Solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar stirred a hornet nest when he claimed that this gem was gifted to the British by Punjab’s erstwhile rulers. The passion for this beautiful diamond continues….
By Sajeda Momin in London
When Congress MP Shashi Tharoor presented a stinging argument at the Oxford Union last year demanding reparations from the British for their 200-year rule of the Indian sub-continent, the speech went viral on YouTube. While Tharoor would be satisfied if the British paid India just £1 a year for the next 200 years, there were others who felt that if they simply gave back the Kohinoor diamond, it would be enough!
For most Indians, the priceless Kohinoor has become the symbol of all the British looted from India during their raj and its return could atone for its colonial past.
Tharoor received compliments from all quarters, including some unlikely ones like that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who likes to wear his nationalism on his rather expensive sleeves. Hence, it was nothing short of a shock when solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar representing the government told the Supreme Court that the Kohinoor was “neither stolen nor forcibly” taken by British rulers, but gifted by erstwhile rulers of Punjab. This is certainly anti-national talk if there is any.
After a day of being harangued with a barrage of criticism accusing the Modi government of kow-towing to its British masters—particularly as it came so soon after the royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Camb-ridge—the government claimed that it had been “misrepresented” by the press. A statement from the ministry of culture the following day said that the solicitor-general’s views were not those of the government and it “reiterated its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor Diamond in an amicable manner”.
Read between the lines and the statement says the status quo will remain, particularly as repeated requests by Indian governments have resulted in the British declining to give it back. The latest rebuff was in 2013 when British Prime Minister David Cameron on his visit to India said he didn’t believe in “returnism”.
CENTER OF INTRIGUE
The Kohinoor, once considered to be the largest uncut diamond in the world, is said to have been originally found in the Kollur mine of Andhra Pradesh 800 years ago. It has been at the center of conquests and intrigues for centuries, passing through the hands of Hindu priests, Mughal princes, Iranian warriors, Afghan rulers, Punjabi Maharajas and now finally, the British royalty.
The 105.6 carat diamond is currently set in the crown belonging to the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and can be seen for a fee as part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. The Queen Mother wore
it both at the coronation of her husband King George VI in 1937 and daughter, the current Queen Elizabeth, in 1953. It was also laid atop her coffin as she lay in state after her death in 2002.
The latest controversy over the ownership of the Kohinoor erupted because the Supreme Court was hearing a PIL filed by the All India Human Rights & Social Justice Front (AIHRSJF), an NGO, which is seeking government action for the return of the diamond from Britain.
The court had asked the solicitor-general to file an affidavit giving the government’s stand on the issue. The solicitor-general told the Supreme Court: “Kohinoor cannot be said to have been forcibly taken or stolen as it was given by the successors of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to East India Company in 1849 as compensation for helping them in the Sikh wars.”
British Indians, particularly Sikhs, are furious and have accused the solicitor-general of not knowing his history. The Sikh Federation UK explained that when Punjab was annexed by the British in March 1849, the ruler at the time was not Maharaja Ranjit Singh but his youngest son, Maharaja Duleep Singh. “The son was 10 years old when the last Anglo-Sikh Treaty of Lahore was signed and he was duped into handing the Kohinoor over to Queen Victoria,” said Bhai Amrik Singh, chair of the Sikh Federation UK.
Lord Dalhousie, the governor general, was keen to please both the East India Company and Queen Victoria and he took the young Duleep in his charge after the British defeated the Sikhs, and the Kohinoor as “possessions” back to England. In such circumstances, even if the Kohinoor was “offered” to Queen Victoria, it cannot be called a gift, argue scholars. As Kuldip Nayar, former Indian High Commissioner to the UK and editor pointed out: “It was not an offer of an elected government. Slave nations have no choice of their own.”
Sikh Federation UK is also angry that the Indian government is using the Anglo-Sikh Treaties to justify the Kohinoor as a spoil of war or “compensation for help”, but are fighting shy of recognizing the other aspects of the treaty. “As successive British prime ministers, the Indian government and the solicitor-general have acknowledged the Anglo-Sikh Treaties, both governments should also admit that when India and Pakistan were created, the British hastily exited and reneged on the Anglo-Sikh Treaties that should have also resulted in a Sikh Kingdom,” they argue.
It is not only the AIHRSJF which is taking legal help to get the Kohinoor returned to India. A group of British Indian campaigners calling themselves the Mountain of Light—the English translation of Kohinoor—had also moved the British courts to get the diamond back. Comprising businessmen and actors, they instructed British lawyers to begin High Court proceedings here last year. The lawyers will base their case on the Holocaust Act (Return of Cultural Objects) passed by the British Parliament in 2009 which allows national institutions the power to return art stolen by the Third Reich during World War II. Lawyers ask why there should be one law for artefacts stolen by the Nazis and another for those stolen by others. Satish Jakhu, a UK lawyer, said they are making the plaintiff’s claim under the common law doctrine of “trespass to goods” arguing that the British had stolen the diamond.
If the Indian government calls it a “gift”, the Mountain of Light’s case in the UK will also get diluted. “The Kohinoor is one of the many artefacts taken from India under dubious circumstances,” said David de Souza, co-founder of the Indian leisure group Titos, who is helping fund the UK legal action. The Indian NGO agreed with him. “The British rulers looted India and the Modi government is making a mistake by not supporting our claims,” said Nafis Ahmad Siddiqui, who petitioned the Supreme Court for the gem’s return.
Nayar recounts that in the late 1990s as a Rajya Sabha MP, he had initiated a debate on the Kohinoor, but was quickly silenced by then foreign minister Jaswant Singh not to pursue the matter. The argument used was that it could adversely affect relations between India and Britain. “Till today, I have not been able to get an answer to my question: How?” says Nayar.
Having realized that they miscalculated people’s sentiments over the Kohinoor, the Modi government was quick to backtrack and claimed that it would make every effort to bring the stone back. They also pointed out that since taking over as prime minister, Modi has regained several historic pieces from Germany, Canada and Australia. However, none had either the financial or emotional value that could match up to the Kohinoor and therefore, did not ruin relations with those countries.
The Supreme Court is still considering the issue and said it did not want to dismiss the petition as it could “stand in the way” of future attempts to bring back items that once belonged to India. The solicitor-general subsequently said he would consult the foreign minister and frame a response on behalf of the government within six weeks. It is quite obvious what the response is likely to be now.
Even so, the reality is that the return of the Kohinoor remains as elusive as ever.