QUEEN VICTORIA doesn’t look you in the eye. Hers is a stern gaze, fixed at the top- right of her portrait. It has been so for the past 178 years. The oil-painting of the former monarch often makes visitors to Jewel House at the Tower of London halt in their tracks. They are struck by her sartorial taste: satin gown, flowing red and golden robes with a sceptre in her hand, and the imperial state crown on her head. Below the painting is an inscription, referring to the queen being presented the ‘Koh-i-nûr’ diamond in 1850.
“They say they want it back.”
So absorbed was I in admiring the painting, I hadn’t noticed a British woman sneak up in front of me. It was my first visit to the Tower: a fortress at the heart of the capital city which packs within its walls countless tales of love, greed and revenge from the United Kingdom’s past. The woman was accompanied by two others who were now intently listening to her talk about the significance of the Kohinoor.
“They say it was taken by coercion. I’m sure it was,” she added. It wasn’t too difficult to gather who she was referring to. The 105-carat stone is one of the more infamous among the royal collection. Presented to the British queen by the East India Company in the 19th century, its ownership is bitterly contested. Over the years, at least four countries—including India—have laid claim to it.
From the foyer, I followed the trio inside the chambers. Bathed in soft gold and purple hues, Jewel House holds the regalia used by British royalty over centuries. One hall recreates the ambience of the royal coronation through animated clips. A short 1953 film of the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II, shimmering in royal finery, is projected on one of the walls.
It is the next room where the treasures lie. Here is a line-up of glass display cases with various crowns, each studded with diamonds big and small. Passing by, you can almost get within arm’s length of the jewels. The moving walkways on both ends ensure that you don’t linger. For those who still want to, there’s a platform overlooking the exhibits at a safer distance. In front of each display is a plaque noting its history, with a miniature replica of the crown for one to feel and touch.
I joined a small group of Indians who stood in front of the Kohinoor, speaking in excited whispers. Noticing me in their midst, they smiled at me, as if acknowledging the history that bound us. Soon, they moved on to take another turn at the walkway. Their place was taken by a bespectacled, Indian-looking youngster. He ran his fingers over the replica longingly. I asked him if what he saw matched up to his expectations. “No,” he gushed, “I thought it would be big and shiny. But this is very small.”
He had obviously been taken in by nationalistic folklore. The Kohinoor has frequently been used to describe the loot and plunder that marked the 200 years of British rule in India. In this rhetoric, Kohinoor is the biggest diamond in the world and symbolic of the riches of the land in times past, a utopian era where golden sparrows crooned from treetops every morning.
I do see it happening. Hopefully, in my lifetime. There are events that I never thought would happen, and they have
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Perhaps because of such myth-making, it has been accorded an independent display in Jewel House. Affixed in the crown of Queen Elizabeth I, mother of the present monarch, the Kohinoor comes at the end of the long line of crowns, each more brilliant than the last. But having seen hundreds of diamonds, sapphires and rubies glittering on other crowns, Kohinoor seems no more remarkable than the rest. It is only a little bigger than a pebble; a pale shadow of the 530-carat ‘First Star of Africa’ that sparkles in all its glory only a few steps away.
“I had come here just to see this,” the youngster muttered. He looked wounded, and you could see why. He wasn’t getting his money’s worth.
While its ownership is contested, historians agree that the diamond traces its origins to Golconda mines near the city of Hyderabad in India. In a series of battles between 14th and 19th centuries, it travelled from Southern India to Afghanistan, Iran and finally, went to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, then a part of undivided India.
By this time, the East India Company, led by British merchants, had started colonising the Subcontinent. In a column for The Guardian, journalist Anita Anand, who is co-authoring a book on the Kohinoor along with William Dalrymple, has written about the Company taking over Singh’s kingdom in 1849. By then, she writes, Ranjit Singh was dead. In his place was his 10-year-old son, Duleep Singh. Along with his kingdom, Duleep was also forced to sign off the Kohinoor.
In the past few decades, there has been a growing chorus from India, Pakistan, Iran and even the Afghan Taliban that the UK returns the valuables it had ‘taken’, ‘stolen’ or ‘relocated’ from their respective countries. A few days ago, the TV journalist Arnab Goswami summed up these sentiments in a prime-time sermon: “There are only two things we want back in India. One is, of course, the Kohinoor diamond, and the second… is a person called Dawood Ibrahim.”
There’s a refusal to acknowledge that the imperial project was one that involved large amounts of expropriation
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It was thus remarkable to see the shift in India’s Kohinoor narrative earlier this month. On 19 April, Ranjit Kumar, solicitor general of India, told the Supreme Court that the diamond was given as a ‘gift’ to the British by the then rulers of Punjab. “If we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming theirs from us,” said Kumar. “There will be nothing left in our museums.” The submission was almost identical to what British Prime Minister David Cameron had said in an interview in 2010: “If you say ‘yes’ to one, you suddenly find the British museum to be empty.” Kumar’s words, coming only days after the high-profile visit of Prince William and his wife Kate to India, caused an uproar. Sensing the hostility, the Centre put out a press release the very next day and reiterated its commitment to getting the Kohinoor back.
The U-turn didn’t escape the British media, but the news had a short shelf-life in the UK. On being contacted, the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport said that it didn’t wish to comment on the matter. The Buckingham Palace’s press office, Royal Communications, said in an email, ‘It is a long standing position of the British government that the Diamond should remain in the United Kingdom and the Government does not believe there are any legal grounds for restitution of the Diamond.’
