October 13, 2010
Further coverage of the statements by British Prime Minister David Cameron, that he was not ready to consider Indian requests for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
Cameron and The Kohinoor
Should the jewel in Britain’s crown return to India? David Cameron was challenged on his recent trip to India about the Kohinoor diamond. As Britain seeks beneficial trade with India, questions over ownership of this precious gem arise.
By Roz Euan-Smith • August 12, 2010
The Kohinoor diamond, meaning “mountain of light,” has a tumultuous history. Frequently passing hands as loot, it has belonged to the British since 1849, when the Punjab was formally proclaimed to be part of the British Empire in India. The diamond was given to Queen Victoria of England. Highly prized for its size and brilliance, the diamond is the centrepiece of the late Queen Mother’s crown.
India has repeatedly asked for the jewel to be returned, and David Cameron’s recent visit was no exception. However, he flatly refused to return the diamond.
The aim of the trip was to build stronger Indo-British business relationships. Several key ministers and over 50 leading business figures joined him. India is currently the world’s second fastest growing economy. By comparison, Britain is in its worst recession since World War Two. An alliance with India would benefit the UK, but it’s harder to see what India would gain.
The Kohinoor diamond is not the only treasure Britain is withholding. As David Cameron himself pointed out, returning artefacts to their original countries would mean emptying the British Museum. Claims have been made for the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles to be returned. Mr Cameron is loath to open the floodgates.
Another reason Britain is reluctant to give India the diamond is doubts over its true ownership. This is unknown as the Kohinoor passed hands numerous times. The stone has been the prized possession of various Hindu, Persian, Afghan, Sikh and British rulers. Also, India is not the only country claiming the gem. Pakistan made a request in 1976 for the diamond to be returned there. A major newspaper in Teheran stated that the gem should to be returned to Iran too. The British Government says that ownership is ‘non-negotiable’ as the Maharajah of Lahore presented Queen Victoria with the gem.
Others disagree. The Maharajah was forced to give the diamond away as part of the surrender agreement. It was originally taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and later surrendered to the Queen of England as part of the Treaty of Lahore. The Governor-General overseeing the treaty considered the diamond to be a spoil of war.
Before the British got ownership of the diamond, it was in Mogul possession in Delhi for 213 years and in Afghan possession in Kandahar and Kabul for 66 years.
The Kohinoor left the shores of India on April 6, 1850, and reached London on July 2, 1850, when it was handed over to the Board of Directors of the East India Company.
Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson, called for its return in 2009. He said that returning the diamond “would be atonement for the colonial past.” Recently Labour MP Keith Vaz has supported reinstating the jewel. Doing this close to the Indian Republic’s diamond jubilee “would be very fitting.” He added that the jewel’s return would improve Indo-British relations.
While Britain’s economy is suffering, India’s is growing fast. Improving bilateral trade was the goal of Cameron’s trip. He took the most important delegation to India since 1947 in a bid to lay “foundations for an enhanced relationship.” The group included business leaders such as John Varley, chief executive of Barclays, and Xavier Rolet, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange. BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest defense contractor, secured the trip’s key transaction. In an approximately $1.1 billion deal they agreed to supply 57 Hawk trainer jets to India.
At present foreign companies are strictly controlled in India. British banks, law and accountancy firms face harsh restrictions. British universities are as yet unable to establish campuses in India. In order for business relationships to flourish both sides need to compromise. With the Kohinoor raising potential problems, perhaps its time for Britain to make some tricky choices.
Aug 5, 2010
India wants its crown jewel
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI – 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 East India 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.
- British Prime Minister’s statements on the Koh-i-Noor diamond : September 29, 2010
- The Koh-i-noor and promoting Britain’s trade ties with India : February 26, 2013
- Indian TV show asks David Cameron about returning the Koh-i-Noor diamond : September 29, 2010
- Could Koh-i-noor diamond be leased back to India? : February 22, 2013
- The Indian government is not asking for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond : October 19, 2010
- British recalcitrance over returning the Kohinoor : March 4, 2013
- MP Keith Vaz asks British Government to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond : September 28, 2010
- David Cameron says that Koh-i-Noor will not be returned : September 29, 2010