This post was edited by dostoevskydr at 2016-4-20 16:43|
By Rafia Zakaria
April 20, 2016
Last November, a group of Indians filed a petition in a British court asking for the return of the famous Kohinoor diamond that sits ensconced in a crown in the Tower of London. The gem was part of the British plunder of the subcontinent, they held, and justice demanded that it be returned.
As happens with anything the Indians do, the Pakistanis were not to be left behind; within a month, a Pakistani barrister filed a petition in a British court, asking for the return of the diamond to Pakistan. After all, the diamond was taken by the British from Lahore, and Lahore (and hence the diamond) belonged to Pakistan. These two countries are not the only ones to have laid claim to the gem; Bangladesh and South Africa too have signalled ownership.
The British, of course, said no, and have said no several times. Rumours of a possible return surfaced during David Cameron’s visit to India, forcing him to make a statement that he would not be returning the diamond. Current demands have surfaced in the hubbub surrounding the visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
This time, however, it seems that the Indian government itself, which had been asked to clarify its stance regarding the diamond, seems to be reconsidering its position. A statement by the Indian culture ministry has held that “Since the object [Kohinoor] referred by you has been taken out of the country prior to Independence, the Archaeological Survey of India is not in a position to process the matter”.
The Supreme Court of India has yet to make a final decision on a public-interest petition filed by the All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front asking the Indian high commissioner to Britain to demand the diamond’s return. The group has also sought return of the ring, sword and other treasures of Tipu Sultan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Rani of Jhansi, Nawab Mir Ahmed Ali Banda and other rulers of India.
Regardless of what the Indian court decides, it is quite unlikely that the British will return the Kohinoor (or anything else) to anyone. One of the geniuses of the wreckage they left behind after cutting up their various colonial territories was that internecine fights like the one over the Kohinoor would allow them to say that they were the best placed to safeguard what they had stolen.
The Indians and Pakistanis, the Bangladeshis and South Africans were, after all, too busy fighting among themselves; they were unstable, and too susceptible to the whims of corrupt rulers to be entrusted with their own history — or at least the valuable artefacts that belonged to it. How much respect would Modi’s India allot to treasures that were visibly Muslim, and in turn how interested was Pakistan in safeguarding and preserving artefacts that belong to Hindu or Buddhist pasts?
Then there is also the question of how belonging is resolved. The Kohinoor presents a good representative case, since perjury and pilfering are central to who claims ownership of it.
Once called the Babar diamond, it stayed with the Mughals for a while; Shah Jahan was rumoured to have used it as a prism with which to view the Taj Mahal. As that empire crumbled, it went back to Persia as part of Nader Shah’s loot, and was ultimately procured by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as he brokered peace with Shah Shuja, the Afghan ruler.
Even though the Kohinoor was mired in rumours of curses when worn by men, the maharaja had it set in an amulet that he wore on his arm — until his empire, too, collapsed before the advances of the once commercial but now militant East India Company, via the Treaty of Lahore. Carted back to London, the diamond became the property of Queen Victoria, the empress of India, who had never and would never travel to India.
The issue of stolen riches is not one that exists simply in the British context. During the Second World War, Nazi officers confiscated and kept art and art objects worth millions of dollars — works once owned by Jewish individuals as well as taken from museums and galleries in the regions Hitler’s forces occupied.
Great efforts are being undertaken to identify the rightful owners of these works. Going by British logic, the Germans, too, could call them the ‘spoils of war’ and insist on keeping them. When the rich talk to the rich, however, there is no recourse to paternalistic condescension, no one reframes the colonial refrain that the natives can’t govern (the post-colonial version is that the natives can’t appropriately respect or preserve bits of their own history).
The best answer to the issue of the Kohinoor diamond was presciently (and ironically) supplied by Ranjit Singh himself. After he procured the stone, perhaps by asking for an exchange of turbans with the conquered Afghan king, he would sometimes wear it on his arm. On one such occasion, he was asked about its value. Unlike Babar, who had described it as being equivalent to what it took to feed the world for two entire days, Ranjit Singh had a different estimation. The diamond, he said, euphemistically, was worth the value of two shoes. He meant, of course, that the stone belonged to those who possessed the might to take it and hold on to it.
As per Ranjit Singh’s words, that might rested in the British, who continue to, quite unapologetically, hold on to the Kohinoor. It has been cut and placed in a crown worn most recently by the queen, ensuring that the stone’s accursed legacy to male wearers is effectively thwarted. The crown with the Kohinoor in it is displayed in the Tower of London, where Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and South Africans (if they are able to procure visas) can all gawk at it in unison, mourn the powerlessness of their present and weep over the glories of treasures lost. It can still be displayed proudly by the conquerors as an emblem of victory.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.