Kohinoor Means Far More to India Than It Ever Will Among the Queen’s Baubles

The British flaunting the Kohinoor is a reminder of the theft and pillage perpetrated by the former imperial power.

5 min read

The Guardian’s headline was stark: “India archive reveals extent of ‘colonial loot’ in royal jewellery collection”. It turned out that the newspaper had uncovered a remarkable 46-page file in the archives of the India Office in London, which in turn revealed a 1912 report explaining how priceless pieces, including Charles’s emerald belt, were extracted from India as trophies of conquest and later given to Queen Victoria.

This should have come as no surprise: we all know that large numbers of jewels now “owned” by the British monarch as “property of the crown” were purloined from India, most famously the Kohinoor.

Despite a startling court submission by a BJP-appointed Solicitor-General of India that the Kohinoor diamond had been gifted to the British and that India would not, therefore, seek its return, and his preposterous addendum the diamond was paid as ‘compensation’ for British expenses in defeating its owners, the Sikhs, most Indians are not ready to relinquish neither their historical nor their emotional attachment to the Kohinoor.

The diamond was formally handed over to Queen Victoria by the child Sikh heir Dilip Singh, who simply had no choice in the matter.

As I have argued, if you hold a gun to my head, I might “gift” you my wallet – but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it back when your gun has been put away.

A Brief History of the Kohinoor

The Kohinoor was once the world’s largest diamond, weighing 793 carats or 158.6 grams when it was first mined near Guntur in India’s present-day southern state of Andhra Pradesh by the Kakatiya dynasty in the 13th century. (It has been whittled down over the years, mainly by the British, to a mere 105 carats.)

The Kakatiya kings installed it in a temple, which was raided by Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who took it back to his capital along with other plundered treasures. It passed into the possession of the Mughal Empire that established itself in Delhi in the 16th century, and in 1739 fell into the hands of the Persian invader Nadir Shah, whose loot from his conquest of Delhi (and decimation of its inhabitants) included the priceless Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor itself.

It was Nadir Shah himself, or so legend has it, who baptised the diamond the Kohinoor, or “Mountain of Light”. One of his consorts, Wa’fa Begum, memorably and colourfully stated, “if a strong man were to throw four stones – one north, one south, one east, one west – and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, it would not equal the value of the Kohinoor.”

Upon Nadir Shah’s death, the diamond fell into the hands of one of his generals, Ahmed Shah Durrani, who became the Emir of Afghanistan. One of Durrani’s descendants was then obliged to cede the Kohinoor in tribute to the powerful Sikh Maharajah of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, in 1809, who wore it publicly as a symbol of his kingship. But his successors could not hold on to his kingdom and the Sikhs were defeated by the British in two wars, culminating in the annexation of the Sikh domains to the British Empire in 1849. That was when the Kohinoor fell into British hands.

Many former colonies feel Britain owes them reparations for centuries of rapacity in their lands. Returning priceless artifacts purloined at the height of imperial rule might be a good place to start. The Kohinoor should be returned to India, where it has a storied history and has meant far more to generations of Indians than it ever will among the Queen’s baubles.

Its place in the popular imagination in India, where it was first mined and where it was a famed royal possession for centuries, is also far greater than in any other country that might lay claim to it, as Pakistan (because Lahore was Ranjit Singh’s capital), Afghanistan (because of Ahmed Shah Durrani’s possession) and Iran (because of Nadir Shah’s theft) all have tried to do.

A Reminder of Theft and Pillage

The existence of contending claims comes as a major relief to Britain, as it seeks to fend off a blizzard of demands to undo the manifold injustices of two centuries or more of colonial exploitation of far-flung lands.  From the Parthenon Marbles to the Kohinoor, the British expropriation of the jewels of other countries’ heritage is a particular point of contention. Giving in on any one item could, the British fear, open Pandora’s Box. As then-Prime Minister David Cameron stated on a visit to India in July 2010, “If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I’m afraid it [the Kohinoor] is going to have to stay put.” 

But flaunting the Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s tiara in the Tower of London is a powerful reminder of the theft and pillage perpetrated by the former imperial power.

Until it is returned – at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation – it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder, and misappropriation that colonialism was really all about. Perhaps that is why Queen Camilla has decided not to wear it at her husband’s Coronation next month.

But then if you are not going to wear it, the next logical step would be to return it. We have finally entered an era where colonial loot is being recognised for what it really was, rather than being dressed up as the incidental spoils of some noble ‘civilising mission’.

As we are seeing increasingly, with Britain’s return of the Benin bronzes and the Ghanaian Ashanti stool, the return of stolen property is always a good thing — and generations to come will wonder why it took civilised nations so long to do the right thing. 

This is not about seeking to settle accounts — history has moved on and now two independent sovereign states must conduct a modern relationship. While stolen goods can be returned, the rest can be left to the history books. But former colonising powers would do well to express atonement in other ways — in Britain's case, by teaching unvarnished colonial history in schools; by creating a museum to colonialism that portrays the experience of imperial rule, warts and all; by building monuments acknowledging the role, for instance, of brown and black Britons in the World Wars — and finally, by simply saying "sorry" for the atrocities of the past. Then we can all move on.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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