By Sabah Kochhar:
The controversy surrounding the Kohinoor has reached a new high of late, given the recent volte-face by the Indian government. The Culture Ministry’s lawyers first stated that the Kohinoor was not under British hands due to a cruel twist of fate or colonial plunder, instead, given as a “gift“. Now, they seem to have suddenly reconsidered their decision, saying they wanted the relic returned in an “amicable manner”!
Indeed, one look at the history of what some have touted as the “cursed diamond” shows that the politics of ownership behind the Kohinoor is highly contested, with not just India and Britain, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Africa arguing their rights of ownership, each justifiable in its own way.
The diamond’s history is one of many inconsistencies and involves traveling down the hands of Alauddin Khilji to Humayun to Ahmad Shah Abdali before it finally landed in the hands of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh died in 1839, but it was a decade later that the diamond was somehow “taken hold of”, so to speak, by the British.
The argument made by Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar (who represented the government’s case in court), ties in favor of the British right to retain the Kohinoor. It says that this diamond was ‘acquired’ by them after Ranjit Singh’s successor, Duleep Singh signed the Bhyroval treaty in 1846. However, while this might be legally well within the rights of the King to do so, it is also important to highlight that Duleep Singh himself was no more than 8-10 years old when this treaty was signed. The ownership of the Kohinoor, however, clear its legality may be, is still a cloudy issue on the moral or ethical front. Who knows how Duleep Singh signed the treaty, whether a little boy acted of his own accord or out of force or coercion?
Other arguments include that if India seeks to recover its right to the Kohinoor, then what was erstwhile part of the same land under the Raj (namely Pakistan and Bangladesh) also deserve to stake their claims to it too. After all, the diamond was taken by the British from Singh’s rule in Lahore, and thus, present-day Pakistani soil also has its role to play in the saga.
Even as these arguments hold true, the reality is that the British may as well be keeping not just the Kohinoor, but Tipu Sultan’s sword, Mughal artifacts, and even ancient Southern Indian temple columns – all in full public view and on display in their museums. Because the real issue at hand here isn’t the Kohinoor itself, but our own inconsistent histories, misinformed political stances and lack of awareness regarding how the past affects the present. Debates on colonial reparations or empire era loot on display in museums are a mirror to our present times. They point to stories of how the powerful manage to get away with injustice. The Kohinoor is but one object among thousand others, but this incident should help us ask hard questions. The diamond isn’t just about material loss, but symbolic of the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Much like other practices of systemic inequality, it is the “principle” of unjust acquisition and not material wealth that matters here: Does Britain acknowledge it stands on the wrong side of history?