The Koh-i-noor Blues

By TUSHAR CHARAN

The Koh-i-Noor in the front cross of Queen Mary's Crown

The Koh-i-Noor in the front cross of Queen Mary’s Crown

An enviable quality of the Modi government is its capacity to do flip flops without in the least feeling embarrassed—and, of course, never even thinking of accepting that it made a mistake. It is even more enviable that saying sorry is not in its dictionary. Sometimes a U-turn can come within 24 hours. Consider how the government shifted gears in presenting its claim over Koh-i-Noor, said to be the largest diamond in the world that has been a part of Britain’s ‘crown jewels’ for over 150 years.

One day the solicitor general ruled out the chance of India pressing for its return from Britain because, as he told the Supreme Court, it was a ‘gift’ from an Indian prince to the British in mid-19th century. A voluntary act; no coercion. The next day, the government contradicted its own solicitor general and informed the court that all efforts would be made to bring it back to India.

As if to divert attention from the faux pas that it had made in taking diametrically opposite stands, the government also took pot shots at the previous governments, going back to Jawaharlal Nehru. Was that statement made to show that the Modi government was doing something that Indian governments from the days of Nehru had never done—fighting for the return of an Indian artifact forcibly taken away by the foreign ruler? That way at least the legend of Modi, the Superman alive can be kept alive.

It will not require a great effort to recall that quite recently a private citizen, not the government of India, did manage to bring back something of high emotional value to many in the country—the Sword of Tipu Sultan. The sword was bought during an auction in the UK by a man called Vijay Mallaya. Yes, the same Mallaya who is now being called a ‘fugitive’ living in the same country. It will be an ‘anti-national’ act to expect the Modi government to repeat a feat performed by a ‘fugitive’!

A government that has made restoring Indian ‘pride’ and ‘cultural values’ its full-time preoccupation has to show results at every step so that its boast is seen as substance. The ‘nationalist’ rhetoric will have us believe that only by restoring the past glory can India return to the days of milk and honey. Repossessing the lost or stolen treasures is essential in this task.

The quick about turn by the government might have confused some Modi acolytes, who had belittled and ridiculed the demand for the return of the diamond from London where it was taken by the then East India Company. The diamond has a long history of its discovery and various owners. The important part here is its journey from Lahore to London about 10 years after the British East India Company had defeated Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the legendary Sikh ruler, in 1839.

After the Maharaja’s death, his youngest son, Duleep Singh, succeeded him when he was still a child. The defeated Sikhs and the British victors signed the Treaty of Lahore in 1849 which required that the much admired and highly valuable jewel be handed over to the British by the minor king. The child king duly handed it over to Queen Victoria.

Was it a voluntary act-a gift- to the British? No! But then it is also a fact that the transfer of the diamond from Lahore to London took place under the terms of a treaty. That is how the Brits look at it—and have been doing so for years.

In 2013, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, had made it very clear that Koh-i-Noor will not be returned to India. He added that he did not believe in ‘returnism’. The Modi government first appeared impressed by that argument till it realised that as the first ‘nationalist’ government of India it cannot let go of a chance to demonstrate its ‘nationalist’ credentials by bringing back to the country a highly valued piece of diamond with a long history of being wrongfully kept in foreign custody.

But lending it a political colour—blaming the previous governments—the Modi government may have created a needless problem for itself. The effort to retrieve Koh-i-Noor is doomed and critics might use that to tease the government for a failed attempt to bring back a priceless trophy of Indian heritage.

During the long colonial era it was quite common for the victors to take away artifacts from the nations they plundered. Some of the best known museums in countries like the UK, France and German, not to speak of the USA, have large artifacts that were taken away from the countries they had defeated or conquered. Some of the famous museums in the West may become empty and bereft of their main attractions if all the artifacts originally belonging to other countries are to be returned.

It also needs to be mentioned that India is not the only country that has claimed ownership of Koh-i-Noor. Pakistan, Iran and even Afghanistan, have laid claims over it.

The Pakistani claim, as is to be expected, is steeped more on their unconcealed rivalry with India than on anything else. The Pakistanis claims rests on the fact that Koh-i-Noor was taken away to London from Lahore, a city now in Pakistan.

But in the land of the pure, history begins after August 13, 1947, when an exclusive Muslim enclave was carved out of India. Pakistan does not recognise its non-Muslim heritage that goes back 5000 years. Pakistanis cannot accept the reality of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh empire surrounded by Muslim rulers. They have difficulty in recognising the non-Muslim past of Lahore.

In the unlikely event of the UK agreeing to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India, Pakistan is bound to raise hell, giving Britain an opportunity to look ‘fair’ by denying the claims of both parties. Thousands of priceless books and other Indian items continue to be kept in British libraries and museum for the same reason. India is the rightful claimant but the Brits do not want to displease the Pakistanis.