The Many Mean­ings of the Ko­hi­noor

The Economic Times - - Living Room - Vikram Doc­tor

Calls for the re­turn of the Ko­hi­noor go all the way back to the man who gave the diamond to Queen Vic­to­ria in the first place – or, as he ar­gued, had it taken from him un­der duress. In 1889, Duleep Singh was a tired man of 51, bur­dened by debt and frus­trated by the re­fusal of the Bri­tish to let him re­turn to In­dia and pre­vent his re­con­ver­sion to Sikhism.

Once,hehad­been­clos­e­totheQueen,who­saw the hand­some boy who had come to Bri­tain in 1854 as a sym­bol of the In­dia that was rapidly be­com­ing her do­min­ion. She had made him a part of the court and she had been highly grat­i­fied­when,on­be­ing­shown­theKo­hi­noorafterit was re-cut in 1852 (re­duc­ing it from 186 to 105.6 carats), he had grace­fully pre­sented it back to her, “ex­press­ing in a few grace­ful words the plea­sure it af­forded him to have this op­por­tu­nity of him­self plac­ing it in her hands,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port printed in the Times of In­dia.

This mat­tered be­cause the cir­cum­stances un­der which the diamond had been ob­tained had al­ways been du­bi­ous. Lord Dal­housie, the Gover­norGen­er­alofIn­dia,had­claimed­i­tas­the spoils of vic­tory at the end of the Sec­ond An­gloSikh War in 1849. Dal­housie ar­gued that the diamond had al­ways been taken by con­quest, whether­byDec­ca­nSul­tans,MughalEm­per­ors, the Shah of Per­sia, the Emir of Afghanistan or, fi­nally, Duleep Singh’s fa­ther Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh. The Bri­tish had just done the same.

Not ev­ery­one agreed. The East In­dia Com­pany (EIC) was fu­ri­ous since the war had been fought with their troops and they were still tech­ni­cally in con­trol of In­dia. The Board of Di­rec­tors saw the diamond as a re­turn on their in­vest­ment in the War. Bri­tish opin­ion was also am­biva­lent. The free-boot­ing ways of theEICinthe18th­cen­tu­ry­w­ere­less­ap­peal­ing in the more moral­is­tic 19th cen­tury. As his­to­rian Danielle C Kin­sey pointed out in an es­say, di­a­monds be­came as­so­ci­ated with “the ra­pac­ity of a cor­rupt brand of plun­der im­pe­ri­al­ism.”

In 1889, Duleep Singh was aim­ing squarely at this un­ease. His let­ter, re­pub­lished in ToI, spoke­ofhowtheBri­tish­hadgainedthePun­jab by ar­ti­fi­cially in­sti­gat­ing a war and la­belling him–“aboythenof­somenineyear­sofage”–as a rebel. Singh knew the Bri­tish were not likely to give him back Pun­jab, but he could ap­peal to the Queen di­rectly for one thing: “But my diamond,theKo­hi­noor,Iun­der­stand,isen­tirelyat your own per­sonal dis­posal…I do not hes­i­tate to ask that this gem be re­stored to me, or else that a fair price be paid for it…”

Singh would die a few years later with no re­sponse, and cer­tainly no repa­ra­tions, from the Queen. As Kin­sey said, the diamond had al­ready come to have too much mean­ing for the Queen, and the UK in gen­eral. This started from the most ob­vi­ous need for os­ten­ta­tious jew­els to dis­play royal power. Other royal courts had ma­jor di­a­monds like the Rus­sian Tsar’s 190 carat Orloff diamond or Napoleon’s 140 carat Pitt diamond (both also orig­i­nally from In­dia). The Bri­tish had noth­ing like this and Dal­housie’s of­fer of the Ko­hi­noor neatly filled the niche.

The Ko­hi­noor also ar­rived just be­fore one of the most im­por­tant events of the Vic­to­rian Age was to be­gin. The Great Ex­hi­bi­tion, which opened in 1851, was a show­case for Bri­tish in­dus­try, in­no­va­tion and power. It was a for­mal

an­nounce­ment of sorts of how the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion was mak­ing the UK a global power.

