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'Kohinoor, a symbol of British loot'

By Rashme Sehgal
Last updated on: April 22, 2016 12:42 IST
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Though it would be wonderful for Indians to have the Kohinoor and the Peacock Throne displayed in all its glory at the Red Fort, it seems unlikely that the British will part with the Kohinoor in a hurry.
Rashme Sehgal reports.

The Kohinoor diamond in the crown on the coffin bearing the Queen Mother in 2002

The legend of the Kohinoor diamond is a story of intrigue, romance and adventure.

This legendary 105.6 carat diamond, whose name means 'Mountain of Light,' has been set in the Queen's crown and is presently on display in the Tower of London.

But there is no doubt that the diamond was taken from the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Duleep Singh, after the British annexation of the Punjab.

The Indian government had made several efforts to get back the diamond.

Kuldip Nayar, the former Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, describes how during his tenure in the 1990s, he lobbied for the return of the Kohinoor and thousands of rare Indian artefacts and manuscripts which are lying in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

"A BBC reporter asked me that Pakistan was also lobbying for the Kohinoor, so who should it go to?" Nayar recalls. "I replied, 'Let it go to Pakistan, but it must be returned to the sub-continent from where it had been taken forcibly'."

"It is our identity. The British have taken everything from us. It is now time they give it back," says Nayar, one of India's best-known journalists. "How can anyone say it was given as a gift? We were then a colonised nation. Was there an elected government in power who could have offered the diamond as a gift?"

"The British government rejected my demand. When I was a Rajya Sabha MP, I took up this issue again. I think I had the support all the MPs on this matter though I had time to collect signatures of only 25 MPs to press the prime minister to ask the UK government to return the Kohinoor."

"Then foreign minister Jaswant Singh rang me up and said, 'Don't press for it otherwise it will spoil relationships between India and the UK'," Nayar remembers.

The Kohinoor was first exhibited in England in a gilded cage at the Royal Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. Tens of thousands flocked to see it from the moment the exhibition opened, but were disappointed at seeing the oval shaped diamond which then they believed emanated little lustre.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, then ordered that the Kohinoor to be re-cut from 186 carats to its present 105 carats and had it mounted in a tiara with more than 2,000 other diamonds.

The Kohinoor is the centre piece of the crown which Queen Elizabeth II wears on ceremonial occasions.

Professor Tapati Guha Thakurta, a historian at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, is a strong advocate for the return of the Kohinoor.

"The British plundered Punjab on the eve of the Mutiny. Ranjit Singh's throne and the Kohinoor were just some of the treasures taken from the Punjab and this remains a symbol of their plunder and loot. It was definitely not a gift," Professor Guha Thakurta says.

"The direct annexation of the kingdom of Awadh left the king with no option but to hand over the royal treasures. A great deal of loot and plunder took place following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the battle of Seringapatnam. Tipu's throne was moved to Calcutta and part of it remains in the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata," she says, adding, "I believe this should be moved back and displayed in Seringapatnam."

"When the last Mughal court moved to Lahore, many artefacts, paintings and manuscripts were taken by the British. My position on this is that cultural diplomacy must follow distinct laws of repatriation," Professor Guha Thakurta adds.

"It would be wonderful for Indians to have the Kohinoor and the Peacock Throne displayed in all its glory at the Red Fort of India," she says.

Dr Gautam Sengupta, former ASI chief, also maintains that art treasures must return to their "cultural surroundings" to be viewed in their cultural-specific environment.

UNESCO has laid down clear guidelines that all artefacts must be returned to the countries from where they were taken.

Historian Professor Shereen Ratnagar shoots down what she describes as the "bumptious claims" of the British Museum that it is holding these treasures for the entire world.

"The British colonised the whole world and took these treasures home," Professor Ratnagar points out. "The time has now come that these treasures return from where they had been brought."

She dismisses the claims that these treasures are better looked after in Western museums and cites the example of how a Greek archaeologist informed her that the Parthenon marbles had marks of metal brushing on them and how an ivory figurine from Baluchistan had been found to have a leg missing (which was not the case one year earlier) while on display at the British Museum.

Seventy per cent of all Indian artefacts are in storage and have not been displayed by the British Museum authorities, she says.

In a strongly worded article titled 'The Discovery and Appropriation of a People's Past Mesopotamia-Nineteenth to 21st Century,' Professor Ratnagar has written that the Amravati sculpted gateways, which are the cultural property of Andhra Pradesh, cannot be examined by its people at close quarters because they are housed in London.

Are the Louvre, the British Museum and the Berlin Museum the only safe havens for antiquities, she asked.

Professor Ratnagar also questioned how the West allowed the Iraq Museum to be pillaged during the American invasion of Iraq. 'Why was the Iraq Museum left unguarded after the US invasion in 2003 between the days of April 11 and 16 which saw Iraq lose some of its most valuable treasures?' she asked.

A day after Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told the the Supreme Court that the Kohinoor was a gift to the British, the Union culture ministry issued a statement that the government would do everything to get the Kohinoor back!

The government's hasty retraction and its contradictory signals means the British have more reason not to part with the precious bauble in a hurry.

IMAGE: The Kohinoor diamond in the crown on the coffin bearing the Queen Mother at her funeral in 2002. Photograph: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

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Rashme Sehgal