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'The Kohinoor was not gifted to the British'

Last updated on: April 19, 2016 21:18 IST

'Duleep Singh was not in a position to give it away because he was only a minor of about 3, 4 years old.'

'The Indian claim of the British having taken the Kohinoor from the Sikhs does not stand because the Sikhs too took it by force.'

IMAGE: Britain's Queen Elizabeth in the House of Lords. The Kohinoor has been with the British royal family since the 1850s. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

The row over the Kohinoor diamond seems to be getting more and more intense.

On Monday, April 18, the Government of India, in response to a PIL seeking the return of the Kohinoor from Britain, stated in the Supreme Court that the diamond was gifted by Sikh king Duleep Singh to the British and hence it could not seek its return.

'If we claim our treasures such as Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us. There will be nothing left in our museums,' Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told the Supreme Court.

"It is a diamond which has a very long competitive history," historian and author William Dalrymple, image, below, whose forthcoming book Kohinoor traces the diamond's history, tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/

There are many theories about the Kohinoor, of how it ended up with the British, one of them being that it was gifted away by Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. How far is this true?

It is absolutely not true at all. It is a complete misunderstanding of history.

Ranjit Singh was certainly dead and he did not gift it away. The complicating factor is that Ranjit Singh himself probably seized the diamond by force.

Just like the British say that it was given to them as a gift, so Ranjit Singh claims it was given to him as a gift by Shah Shuja Durrani. But Afghan sources, including Shah Shuja's own autobiography, say that his son was tortured in front of him and therefore he handed over the Kohinoor to Ranjit Singh.

So you can argue that if it was illegitimately taken by force by the British, then it was illegitimately taken by force by Ranjit Singh too.

Before that it was taken by Ahmed Shah Abdali from (Persian king) Nadir Shah by force. Before that Nadir Shah took it by force from Mughal king Muhammad Shah Rangeela by force.

It is a diamond which has a very long competitive history, with India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, all claiming the Kohinoor diamond.

There is another theory that Ranjit Singh's son Duleep Singh gave the Kohinoor diamond as ransom for his safety to the British. How far is that true?

Duleep Singh was a child when he was taken by the British. He encountered Queen Victoria only when he was an adult. He was not in a position to give it away because he was only a minor of about 3, 4 years old (at the time).

Was it ransom, then, in exchange for Duleep Singh's safety?

The Sikhs were defeated in the Anglo-Sikh war. The British captured the treasury and it (the Kohinoor) became a part of the plunder. I don't believe the Kohinoor was gifted. It became a part of the booty taken by the victorious company.

Another point is the agency waging war was not the British government, but a private corporation, the East India Company, which is an additional complication.

One of the weird facts of Indian history is that India was not colonised by the British at all, but by a private corporation, the East India Company, whose shareholders were many Indians. For example, Marwaris heavily invested in East Indian company shares, just like many Dutch people did.

Is it true that Malik Kafur was the first to take the Kohinoor by force from the Kakatiya dynasty for the Delhi sultanate?

That is the supposition. I think it is not proven.

Where did the Kohinoor originate from?

The only diamond mine in the world at that time was the Golconda mine in Hyderabad state. Probably, the Kakatiya dynasty was there then, but there is no clear information about it, only supposition.

So we don't know for sure where this diamond originated?

We know that it came from the Golconda mine as it was the only one in the world which produced diamonds (at the time). It was the only source of diamonds until the discovery of the New World mines in the 19th century and the South African mines.

The Kohinoor's exact history before the arrival of the Mughals is unclear, but it is supposed to be Kakatiya, that is the supposition.

Historically, who was the first queen or king to own the Kohinoor?

Mughal Emperor Shahjahan is believed to be the first king. The Kohinoor, however, comes clearly in focus at the time of Mughal king Muhammad Shah Rangeela (c 1739) and Nadir Shah.

No records of its possession by Noor Jahan, Mughal Emperor Jehangir's wife?

I don't believe there is a record for that, but I might be wrong.

Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma says the diamond's case goes back before Independence, therefore they cannot do anything about it. Is that a legitimate stand to take?

My view is that it is much more complicated than most Indians realise.

The Indian claim of the British having taken it from the Sikhs does not stand because the Sikhs too took it by force (from Shah Shuja).

If you start talking about reparations from the British to India, does Sri Lanka then have the right to seek reparations from India because of the raids of Polonnaruwa?

The Cholas also raided Indonesia. Should Indonesia seek reparations then (from India)?

In history the strong preyed upon on the weak everywhere in the world, all the time. Should the British start claiming reparations from Italy because of what the Romans did? You open a can of worms if you start opening up these issues.

My personal view is that the correct solution in the face of these atrocities is that you got to educate people better. The British public does not know what their ancestors did and they are never taught that they committed a massacre on a large scale in 1857, for example.

My personal view is that once you start a digging operation, then there is eternal fire, so when did it start?

I think there is a problem of colonial violence and the fact that many European countries do not recognise it, they are in denial and they are largely ignorant.

Did the British sign any agreement with the Indian government that they will not return any of the wealth back to India?

I am not aware of that.

Has the British government ever returned any gold or jewels back to any former colony after it gained Independence?

There are individual reparations by individual institutions, but the British government as a whole, no.

For example, Oxford College returned the Benin Brown to Nigeria, but that was not a government decision. It was an individual institution, not the government.

