In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

India wants its crown jewel

Posted by seumasach on August 5, 2010

Raja Murthy

Asia Times

5th August, 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s refusal to return the Kohinoor diamond to India adds to the centuries-old saga of one of the most famous, yet contentious, gemstones in history.

Leading news channel NDTV, in an interview with Cameron on July 28 during his two-day visit to India, told him the favorite question among viewers was about the Kohinoor: will Britain return the 105-carat (21.6 gram) diamond?

“No,” Cameron told NDTV boss Prannoy Roy, adding that returning the Kohinoor would lead to similar requests and “suddenly we would soon have the British museum empty” – a remark tantamount to admitting the museum in London was a storehouse for plundered goods.

Roy delivered India’s general sentiment, assuring Cameron that “we will keep trying to get back the Kohinoor”.

More than any intrinsic value – like other diamonds, the Kohinoor, in reality, is only a blob of very condensed carbon – the issue is emotional and the stone is seen as symbolic of British subjugation of India.

Queen Victoria declared herself “Empress of India”in 1876, 26 years after the Kohinoor was presented to her. The stone was subsequently mounted in the crown of the mother of the present queen, in 1937.

The sun has long since set on the Empire, with British India having been partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, but not it appears on imperial booty. India is unlikely to consider accounts settled, until the Kohinoor is returned.

The Kohinoor (“Mountain of Light” from Persian), was once the largest known diamond in the world and came from the Guntur district in the state of Andhra Pradesh as long as 5,000 years ago, according to some claims.

The diamond belonged to various Hindu, Mughal, Persian, Afghan, Sikh and British rulers before being seized by the EastIndia Company, after which it became a part of the British crown jewels. This passing of ownership was variously described as a gift, seized booty and war reparations.

Britain has consistently rejected demands from the Indian government, parliamentarians, the Archaeological Survey of India, as well as prominent citizens, to return the Kohinoor to the country of its origin.

In 1990, veteran journalist and former high commissioner to Britain, Kuldip Nayar, joined the Kohinoor struggle. “I found that the British would be embarrassed whenever I talked to them about the Kohinoor, ” Nayar recalled in an article in 2005. “When I visited the Tower of London with my family to see Indian diamonds, including the Kohinoor, the British officials, who showed us around, were very apologetic. They said: ‘We feel ashamed to show them [diamonds] because they are from your country’.”

British governmental arguments against returning the Kohinoor are rejected outright in India. One argument says there are conflicting claims for ownership, including from Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. But no one disputes the fact the Kohinoor’s origins are in India – that it was mined in southern India and then taken to Britain.

A more abrasive argument says Britain is in “better position” to take care of the Kohinoor and other historical treasures, a claim befitting colonial justification for conquest and exploitation: the native heathens can’t take care of themselves, so we, the superior race, have to do it.

Britain has not always been able to cling to property it does not own. The late Bhaskar Ghorpade, former counsel for the government of India in London and a Kohinoor activist, successfully had an invaluable 12th-century bronze statue of Natraj, the god of dance, returned to India from Britain after a legal battle.

Ghorpade, who died this year in January, had said that “British museums are so laden with Indian treasures that often they don’t have room to even store them.” The Indian section in Victoria and Albert Museum, he said, displays barely 2% of the collection from India.

India has company in its post-independence grouse with Britain. Countries like China, Mexico, Peru, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Cyprus, Libya, Greece, Syria, Egypt and Guatemala want back their cultural and historical treasures currently in foreign possession. These countries are part of stuttering international campaigns to reverse the loot taken during colonial and war times.

The United Nation Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a 1970 convention calling for the return of antiquities and works of art to their countries of origin. But the UNESCO rule conveniently does not apply to artifacts looted before 1970, an untenable ruling since most of the plunder has already happened.

UN conventions or not, Britain will hear more of the issue. The Kohinoor has a track record of changing owners. Chances are the next change of address is due.

The Kohinoor has a more unstable biography than other famous diamonds like the Great Mogul, Tiffany, Black Orloff, Star of South Africa and the Hope. It flitted from Indian rulers, Mughal emperors, Persian raiders, back to Indian kings and then to a British queen – often leaving a bloodied trail of obsessive greed, intrigue, torture and murder.

The word “diamond” derived from the Greek word “adamas”, means invincible, but the Kohinoor carried a curse in its wanderings through the centuries. Whoever wears the Kohinoor is doomed, said the curse, and its successive royal owners suffered untimely death or lost their kingdoms.

The British royalty seem to have escaped their scheduled fate by keeping the Kohinoor in the Tower of London. Or, from another perspective, the British Empire lasted barely another 100 years after the Kohinoor was fixed in the royal crown.

Legend says the Kohinoor was first found over 5,000 years old. But it was first seen in writing in the Baburanama, memoirs of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire and a descendant of Genghis Khan from his mother’s side.

The Kohinoor was part of Babur’s booty after the Battle of Panipat, in 1526, in which he killed Ibrahim Lodi, sultan of Delhi. Among Lodi’s slain allies was Vikramaditya, the king of Gwalior and last owner of the Kohinoor.

The Kohinoor passed onto Babur’s son Humayun, who was dethroned by Sher Shah Suri, an able, Afghan adventurer. Wandering as a homeless exile, Humayan presented the Kohinoor to his host Shah Tahmasp, the ruler of Persia, in 1547.

Shah Tahmasp, like many others now seeing it while standing on a conveyor belt in the Tower of London, was not much impressed by the looks of Kohinoor. It fell into the hands of a wily diamond dealer, Mir Jumla, who brought it back to India. The Kohinoor passed from one royal owner to another, including Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Only emperors and kings could afford the Kohinoor, whose value at one time was estimated to be “two and a half times the daily expense of the entire world”.

In early 18th century, the Kohinoor was part of the fabulous Peacock Throne of Delhi – made of gold, diamonds, sapphires and pearls – before it again left India as part of the plunder of Persian invader Nadir Shah, who raided and ransacked Delhi in 1739.

From Persia, the Kohinoor returned once more to India, to Lahore (now in Pakistan), the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom. The Kohinoor yet again left India, as part of the British booty from Ranjit Singh who was defeated in the Sikh wars. Lord Dalhousie took the Kohinoor with him on the HMS Medea, sailing from Bombay on April 6, 1850.

The Kohinoor-back-to-India movement is also getting backers in Britain. Keith Vaz, a British member of parliament of Indian origin, told Cameron his India visit was “a perfect opportunity” to render historical justice. “It would be fitting for the Kohinoor to return to the country in which it was mined 161 years after it was removed from India,” Vaz said in a statement.

161 years later, sentiment for the Kohinoor making its return journey still runs high, as Cameron discovered. But his counterpart, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and his government do not appear too interested in exerting pressure to retrieve the Kohinoor.

That is just as well for those believing in letting sleeping dogs and cursed diamonds lie. The Tower of London might be a safe resting place for the once restless Kohinoor, and India perhaps better off leaving the glittering bad luck with Britain.

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