A group of campaigners is seeking the help of British courts to get the Koh-i-Noor back to India. Will this bring to an end a dispute which has raged for years over the world’s most precious gem?
By Sajeda Momin
There are three must-sees on the list of every Indian tourist who comes to the UK—Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The first two they can see for free from outside, but to see the third, they must visit the Tower of London, buy an entrance ticket costing 25 GBP (`2,500) and see one of the rarest and most precious stones through a glass case amidst tight security. However, for most Indians, it’s a small price to pay to see the symbol of the loot the British brought back from India during their 200-year rule.
Since Independence, there have been repeated demands by various Indian governments that the Koh-i-Noor, once considered the largest uncut diamond in the world, should be returned. But these requests have been ignored or rejected. The latest was in 2013 when Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to India defended Britain’s right to keep the diamond, arguing that he didn’t believe in “returnism” and didn’t consider it “sensible”.
However, for the first time, a group of campaigners comprising businessmen and actors and calling themselves the “Mountain of Light”—the English translation of Koh-i-Noor—are seeking the help of British courts to get the diamond back.
David de Souza, co-founder of the Indian leisure group, Titos, is helping to fund the new legal action and has instructed British lawyers to begin high court proceedings. “The Koh-i-Noor is one of the many artefacts taken from India under dubious circumstances. Colonization did not just rob our people of wealth, it destroyed the country’s psyche. It brutalized our society, traces of which linger even today in the form of mass poverty, lack of education and a host of other factors,” said De Souza.
British lawyers, instructed by the Mountain of Light group, will base their case on the Holocaust Act (Return of Cultural Objects), passed by the British parliament in 2009. This allows national institutions in the UK the power to return art stolen by the Third Reich during and preceding World War II. Lawyers will argue why there should be one law for artefacts stolen by the Nazis and another for those stolen by others.
Satish Jakhu, a UK lawyer with Birmin-gham-based law firm Rubric Lois King, said they would make the plaintiff’s claim under the common law doctrine of “trespass to good”, arguing that the government had stolen the diamond. He also said that if need be they would be taking their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The 800-year-old diamond is considered to be worth around GBP 100 million, though its real value is priceless.
SPOILS OF WAR
Believed to have been mined from the Kollur Mine in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh sometime during the 13th century reign of the Kakatiya dynasty, the diamond was said to have been installed in a temple of a goddess as her eye. From the early 14th century, the diamond became one of the spoils of war for various conquering armies. From the Khilji dynasty to the succeeding dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, the diamond was passed on. When it came into the possession of Babur who established the Mughal empire in the 16th century, the precious stone became known as the “Diamond of Babur”. Shah Jahan had the diamond fixed into his ornate peacock throne.
During the reign of Aurangzeb, the diamond was clumsily cut by a Venetian lapidary named Hortenso Borgia who reduced the weight of the stone to 186 carats. It is said that when originally mined, it was 793 carats. In 1739, Nadir Shah carried off the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor to Persia. It is also Nadir Shah who gave the diamond its current name by exclaiming Koh-i-Noor, meaning “mountain of light” in Persian.
After Nadir Shah’s assassination, the diamond fell into the hands of Ahmad Shah Durrani, Emir of Afghanistan. And in 1830, his descendant, Shujah Shah Durrani, was deposed and managed to flee with it to Lahore where the Sikh Maharaja, Ranjit Singh, forced him to surrender it.
It was from here that the Koh-i-Noor fell into the hands of the British. In 1849, the province of Punjab was formally declared part of British rule and Lord Dalhousie, who ratified the Treaty of Lahore, considered the Koh-i-Noor a spoil of war. Dalhousie arranged for it to be presented to Queen Victoria and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 13-year-old son Dulip Singh was sent to London to do the honors.
Prince Albert ordered the diamond be recut to improve its brilliance. After being reduced in weight by 42 percent, the new oval-shaped, 105 carat Koh-i-Noor was mounted into a broach for Queen Victoria. Legend has it that the Koh-i-Noor can only be worn by God or women, and whoever wears the jewel will become extre-mely powerful.
However, if a man wears it, he will meet an unfortunate end. It was passed to British consorts Queen Alexandra in 1902 and Queen Mary in 1911 for their coronation crowns and then in 1937, it went to the consort of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, the current queen’s mother and was set in the Maltese Cross where it sits today. The Queen Mother wore the crown at the coronation of her husband and again in 1953 at the coronation of her daughter, Queen
Elizabeth II. The crown was placed on top of the Queen Mother’s coffin as she lay in state in Westminster Hall when she died in 2002, and the rest of the time, it remains on display with other crown jewels in the Tower of London. If, and when, Camilla becomes Queen consort, it is likely that the Koh-i-Noor will be placed in her crown. However, the campaigners are hoping that before that happens, the British courts will rule in their favor and the gem will be back in India.
Keith Vaz, UK’s longest-serving British Indian MP, has been backing the campaign for the return of the Koh-i-Noor. After Shashi Tharoor’s speech at Oxford University demanding Britain pay reparations to India for plundering it for 200 years went viral a few months ago, Vaz had again brought up the issue of the Koh-i-Noor.
“Pursuing monetary reparations is complex, time-consuming and potentially fruitless, but there is no excuse for not returning precious items such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond,” said Vaz. Of course, there are those who sit on the other side of the debate too. “Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognize that the British crown jewels are precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernization, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratization of the sub-continent,” said Andrew Roberts, a British historian.
India is not the only country which has demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor. Pakistan has also put in a claim in the past arguing that it was taken to Britain after the Treaty of Lahore in undivided India, and as Lahore is now in Pakistan, it should be returned there.
The Koh-i-Noor is not the only spoil of war being claimed from Britain. The Chinese government claims the British Museum holds as many as 23,000 artifacts looted in the 19th century from Beijing alone, which naturally they would like returned.
Greece has been demanding the Par-thenon marbles, also on exhibit at the British Museum for years. Asking for the return of these objects is something of a ritual that states observe with solemn regularity, said one British bureaucrat.
But now with the case being filed in British courts, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Koh-i-Noor. If India is able to get the diamond back, then it will certainly set a precedent and open the floodgates for other countries to take the same legal route.