This week, India finally gave up its decades-old claim on the 106-carat Kohinoor diamond, which lies in the Tower of London, guarded by Yeoman Warders and sometimes adorns the crown of the British monarch. Or so it seemed.
The legal arguments made by the Indian government—arising from one more court petition seeking the return of the diamond—were distinctly odd. First it was claimed that the diamond was given as “voluntary compensation” to the British for the expenses they bore in the Anglo-Sikh war.
That is a very strange reading of history. For history shows that give and take occurs between equals. Otherwise, it’s one or the other.
It is likely that the fabulous piece of Indian diamond was “presented” by Maharaja Duleep Singh, son of the great warrior king Ranjit Singh and all of eight years old, to Queen Victoria in 1850, but not personally. Amid criticism even in those politically incorrect times, governor general Lord Dalhousie wrote to a friend in 1849, “My motive was simply this: that it was more for the honour of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror than it should be presented to her as a gift—which is always a favour—by any joint stock company among her subjects.”
By “any joint stock company” he meant the East India Company.
This week, after raising a predictable storm, the government told the Supreme Court of its “resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner… The government has not conveyed its views to the court, contrary to what’s being misrepresented.”
Solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar told a bench led by chief justice T.S. Thakur that if “we start claiming the treasures from the museums of other countries, they will claim their treasures from our museums. There will be nothing left in our museums.” To which, a clearly unimpressed Thakur informed the government lawyer that India has never been a colonial power. “We have not colonized any other country and taken out their artefacts. What are you worried about?”
Ranjit Kumar then agreed that the foreign artefacts that are in Indian museums are “gifts”.
The arguments are expected to conclude in the days to come. Is it Indian government policy to seek the return of the Kohinoor? Previous attempts by India soon after Independence and in 1953, joined by Pakistan in 1976, were rebuffed by the British as “non-negotiable”.
Thakur stopped short of dismissing the petition on the understandable grounds that if the court does so, it will obviously nullify any future Indian claim on the Kohinoor.
Hopefully, the Indian government will spell out its case clearly once and for all. It only makes sense because the UK has told not just India, but also other countries such as Greece, that the artefacts that have ended up in the UK aren’t going anywhere soon.
Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t have put it more clearly on a visit to India: “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put.”
However, the petitioner—a non-governmental organization—doesn’t just want the Kohinoor. It wants the treasures of Tipu Sultan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani of Jhansi, Nawab Mir Ahmad Ali Banda and “other rulers of India”.
Tipu? Would that include the sword of the famous Indian warrior king? No, because that would be the one that was purchased in an auction for £175,000 and returned to India by businessman Vijay Mallya. This delicious irony escaped neither the judge nor petitioner.
“The gentleman who bought the sword has left the country,” the government attorney informed the chief justice, prompting the judge to ask—jokingly, we are told—whether the United Breweries chairman had taken the sword with him.
Mallya’s return to India—to face debtors whom his grounded Kingfisher Airlines owes around Rs.9,000 crore ($1.3 billion)—is another matter on which India has to spell out its stand. Indian investigative agencies most certainly want him back, but they face the acute embarrassment of having to answer why they allowed him to leave the country in the first place.
There is one point of view that the member of the Rajya Sabha should return voluntarily. But I know of no one who has returned to India voluntarily from the UK to face the law. Instead, what always happens is that the UK courts take over once India places its request for the UK to extradite someone (that person needs to be charged in an Indian court first).
This is because a person who is resident in the UK has the legal right to fight attempts to extradite them. The government case is usually led by the home minister, who can write to the court stating the government position seeking a person’s extradition. But it is up to the court—and not the government—whether to accept India’s request or not.
Mallya, who returned Tipu’s sword to India, may not be quite so ready to return himself.
As to the Kohinoor, there is absolutely nothing wrong with great Indian artefacts and other objects being displayed in foreign museums as long as the circumstances of their acquisition are correctly explained, a historical contextualization that will take Indian sensitivities into account. Think of the hundreds of millions of people who have been able to marvel at and enjoy the Indian objects of art and history stored and displayed in the museums of London, New York and Paris.
Is there anything sadder than a dark and empty museum?
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1