Whatever may eventually transpire on the emotional issue of the return of the famous Kohinoor diamond to India by Britain, it was thoughtless, impolitic, and short-sighted of the government to take the stand in the Supreme Court on Monday that the 105.602 carat stone was not stolen by the British or taken forcibly, but “gifted” by the then Sikh ruler, Maharaja Duleep Singh, to the East India Company. As such, India cannot stake a claim to the diamond, which had been mined in Masulipatnam on the riverbed of the Godavari centuries ago. It thankfully made a U-turn late on Tuesday, saying it would make every effort to bring back the diamond and that earlier news reports on the subject were “not based on facts”.
This statement should be welcomed as its earlier statement was not even legalistic, and the Chief Justice of India and Justice U.U. Lalit, hearing a petition from a voluntary organisation, were naturally not interested. They appropriately noted that if they were to dismiss the petition, as this government urges, any future attempt by the Indian government to retrieve the diamond, or even other antique items taken from India in the colonial era, may be compromised. The solicitor-general agreed to take instructions and return to the top court in six months.
The government’s approach is surprising, not least because in the past Indian governments have made the effort to retrieve the Kohinoor, although these have not borne fruit. The first to try was the Nehru government, back in 1956. The Modi government now seems to be saying, in effect, that its predecessors had no case, and they were wrong in trying. The present regime’s approach appears to be in disregard of the crucial consideration that in the colonial era, and prior, high-value gifts were extracted by the powerful from the vanquished, in certain cases, through stratagems deployed to make them look above board, although they were little more than arm-twisting.
This was the case with the transfer of the Kohinoor from the Sikh ruler to the East India Company as reparation for the Anglo-Sikh wars in which the Sikhs were defeated. Similarly, Nadir Shah of Persia had walked away with the Kohinoor by proposing an exchange of each other’s thrones with the helpless Mughal emperor in Delhi during whose reign the Persian invader had plundered Delhi.
The Modi government appears to have lost sight of the fact that the return of the Kohinoor is linked in people’s mind to national pride, as is the case with the return of the sword of Tipu Sultan or Shivaji. This is surprising for a government whose functionaries have lately taken to sharpening social cleavages by invoking false notions of nationalism. Incidentally, India is not alone in pressing the British to return items of antique value, as we know from the case of the Greeks asking for the return of the Elgin marbles.