What did the Ministry of Culture tell the Supreme Court about the Kohinoor, the diamond that now sits with other British crown jewels at the Tower of London?
On Monday, Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told the court that the diamond was neither “forcibly taken nor stolen”, but was rather given as a “gift” to the East India Company by the rulers of Punjab, and that staking claim to it would mean “every other nation (could) start claiming their items from us”. After strong criticism, the government made a U-turn the next day, reiterating “its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor… in an amicable manner”.
Is there a problem with calling the diamond a “gift”?
Historical records show the Kohinoor was part of war reparations demanded by the East India Company after the defeat of the state of Punjab — then ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s child heir, Duleep — in the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-49. The boy king travelled to Britain to hand over the diamond to the Crown in London.
Indian nationalists from the time of Dadabhai Naoroji built the narrative of their struggle against the British around the theory of the Drain of Wealth, forcefully demonstrating the ways in which India was relentlessly bled of her resources, resulting in the passing of her legendary wealth into the hands of the British. The drain occurred in many ways and through various devices of pricing and accounting, but mostly by the use of force — through the extortion of diwani (revenue collection rights) of prosperous states, and by pushing the Indian royalty to ‘pay’ for their own conquest by the British. In 1911, when the Durbar was held to commemorate the coronation of George V, and the capital was shifted to New Delhi from Calcutta, all the kingdoms paid handsome ‘tributes’ of money, jewels and other riches to the King.
If India was “the brightest jewel in the Crown”, the Kohinoor represented the immense wealth of the land on which the sustenance of the Empire depended. Given the context of British colonialism, the passing of the diamond out of Indian hands can hardly be called a “gift”.
Are there similar issues with the exchange or “taking back” of other historical artefacts elsewhere?
Yes. The Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Marbles, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, led to a diplomatic stand-off between Britain and Greece. In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that giving in to the demands for giving back colonial acquisitions would empty out most of London’s British Museum. MP Vijay Mallya — now facing allegations of money laundering and loan default — bought the sword of Tipu Sultan, a symbol of ‘Karnataka’s pride’, in 2003. More recently, things stolen from the once-rich museums of the conflict-ridden Middle East have repeatedly surfaced outside their countries.
Facts of history and exploitation are often living political matters. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will next month apologise for the turning back of the passenger ship Komagata Maru from Vancouver over a century ago, a decision by the then government that resulted in death and imprisonment for many passengers. Cameron, who has called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre a “deeply shameful event”, continues to be pressed for a formal apology. Students of Oxford’s Oriel College want a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes pulled down; Yale and Princeton have seen demands to rename schools named after John Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson, who held views that are deemed unacceptable by many now. Australia has had an annual Sorry Day since 1998 to remember the treatment of aborigine children and their use as domestic help in white homes.
How does the description of the Kohinoor as a “gift” to the British tie in with the government’s “nationalist” self-image?
Irrespective of the case for or against the return of the Kohinoor, BJP supporters — both in India and among the NRI population — seeking the correction of “historical wrongs” would have been surprised by the “gift” theory. The government’s initial submission to the Supreme Court was out of sync with the Culture Ministry’s frequent stress on Indian asmita or pride. BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal declared the government’s stand as “wrong”, and the SGPC said the Sikh community was the jewel’s rightful owner. It may have been this backlash that forced the government to take a step back on Wednesday.
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