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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 12, March 9, 2013

Returning the Kohinoor to Where It Belonged

Sunday 10 March 2013, by Kuldip Nayar

British Prime Minister David Cameron has exhibited once again England’s imperial side when he came to discuss the Kohninoor. He said at Amritsar during his visit that his country “controls” the diamond, which is partly studded in the Queen’s crown. This only explains what the UK has done with the diamond after taking it away forcibly from India. This does not establish control, much less legal title. This only confirms British high-handedness.

Cameron would have gone down better in India if he had said that they could not dissect the crown which is adorned with the Kohinoor as the central piece. He could have argued that since Lord Dalhousie presented the diamond to Queen Victoria much water had flowed down the Thames and that it was too late to disturb the status quo. Instead, the British Prime Minister says that the diamond is theirs by the dint of possession. It is like a brigand laying claim to a thing which he had obtained through force years ago.

Take the history of Britain’s acquisition of the Kohinoor. Lord Dalhousie, the then Viceroy in India, took it from Dalip Singh, the eight-year-old son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was told that the diamond was part of reparation which the British exacted after defeating the Sikhs in Punjab. This is even now Cameron’s case. He considers the booty from the days of the Raj legitimate.

The Kohinoor is not the only relic the British Government forcibly retains. It has kept back books, documents, papers, pictures, posters and paintings of the Raj and of our independence struggle. The British have taken advantage of the difference between India and Pakistan over the division of the material and distributed it among different museums in the UK. It looks as if India has more or less accepted the appropria-tion of the entire loot by the British Government.

I raised the question of the Kohinoor’s return when I was India’s High Commissioner to Great Britain in 1990. A couple of newspapers in London published my statement that the Kohinoor belonged to India and that we must get it back because we were the rightful owners. During my short stint in the UK, I found that the Britons would be embarrassed whenever I talked to them about the Kohinoor.

WHEN I visited the Tower of London with my family to see the Indian diamonds, including the Kohinoor, the crown has been studded with, British officials, who showed us the diamonds, were very apologetic. They said: “We feel ashamed to show them because they are from your country.” I recall the remark which our old servant, Murli, made after seeing the diamonds: “We must take back the Kohinoor when we return to India!” His words reflected the Indian psyche. At the common level, it is an emotional problem. I did not stay long enough in London to pursue the claim over the Kohinoor. But when I was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (1997-2003), I took up the matter in the House as well as with the government. I got a petition signed by some 50 MPs—Opposition leader Manmohan Singh was one of them—to request the Government of India to ask the British Government to return the Kohinoor. Jaswant Singh, the then Foreign Minister, assured me that his government would take up the matter with London forthwith. I presumed that he had done so.

After some months I asked a question in the House: what was the progress on the return of the Kohinoor to India? Jaswant Singh replied that the government had taken up the matter with the UK through the Indian High Commission at London. To my horror, I found during a subsequent visit to London that it was not true. The Indian High Commission had no knowledge of any step that New Delhi had taken. Apparently, the government was procrastinating and not coming out with the facts.

I would remind Jaswant Singh of the Kohinoor practically every session but his reply was a mere gentle smile. Once when I talked to him about the return of the Kohinoor, he was cold. But he was frank and told me that by raising the issue of the Kohinoor India would be unnecessarily spoiling relations with Great Britain. It was a revelation to me. I would have brought the issue before the Rajya Sabha but then I was nearing the end of my tenure.

What hurt me the most was a remark by a British official in New Delhi at a party some time later: “Mr Nayar, the Kohinoor does not belong to India. If ever things came to such a pass where we have to return it, we would rather give it to Pakistan.” I said in reply: “By all means, do so. We would have the satisfaction that the Kohinoor had at least returned to the Indian subcontinent.”

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  http://www.kuldipnayar.com

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