Photo: Jayachandran/Mint
Photo: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Retrieving the spoils of colonialism

India should take advantage of the turn in public opinion in Europe to work for the return of artifacts looted in the colonial period

The Kohinoor has become in the lapse of ages a sort of historical emblem of the conquest of India. It has now found its proper resting place." James Broun-Ramsay, the earl of Dalhousie and governor general of India, had reason to be pleased when he wrote this. The Second Anglo-Sikh War had ended in all but name less than a month previously on 12 March 1849. The Sikh empire had been dismantled within a decade of its creator Ranjit Singh’s death. At the end of March, his 10-year-old son and nominal ruler of the empire, Duleep Singh, had signed the Treaty of Lahore with the victors, the British East India Co. He had ceded all claim to Punjab—and surrendered the Kohinoor to the queen of England.

Was this a “gift" to the Company by Duleep Singh as the Centre submitted to the Supreme Court in 2016? Legally, yes; as part of the terms of the treaty, it “cannot be said to be forcibly taken or stolen." Or do the circumstances warrant a different reading? Duleep Singh, after all, was a 10-year-old ruler whose court and power base had been subverted by the Company after the First Anglo-Sikh War. The Company had then forcibly separated him from his prime backer, his mother, and presented him with terms he was in no condition to refuse. The Archaeological Survey of India seems to think so. In response to a right to information request, it noted earlier this month that the Kohinoor was “surrendered" and not “handed over".

National and cultural pride and the ambiguities of history are a tricky combination. Little wonder the question of whether treasures and artifacts taken by colonial and conquering powers should be restored to their countries of origin raises hackles. The issue has gained in prominence over the past few years. This is not surprising. With the economic rise of erstwhile subjects has come assertion. Redressing historical humiliation is a means of such assertion. Thus, even as the Narendra Modi government argued that the Kohinoor could not be reclaimed from the UK, it noted that it would make “all possible efforts" to bring the diamond back in an amicable manner.

China has gone considerably further. The stronger its growth has been, the more the Century of Humiliation has rankled. Since the turn of the millennium, Chinese billionaires have been on a spree of acquiring China’s plundered artifacts. The state has grown increasingly involved as well. The state-run conglomerate, the China Poly Group, has kicked off a programme aimed at reacquiring lost art. And in 2009, Beijing made the vague announcement that it would send a “treasure-hunting team" to institutions in the US and Europe. It has strong-armed auctioneers like Christie’s and institutions into repatriating artifacts since.

This is not a new issue. Greece has battled for decades for the return of the Parthenon frieze from the British museum—part of the Parthenon Marbles taken from Greece at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin. The Elgins had a fine line in looting; Thomas’ son, James, later to be viceroy of India, led the sack and plunder of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. Likewise, Egypt has pushed for the return of Nefertiti’s bust, and Nigeria for the Benin bronzes.

The difference is that now, European governments are more receptive, and not just to China. Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron stated his wish to return looted treasures to former French colonies in Africa. And Germany has come up with a code of conduct for museums that includes how to deal with restitution claims.

There are plenty of grey areas when it comes to such claims; the Kohinoor is a good example. Judging historical events by modern legal and ethical standards is an easy trap to fall into. And there are cases where artifacts would be in danger when returned to unstable countries. But there are also many cases where the evidence is clear. Museums are feeling the heat. For instance, earlier this month, the British Museum kicked off an initiative to counter criticisms about its colonial collections. “Not everything here was acquired by Europeans by looting", as the curator of the South Asia collection put it, however, is not a particularly strong defence.

New Delhi and Indian museums should take advantage of the turn in public opinion to work with European institutions for repatriation in cases where the evidence is clear. However, there is a caveat. Defenders of European museums who claim that those institutions are often better able to care for and present the artifacts than their counterparts in former colonies are shouted down as the inheritors of colonialism. But thin skins are of no use here. The argument often holds. Museums in the US and, increasingly, Europe have grown with public-private partnerships. Endowments can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; with this comes the brand-building of, say, a Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and public awareness. This model is needed in India. Bringing back the spoils of colonialism would be of little use if they are to moulder in museum storerooms.

Should the Indian government push to have the Kohinoor returned? Tell us at

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