Koh-i-noor, Yet So Far
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