San Francisco – On February 20, 2013, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron placed a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar thereby becoming the first serving British prime minister to voice regret about one of the British Raj’s bloodiest atrocities in India, entailing the massacre of unarmed civilians in the city of Amritsar in 1919.
On the downside, Cameron rejected any possibility of Britain returning the 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond, embedded in the British Queen’s crown and on display in the Tower of London.
Among the world’s largest diamonds, it has been a thorn (albeit somewhat mild given the Indian Government’s hesitancy in taking up the issue more aggressively) in the side of Indo-UK relations. The diamond was a “gift” elicited from the defeated Sikh Maharaja by Britain’s erstwhile Governor-General of India to be presented to Queen Victoria in 1850.
The Maharajah was forced to give the diamond to the Queen of England as part of the surrender agreement – the Treaty of Lahore. The Governor-General overseeing the treaty proudly considered the diamond to be a spoil of war.
Some 163 years later, speaking to reporters, Cameron’s stance was hardly different. In one of the most feeble comebacks to the media query about repatriating Kohinoor, his assertion was: “I don’t think that’s the right approach,” Equating it to the Elgin marbles, which are more accurately the classic Greek marble sculptures that Athens legitimately owns and has long demanded they be given back, Cameron said, “It is the same question with the Elgin Marbles.”
More anxious to focus on the present and the future, Cameron conceded he is less interested to reach back into the past. “I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism,’ as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.” This is an incredibly insensitive and insensible way in which the British premier seeks to pursue his main agenda for the visit, i.e., to tap into the trade potential offered by India’s growing economy and to build a productive amicable partnership.
Not surprisingly, this is not the first time Cameron has been posed this question. Back on August 12, 2010, media in India raised the familiar conundrum viz., should the jewel in Britain’s crown return to India? Posed the same question, David Cameron’s response was the same.
The British Government’s stated position is that ownership is ‘non-negotiable’ as the Maharajah of Lahore presented Queen Victoria with the gem.
As Britain seeks beneficial trade with India, questions arise over ownership not only of this precious gem but of hundreds of other appropriated Indian artifacts. As David Cameron himself pointed out, returning artifacts to their original countries would mean emptying the British Museum. Claims have been made for the Rosetta stone and Elgin Marbles to be returned. Cameron and his peers in government fear that returning one artifact would cause the floodgates to open.
The British have long used the feeble excuse that their reluctance to restore the diamond to India is because its true ownership is questionable. The diamond has passed undoubtedly through several owners that include various Hindu, Persian, Afghan, Sikh and British rulers.
India is not the sole claimant to the gem with Pakistan as well as Iran and Afghanistan making a bid for its transfer to them. However, there are others who challenge this view.
According to Raja Murthy (‘India wants its crown jewel’ Aug 5, 2010) the Kohinoor 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.”
Among those advocating for Kohinoor’s restoration to India are Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson, who called for its return in 2009. He said that returning the diamond “would be atonement for the colonial past.” In the ‘mother country’ UK’s Labor MP Keith Vaz also advocated for reinstating the jewel. The jewel’s return would improve Indo-British relations and timed to coincide with the Indian Republic’s diamond jubilee, it would be “very fitting.”
The late Bhaskar Ghorpade, erstwhile Counsel for the Government of India in London and a Kohinoor activist, had noted 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 percent of the collection from India. During his tenure he had successfully ensured the return to India of an invaluable 12th-century bronze statue of Natraj from Britain after a legal battle.
During a personal meeting in the 1980’s with one of the Museum’s curators/staff, this writer also recalls being told that the British had so much prized antique stuff from India for which they had no place or resources to display and therefore had left the stuff in airport hangers. She also noted with excitement how she was looking forward to acquiring a Tipu Sultan sword during her forthcoming visit to India.
As Murthy rightly notes, “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.”
It would be helpful if the strong Indian American community in the US would join hands with its counterparts in the UK to achieve the return of lost treasures to India. Business groups in particular could play a decisive role in achieving the desired transformation in the UK Government’s stubborn and the Indian Government’s lackadaisical stance on the issue of repatriating assets to its owners.
Bharat Johnson, an ex-solicitor of the Supreme Court of England & Wales and a former advocate of the Supreme Court of India who is a (self-proclaimed) fierce proponent of Kohinoor’s restoration, in his post on November 20, 2012 notes that he has issued a legal notice to the European Union to have their member countries restore what they have appropriated through colonization from Africa, Asia and Latin America to the respective countries.
He also appeals to all Indians of conscience to sign the petition requesting the European Union and their member nations to restore all Indian heritage including the Kohinoor Diamond to the rightful owners who are the people of India.