The establishment was clearly immune to the frenzy that had seemingly gripped India. But for observers within the UK, this was hardly surprising. “If anybody thinks that there is a fear in Britain about the Kohinoor, I think it’s wrong,” says Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer at University of Cambridge, specialising in colonial and post-colonial literature. “[In the UK], there’s a complete refusal to acknowledge that the imperial project was one that involved large amounts of expropriation and theft.”
Britain isn’t new to being confronted by the ghosts of its past. Worldwide, arguments for reparations and repatriations have found currency in recent years. For more than 30 years, Greece has been in a prolonged diplomatic standoff with the UK over the Elgin Marbles. There have also been calls to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt and nearly 23,000 artefacts taken during imperial times to China.
These demands also extend beyond material possessions. In 2013, around 14 Caribbean nations sued Britain, France and the Netherlands over the slave trade they had engaged in for over four centuries. Last year, a speech by the Indian MP Shashi Tharoor at the University of Oxford went viral on the internet after he made a case that in acknowledgement of its colonial legacy, Britain pay India reparations of £1 for the next 200 years. Earlier this year, the university was back in the spotlight after several of its students demanded that they wanted a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th century imperialist, taken down from their campus.
There’s a sense of how Britain achieved remarkable things. People feel attached to that. They feel nostalgic and patriotic
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None of these demands have yet been realised. But every now and then, the topic is brought up and tackled as an intellectual exercise.
An alumnus of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gopal has been in the UK for the past 15 years. On 7 April, she was a panellist in a debate titled ‘Should Britain be ashamed of its colonial past?’ held as a part of Oxford Literary Festival. That morning, she updated her Facebook status thus: ‘It’s hard not to have a heavy heart at the same old scripted ‘debate’ over & over again with same cast of characters each time: one blimp, one grateful native, one critical black man, one angry brown woman. The same old tedious sidestepping questions ‘Was it All Bad’, ‘Can’t we be proud of some things?’, ‘Can’t judge past by standards of present’ , yes apology/ no apology, ‘balance’ sheet, a few rotten apples, English language, Belgians and Germans were worse, counterfactuals… Here we go again.’
A couple of weeks after the event, I asked her if she had encountered any unexpected arguments. “Fifteen years on, I am simply not surprised,” she said, “The script is unchanging.”
A campaign for the Kohinoor worth its weight in hashtags never quite took off in the UK. With a local population of 1.4 million, Indians are its largest minority group. Yet, there are only a handful of voices in favour of the stone’s repatriation. Among them is Keith Vaz, a British MP of Indian descent who is often quoted in the media supporting the Indian campaign.
In November last year, a little-known group called Mountain of Light, supposedly comprising Indian businessmen and actors, joined the efforts. They engaged a Birmingham-based law firm to initiate legal proceedings against the British government. The next month, a Pakistan- based lawyer filed a similar petition in the Lahore High Court, naming Queen Elizabeth II as the respondent.
At the time, those two incidents occurring in quick succession caught the attention of the British media. In its coverage, many acknowledged that the circumstances in which the diamond was bought to the country were dubious at best. However, nearly everyone made a case for retaining the status quo. The Telegraph went a step ahead and polled its readers on who they thought the stone belonged to. By the last week of April 2016, the poll had over 6,000 votes on its website. More than 60 per cent had voted for the UK.
Explaining the people’s perception of their past, Kwasi Kwarteng, a British MP and author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, says, “I think there’s a sense of how Britain achieved remarkable things. People feel very attached to that. They feel nostalgic and patriotic.” His observation is aligned with the findings of a recent YouGov survey that assessed how the UK perceives its imperial project; 59 per cent of its citizens, the survey showed, think that the British Empire is something to be proud of, with 49 per cent believing that the countries were better off after being colonised.
BUT THIS PRIDE in its past, Kwarteng adds, isn’t always grounded in proper knowledge of it. One of the reasons for this is the way the school curriculum is designed. Unlike the rest of Europe, history isn’t compulsory in British schools till the age of 16. Many students drop out of the course at the age of 14. In 2004, the education watchdog Ofsted found that the schools across the country spend little time teaching students about the Empire. Not much has changed since. At the aforementioned debate held at the Oxford Literary Festival, Gopal revealed how most of her students know “nothing, I mean nothing” about the British imperial past.
While the Kohinoor campaign leaves much to be desired, there are often questions raised about the credentials of the campaigners. Raking up the controversy has immediate benefits: a potent ‘us’ versus ‘them’ sentiment, handy media coverage and a certificate of patriotism. But each campaign invoking the Kohinoor has sunk without trace. Take the ones mentioned earlier. Soon after the petition was filed, the Lahore High Court dismissed it as ‘non-maintainable’. The Birmingham- based law firm hired to sue the British government, in spite of my repeated attempts, chose not to respond. There is no sign of the case it had planned to file at the International Court of Justice. Vaz, although claiming to be a vocal supporter, has little to show for his efforts.
“It’s what is called a free hit,” says Kwarteng. “A politician can say that and show that they are being patriotic and standing up to Britain. But they’re not expecting any real delivery for it.”
Given the circumstances, an apathetic British establishment and its former colonies using the stone for nationalistic rhetoric, is there any hope for the Kohinoor’s return to India? The Indian Government might have renewed its vow to fight for the cause, but if post-imperial history is any indication, its prospects don’t look too bright.
Vaz, however, is hopeful. “I do see it happening,” he says. “Hopefully, in my lifetime. There are events that I never thought would happen, such as Leicester winning the Premier League, and that is now about to happen.”