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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 19 New Delhi April 30, 2016

The Kohinoor Story

Saturday 30 April 2016, by Kuldip Nayar

A party which expects everyone to wear nationalism on one’s sleeves made the most anti-national statement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that the Kohinoor diamond was “offered” by Dalip Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, to Lord Dalhousie and it belongs to Britain.

The angry comments following the statement made the party realise its mistake and it changed its stand abruptly. It said that the Kohinoor belonged to India and would be brought back through talks with the British.

The question is about the facts, not how London would feel. True, there are two factions within the BJP, one for bringing back the diamond and the other believing that the Kohinoor was a British possession. The party should know the facts and not say what one of its factions feels.

Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy, was keen to please his masters, the East India Company and Queen Victoria. He also wanted to further his career. Dalip Singh, a minor, was under his charge because he was the Viceroy after the British had defeated the Sikhs to annex Punjab. Lord Dalhousie not only took Dalip Singh to Britain after converting him but also appropriated the Kohinoor as the possession of the British. He was so careful about the protection of the diamond that he did not take the usual Suez Canal route to London but went around South Africa, nearly twice the distance.

The Kohinoor was, no doubt, worth thousands of crores but it gave identity to India and, with it in possession, the authority. Ahmed Shah Abdali, one of our rulers, forcibly exchanged the turban with Nadir Shah when he came to know that the latter had tucked the Kohinoor under his turban.

Oblivious of all these facts, the BJP first washed its hands off from the Kohinoor. But when it faced spontaneous angry comments, it went back on its original stand. Even if the Kohinoor was “offered” to the British—the BJP’s first stand—the party must realise that the “offer” by the country which was Britain’s colony, meant nothing. It was not an offer of an elected government. The slave nations have no choice of their own.

I am, however, reminded of the discussion which I had initiated in the Rajya Sabha when I was its member in the late 1990s. After having vainly raised the issue with the British, when I was India’s High Commissioner, I thought Parliament would see the wrong done to the country.

The debate had hardly taken off when the then Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, requested me not to pursue the matter. I was aghast when he said that the debate on the Kohinoor could affect relations adversely between India and Great Britain. Till today, I have not been able to get the answer to my question: How?

Even according to a UNESCO resolution, all the artefacts obtained by the rulers during their governance should be returned to the original owners. New Delhi, for reasons best known to it, has not raised the matter citing the UNESCO resolution. A country, which had colonies, has reasons to be reluctant. Why should India which has been a colony itself have any hesitation?

In fact, the British Government had even questioned the ownership of the Kohinoor. It said that after the birth of Pakistan, the ownership of Kohinoor vested not only on India but on two countries: India and Pakistan. At London, one Foreign Office high-up had defended its decision not to return on the ground that the Kohinoor belonged to Pakistan. I told him that let them return it to Islamabad. It would at least come back to the subcontinent and then we shall take up the matter with them.

It is clear that the British have no intention of returning the diamond or, for that matter, tonnes of material stored in the basement of Victoria and Albert Museums at London. Though there was no response from England, France complied with the UNESCO resolution and gave up the relics which it had in their possession during their rule.

When the Nehru Corner was opened at London, I asked the curator how much of material from the basement they had put on display. Her reply was: five per cent. Even then the entire expense was borne by India. I requested her for the display of other possessions at the Indian Government’s expense. She curtly said no. She also rejected my proposal that we display the material in the basement in our country at our own expense and then return them to the Museum. The material of India at the basement includes manuscripts, books, maps, posters and such other material. People of India may never see that material since the government is reluctant to take up the subject.

The British establishment must have prevailed upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to mention the Kohinoor during his official visit to the United Kingdom some time back. Otherwise, it is not understandable why he did not refer to the subject even once directly or indirectly.

The Modi Government should reopen the question of relics with London. This may embarrass the previous Congress Government for not having acted during its rule. But the country’s interest demands that what is part of its history when the events took place should be in India. The British establishment should appreciate the feelings of Indians.

The UK had done well not to display the Kohinoor in the yearly exhibition of diamonds. Probably it had dawned on the Cameron Government that every time the Kohinoor is put to public gaze there is a demand from India that it should be returned to it. And it once again confirmed the fact that the diamond actually belonged to India and that Lord Dalhousie had fraudulently taken it to London.

My impression is that when it comes to their empire, the British cannot be objective. There is pride, no humility, self-righteousness and no introspection. The British are proud, nostalgic but annoyingly patronising about their connection. The new generation should have been different and given a new message instead of plugging the same old line.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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