TheKo­hi­noor­came­justin­time­to­bep­u­tatits heart, a sym­bol of power pass­ing from East to West. A spe­cial dis­play was made for it and its

se­cu­rity fea­tures were a ma­jor talk­ing point. The press was fed sto­ries about the his­tory and leg­ends of the Ko­hi­noor and it quickly be­came a huge source of in­ter­est at the ex­hi­bi­tion, with mas­sive crowds queu­ing to see it and end­less press re­ports about its ‘his­tory.’ But there was an even big­ger prob­lem: the Ko­hi­noor was not that im­pres­sive.

Although Ran­jit Singh’s trea­sury had more im­pres­sive stones like the huge Taimur Ruby or the Darya-i-Noor, an even larger and more per­fect diamond, it was the Ko­hi­noor that had the­mosthis­tory,how­everun­re­li­able,at­tached toit,andthat­waswhy­it­wascho­se­nasatribute to the Queen. But at the ex­hi­bi­tion, the gen­eral feel­ing was dis­ap­point­ment – “an egg-shaped lump of glass,” one writer called it.

This is when the Queen’s hus­band Prince Al­bert de­cided to cut the diamond. This is the Ko­hi­noorthat­nowex­ist­san­dit­could­bear­gued itishard­lythe­same­stonethatwent­fromIn­dia. Kin­se­yarguesthatthe­cut­ting­was“anat­tempt to re­con­sti­tute the stone as a gem­mo­log­i­cal com­po­nent of Bri­tain’s civil­is­ing mis­sion.”

If the his­tory of the stone placed it in In­dia’s tur­bu­lent past, it’s re­shap­ing with the help of Bri­tish knowl­edge and in­dus­trial skills (ac­tu­al­ly­im­port­ed­fromthe­di­a­mond-cut­ting­cen­tre of Am­s­ter­dam, but that fact was un­der­played) showed how Vic­to­rian Bri­tain would cre­ate a mod­ern, en­light­ened In­dia.

This might seem even more rea­son to protest Bri­tain’s con­tin­ued pos­ses­sion ofthe stone and many peo­ple have tried. One of the first, un­ex­pect­edly,wasNo­belPrize-win­ning­sci­en­tistCV Raman. In 1953, ToI noted how, about six years ear­lier, Raman re­ferred to the Ko­hi­noor in a lec­ture and main­tained “this country’s in­de­pen­dence­would­not­be­com­ple­te­un­tilthe­jewel was re­turned to its na­tive shores.”

Another­per­sis­tent­claimant­wasBean­tSingh Sand­hawalia, the Am­s­ter­dam-based de­scen­dant of one of Duleep Singh’s close as­so­ci­ates, Sar­dar Thakar Singh Sand­hawalia. By 1999, his­de­scen­dant­claimed­to­have­doc­u­mentsthat con­clu­sively proved his claim to the Ko­hi­noor, which he promised to hand over to Am­rit­sar’s Golden Tem­ple.

This is one of the prob­lems that those call­ing for the re­turn of the Ko­hi­noor never get into. If we got it back, what would we do with it? We have no Crown Jew­els or Pres­i­den­tial re­galia into which it could fit eas­ily. As for putting them in a mu­seum, why not start with cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent dis­play for the Hy­der­abad Crown Jew­els, which are a great deal more im­pres­sive?

The Bri­tish have held the Ko­hi­noor for prob­a­bly as long as most of its past own­ers. As Kin­sey’ses­sayshows,they­have­built­theirown na­tional mytholo­gies around it. While Queen Vic­to­ria might have pre­ferred to think of it as a gift, Dal­housie was es­sen­tially cor­rect – it was taken by force, as it al­ways has been. The In­dian govern­ment was cor­rect in its ini­tial ar­gu­ment that there is re­ally no ba­sis to claim the Ko­hi­noor now.

For those un­sat­is­fied by this, there is this con­sid­er­a­tion: how much more use­ful is the Ko­hi­noor as a per­ma­nent sym­bol of the du­bi­ous ways in which it built its Em­pire and jus­ti­fied it? There is a ten­dency among the Bri­tish to down­play their Im­pe­rial past, to say that enough time has gone by and that their mod­ern, mul­tira­cial country has no more debts to pay to his­tory. But this glosses over the im­mense trans­fer of wealth from In­dia to Bri­tain and the en­dur­ing ad­van­tages it gave them. Re­turn­ing the Ko­hi­noor is too easy a way to let them off the hook!

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