‘Only a Spineless Government Can Timidly Declare the Kohinoor was a Gift to India’s Colonial Rulers’

The history of the Kohinoor does not support the Modi government’s claim that it was not forcibly taken from India, say historians. But does that mean restitution is feasible?

'I didn't get this diamond by war or theft. It was a gift'.

‘I didn’t get this diamond by war or theft. It was a gift’. (Adapted from an engraving in Harper’s Weekly, 1875.)

UPDATE, 20 April 2016: In a quick U-turn, the Modi government has now said that “it reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner”. The government’s release also said that the solicitor-general’s statements were based on previous governments’ stands, including that of Nehru’s, and the present government’s views are yet to be conveyed to the court. 

New Delhi: Ask any schoolgirl in India and she is likely to tell you the Kohinoor (actually ‘Koh-i Noor’) diamond was “stolen” from the country by its British colonial rulers. Not so, says the Modi government, which authorised solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar to tell the Supreme Court on Monday that the diamond was “neither stolen nor forcibly taken away” but “gifted” to the British and thus no longer subject to any national claims.

That “gifts” of this kind make up close to the entire collection of the British Museum was recognised by the British prime minister in 2010 when he told the Indian media that returning the Kohinoor would set an “unworkable precedent”. “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty,” he added. Cameron is definitely not the first leader to oppose the returning of a foreign artefact, such refusals have been numerous. Take the Elgin marbles, for instance, so named after the British earl who decided to remove about half of the sculptures from the Parthenon in Greece. Till date, these marble sculptures (later purchased from Elgin by the British government) are proudly displayed in the British Museum, though Greece has repeatedly urged that the marbles be returned.

Expanding on the government of India’s current stance, Kumar went on to talk about how the diamond was wilfully handed over to the East India Company by Maharaja Ranjit Singh when he lost the 1849 war against the British. The solicitor-general also quoted the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, 1972, saying that the issue of retrieval only comes up when an antiquity has been exported illegally and does not apply to those taken out of the country before independence.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had, in fact, died in 1839. The British conquest occurred under the rule of his young son and successor, Maharaja Duleep Singh.

History of the Kohinoor

Even before its cross-continental trip to London, the Kohinoor was an extremely well-travelled diamond.

The Kohinoor diamond, embedded in the crown of the British monarch. Credit: Reuters.

The Kohinoor diamond, embedded in the crown of the British monarch. Credit: Reuters.

Evidence suggests that the diamond was mined from the Golconda region of present day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, specifically from the Rayalseema diamond mine.

Some have said that it was first mentioned in Sanskrit texts 5,000 years ago as the ‘Samyantaka’, but though descriptions match it is unconfirmed whether the Samyantaka refers to the Kohinoor. Hindu myths have also referred to it as a possession of Krishna, stolen from him while he was sleeping. Up until about 1300, the gem is said to have been in possession of the Rajas of Malwah.

The stone was then transferred to the hands of the Delhi Sultanate under Alauddin Khilji during raids carried out in south India. It then remained among the rulers of the Sultanate, passed between generations until it was somehow transferred to the Mughals around the mid-1500s. The history of how this transfer took place is murky.

Babur mentions the diamond in his memoirs, the Baburnama. This is the first clear written reference to the gem. “Apparently it weighs eight miskats. Humayun offered it to me as a peshkash when I arrived at Agra and I just gave it back to him as a present,” Babur wrote. There is also a record of the stone being on Shah Jahan’s peacock throne.

When Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded the Mughal empire in 1739, he is said to have taken the diamond. Legend says that this is when the name ‘Koh-i Noor’ came to be, meaning ‘mountain of light’ in Persian. Nadir Shah’s empire disintegrated on his assassination, and the diamond reached the hands of his general, Ahmad Shah Durrani. It then remained in his family until his descendent Shah Shuja Durrani brought it back to Punjab and gave it to Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire. In return, Singh helped Durrani get his throne back in Afghanistan.

In 1849, the British colonial power conquered Punjab, leading to the signing of the Lahore Treaty. One of the terms in the treaty was as follows: “The gem called Kohinoor which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Malik by Maharaja Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England”.

The formal presentation of the diamond took place in 1851, when Ranjit Singh’s successor, Duleep Singh, who was a child at the time, gave it to the queen in London. Since then, the Kohinoor has been in England, and is now displayed at the Tower of London as a ‘crown jewel’.

The Kohinoor in an armlet, as presented to Queen Victoria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Kohinoor in an armlet, as presented to Queen Victoria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Given its history and origins, several countries have sought ownership claims on the diamond including India and Pakistan.

Does this constitute a ‘gift’?

The Treaty of Lahore, the official document which provided for the change of hands of the Kohinoor from Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the British, termed it a “surrender”. Singh’s desires do not seem to play a part in this – he lost a war, and so had to give up his wealth. The treaty makes it sound more like a war reparation than a voluntary gift.

“It was staged as a gift,” professor of history at JNU Neeladri Bhattacharya told The Wire. “It was taken away from what is now India, but instead of being given directly to Queen Victoria, they held a formal ceremony of some kind and persuaded Duleep Singh, who was a minor at the time, to give it to her as a gift. Though it is true that ultimately there was a ceremony where it was given as a gift, it was a gift that was given under pressure and as a result of conquest. It wasn’t voluntary, there were exceptional circumstances. Duleep Singh himself said much later on that it wasn’t a gift when he described the conditions under which the events took place.”

“It is only a spineless government which can timidly announce that the Kohinoor was a “gift” from a grateful Punjab to the East India Company for having conquered it!” added professor Harbans Mukhia, national fellow at the Indian Council for Historical Research. “The minister of culture even declared that it was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who gave away the gift, though the transaction took place ten years after his death when his son Maharaja Duleep Singh was the ruler of Punjab. … To equate the forcible extraction of the diamond through a patently unequal treaty imposed by a victor upon a defeated foe with a voluntary, perhaps even a grateful “gift” demonstrates that the government does not have the spine to stand up even to what Prime Minister IK Gujral had once famously called a third rate power. The Modi government can thunder only against the country’s Dalits, minorities and students. Silence on Kohinoor, and the enormous plunder of India’s cultural wealth collected at the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and several other institutions demonstrates its strong complex of inferiority.”

Significance of the debate

Sunil Kumar, professor of history at Delhi University, makes a different point. While he agrees that the Kohinoor cannot be called a ‘gift’, he does not see this question as contemporarily important. “A treaty is always signed between a victor and a vanquished, so all ‘gifts’ given under a treaty have that context. But in law, a treaty is legal and binding. So the nomenclature of a ‘gift’ – that’s not the important thing here. The point is that this historical event took place, to go into whether or not it was forced would mean replaying a medieval political event in modern language. It doesn’t make any sense. This is what happens when people who are not historians practice history. You can’t fix what happened in the past. What you can do is learn from the questions that we pose to our histories – not least of which is this kind of rubbish, trying to fix the past. Yet we seem to be marching down that path, it’s dangerous.”