duleep was 11. He had to sign over the king­dom and the diamond to the Bri­tish. Ac­cord­ing to Ar­ti­cle III of the treaty: “The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Ma­hara­jah Run­jeet Singh, shall be sur­ren­dered by the Ma­hara­jah of La­hore to the Queen of Eng­land,”

To think that an 11-year-old had a choice in the mat­ter of whether or not to gift the diamond, is, well, daft. Also, by Kumar’s logic, we should give the Bri­tish the state of Pun­jab as well, since it was ‘gifted’ to the Brits as well.

I still wouldn’t mind if the roy­als were ac­tu­ally putting the stone to good use. Af­ter all, it’s not as if In­dian mu­se­ums main­tain our an­tiques par­tic­u­larly well. But since the diamond is con­sid­ered un­lucky, Queen Vic­to­ria in her Will stated that the Koh-i-noor will only be worn by a fe­male monarch. The diamond was then added to her suc­ces­sor’s crown and kept in the Tower of Lon­don.

Sadly, for those de­fend­ing the Cen­tre’s stand, the govern­ment has sud­denly changed its tune. On Tues­day, the Cen­tre claimed that the SG merely “in­formed the Honourable Court about the his­tory of the diamond”. And that ul­ti­mately his com­ments were Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s fault, as he was merely quot­ing Nehru’s state­ment that there is “no ground to claim this art trea­sure back”. The govern­ment is now hop­ing for an “am­i­ca­ble out­come whereby In­dia gets back a val­ued piece of art with strong roots in our na­tion’s his­tory.” Of course, this U-turn has noth­ing to do with protes­ta­tions from its ally, the Shi­ro­mani Akali Dal.

I do wish the Cen­tre would pick up the phone and have a lit­tle tête-à-tête with its coun­sel be­fore he speaks on the Cen­tre’s be­half to the Supreme Court. I doubt the judges need a les­son in his­tory, es­pe­cially when it’s an in­cor­rect one. Sec­ond, this is a novel way of in­sult­ing the SG – by say­ing he, of all peo­ple, wasn’t rep­re­sent­ing the Cen­tre’s point of view.

In the end, it’s the prin­ci­ple of the mat­ter. If we no longer view the Wind­sors as our rulers (last week’s Wil­lKat dis­play not­with­stand­ing), should Buck Palace not re­turn the sparkler as a sign of good­will?

My favourite re­buff was the one by Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron dur­ing his visit to In­dia: he didn’t be­lieve in “re­tur­nism” and “if you say yes to one, you sud­denly find the Bri­tish Mu­seum would be empty”. What a charm­ing and frank way to tell us to sod off.

No, not this one

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