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The Kohinoor Diamond: A “Gift” at Gunpoint

The British may want to give the Kohinoor back as an apology for colonialism.

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India
3 min read
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The size of an egg, “mountain of light”, the jewel in the crown of an Empire over which the sun never set. Before it was cut to make it shine, the Kohinoor diamond was said to weigh a massive 793 karats or 158 grams. Almost mythical, it is still a symbol of India’s wealth, the sub-continent that was Britain’s most profitable colony for nearly two centuries.

The British may want to give the Kohinoor back as an apology for colonialism.
The famed diamond from India now lies in the confines of the Tower of London. (Photo: Reuters)

Now, in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the Ministry of Culture has told the Supreme Court that since the Kohinoor was not smuggled or “forcibly taken”, we can’t ask the Brits to give it back.

Legally, the government may be on sound footing. According to the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, 1972, we can only pursue the retrieval of artefacts that were stolen or illegally removed from the country.

However, given the circumstances under which the Kohinoor diamond found its way to the crown of Queen Victoria, the British should consider returning it, if only as a symbolic gesture.

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A Prisoner’s “Gift”

The Kohinoor made its way through many royal households and treasuries before ending up with our erstwhile colonial masters in 1853. From the Hindu Kakatiya dynasty in Andhra Pradesh in the 13th century to the Khalji rulers of Delhi, through to the Mughals and then all the way to Persia after Nadir Shah sacked Delhi. The diamond finally ended up with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of the kingdom of Punjab.

The British may want to give the Kohinoor back as an apology for colonialism.
A portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

After his death in 1843, his youngest son, Duleep Singh became king at the age of five with his mother ruling as regent. However, there was turmoil within the kingdom and the East India Company stepped in to “help”. On 25 March 1849, the second Anglo-Sikh war ended and Punjab was annexed by the British East India Company.

It was after this that Duleep Singh ostensibly gifted the Kohinoor to the British. When he was 13, Duleep Singh was exiled to England. He carried the Kohinoor and the Timur Ruby and “gifted” it to Queen Victoria.

A gift, to be a gift, must be willingly given. Can a young boy give a gift willingly to his captors? Or is it more like presenting the spoils of war to a victorious invading force?

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The Rationale for a Return

History is filled with injustice. But there have also been attempts to rectify some of them. In America, there is affirmative action for African-Americans, keeping in mind the systematic injustice and oppression they faced during slavery. In India too, we have reservations in government institutions for those who suffered for centuries because of the caste system.

The British may want to give the Kohinoor back as an apology for colonialism.
The Bengal famine caused millions of deaths and was caused in part by colonial policies in India. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Kohinoor has been a part of the British crown since it was “gifted”, a reminder perhaps of the glories of the Empire. But that Empire doled out more than its fair share of exploitation in India, from the drain of wealth, to racism and segregation. While the legal basis for the return of the Kohinoor may be flimsy, it would go a long way as a symbolic apology for colonialism.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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