Even Tipu Sultan's sword was auctioned if I am not mistaken?

Yes, that was bought by Vijay Mallya. He bought four to five canons, muskets and huge amount of armours and weaponry 10 years ago.

After he bought them, he found out that he could not bring it all into the country as Indian laws prevented him from doing so.

I believe he gave them on a long loan to a museum in Los Angeles.

Besides salvaging national pride, what will India achieve by regaining the Kohinoor?

As I said, so many other countries can claim it too. Why not Iran? Why not Afghanistan?

I think chasing reparations is not the way forward, the way forward is education and understanding.

There was another diamond called the Dariya Noor (Sea of Light) like the Kohinoor.

Yes, that is on display in Teheran. The great loot of Mughal jewels was not by the British, but Nadir Shah. In 1739, when he looted Delhi, he took away 10,000 items of gold, jewels and diamonds.

Most of the Mughal treasures you will find in Teheran. Nadir Shah used those Mughal treasures as much as he could and the leftovers he gave to the Ottoman palace in Istanbul and then to the czar (of Russia).

For Mughal jewels you don't need to look at London, but to Teheran, to Istanbul and St Petersburg.

The Kohinoor was not the only jewel, it was one among many. The Peacock Throne was also lost by the Mughal emperor to Nadir Shah.

Is the Dariya Noor linked to the Kohinoor?

They are different stones. It is like a sister jewel. The Dariya Noor was a great Mughal ruby, but no one talks about it. There is a huge quantity of Mughal loot scattered around the world in different museums. The main culprit behind the Mughal loot was Nadir Shah.

Why are we so obsessed with the Kohinoor, but not Dariya Noor?

Largely because of ignorance. People are familiar with Kohinoor because the British wrote the history books.

The Peacock Throne is in Iran and so is the Dariya Noor. Some of the greatest Mughal jewels are in St Petersburg. I think if we open up all these things, where do you stop?

As I said, the Sri Lankan government can sue India for what the Cholas did to them in the 11th century and so can the Indonesian government. The Cholas had a magnificent navy that ruled the Indian Ocean. They raided Indonesia and looted the great cities of Sri Lanka.

Is there any proof that the Cholas looted diamonds and gold from Indonesia and Sri Lanka?

Yes, there is clear proof. The Anuradhapura chronicle says the Cholas looted every temple in Anuradhapura and they took away the diamonds from the eyes of Buddha. They looted every stone and looted every idol. It is online, if you look at Anuradhapura chronicle, I even wrote about it (external link).

India was also looting other countries. It is not just a belief, it is a clear historical fact.

Is the 'loot' from other countries on display in any Indian museum?

I don't know for sure whether you can point to any individual objects. I am taking just one example, the fact that Chola king Rajaraja Chola looted Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and there were repeated regular raids on cities in Indonesia and Java.

What is the view in England among the public after British MP Keith Vaz said the Kohinoor must be returned to India?

The English people are mostly ignorant of the history of the British Empire. Very few people know what the British did.

The most appropriate response in my view is to educate the British people on the many terrible things the British did in the imperial period.

Meanwhile late on Tuesday, April 19, the Union culture ministry issued this clarification on the Kohinoor:

'The Government of India wishes to put on record that certain news items appearing in the press regarding the Kohinoor Diamond are not based on facts.'

'The Government of India further reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor Diamond in an amicable manner.'

The factual position is that the matter is sub judice at present. A PIL has been filed in the Honourable Supreme Court that is yet to be admitted.'

The Solicitor General of India was asked to seek the views of the Government of India, which have not yet been conveyed. The Solicitor General of India informed the Honourable Court about the history of the diamond and gave an oral statement on the basis of the existing references made available by the ASI.'

'Thus, it should be reaffirmed that the Government of India has not yet conveyed its views to the court, contrary to what is being misrepresented. The Court granted six weeks time on the prayer of the Solicitor General to take instructions for making his submission in the matter.'

'The status report on which the preliminary submission was made by the Solicitor General have references to the stand taken by Governments earlier that the Kohinoor was a gift and cannot be categorized as an object stolen.'

'The material further has references to the views of India's 1st Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru dating back to 1956. Pandit Nehru went on record saying that there is no ground to claim this art treasure back. He also added that efforts to get the Kohinoor back would lead to difficulties.'

'Pandit Nehru also said, "To exploit our good relations with some country to obtain free gifts from it of valuable articles does not seem to be desirable. On the other hand, it does seem to be desirable that foreign museums should have Indian objects of art".'

'It may be added that ever since he has taken over as PM, Shri Narendra Modi's efforts led to three significant pieces of India's history coming back home.'

'In October 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned a 10th century Indian statue of Goddess Durga that was stolen in 1990 and found in 2012 at a museum in Germany. In April 2015, then Canadian PM Stephen Harper returned a sculpture known as the 'Parrot Lady', which dates back to almost 900 years. Then Australian PM Tony Abbott, on his India visit in 2014 had returned antique statues of Hindu deities that were in Australian art galleries.'

'None of these gestures affected India’s relations with either Canada, Germany or Australia. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who as the Chief Minister got back the ashes of Shyamji Krishna Varma almost 70 years after his death.'

'Thus, with regard to the Kohinoor Diamond too, Government of India remains hopeful for an amicable outcome whereby India gets back a valued piece of art with strong roots in our nation’s history.'

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai