The periodic claim by India for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond has become something of a ritual. Britain’s continued possession of the 105-carat diamond — illegally obtained from India and which adorns the British Queen’s crown — still rankles. It is a small but festering bruise in the relations between the two countries that gets inflamed from time to time. The diamond, which was “gifted” to Queen Victoria by Duleep Singh, the 13-year-old ruler of Punjab, when the East India Company established its control over the province in 1850, was part of the massive loot — magnitude unknown and unknowable — that found its way from colonial India to Britain.
Governments, parliamentarians, the Archaeological Survey of India, and other public figures in India, have over the years, argued for the return of the Koh-i-Noor to India, a demand Britain has consistently refused.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is as unequivocal as his predecessors about its British status. When in India in 2010, he flatly said no to a question from a television channel on whether Britain would ever return the diamond, and even added that if such claims picked up steam, the British Museum would find itself empty. In India again in 2013, Mr. Cameron deplored the practice of “returnism” — a curious description for the act of returning pilfered property.
British court historians of the modern era offer grander justifications. Historian Andrew Roberts recently told the Mail on Sunday that the diamond must reside with the British Crown Jewels “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”
What is it about the Koh-i-Noor that stands out as a particularly irksome reminder of the injustice of colonialism? Perhaps it has something to do with the insensitive manner in which it is still used and displayed in Britain. Had the rare gem been located in a free public museum there may have been fewer objections and certainly more viewers. It is, however, understandably galling to modern Indian sentiment when the illegally acquired jewel in question also generates a healthy revenue stream for British tourism. An adult visitor ticket to the Tower of London, where the Koh-i-Noor is displayed, costs a hefty £22.50; and offers a view of the crown jewels from a moving escalator.
Mr. Cameron is right. The British Museum and several others would be emptied of their exhibits if all cultural property were to be returned to their countries of origin. The Victoria and Albert Museum reportedly displays just a tiny fraction of its vast South Asia collection held in storage.
The Beijing Review recently reported on a project by Chinese researchers to catalogue and document the artefacts looted from the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in the 1860s during the Second Opium War. The team is visiting 2,000 museums and private collections all over the world to track the 1.5 million artefacts that were shipped out. The British Museum ranks first in the list with its 230,000-piece collection, of which 90 per cent has not even been displayed.
Despite being subject to the plunder of vast quantities of its own cultural property, and therefore well placed to make a balanced case on the complex issue of cultural property repatriation, successive Indian governments have not made much of a mark at international forums. The issue of repatriation acquired momentum after World War II with respect to the repatriation of Nazi loot, but was also raised by countries that had won independence from colonial rule after protracted liberation struggles. These countries wanted to recover important items of their cultural heritage that had made its way into the museums and private collections of their former colonial masters.
At the heart of the debate lie questions of law, fairness, ethics and practically. There is, on the one hand, the internationalist view, which holds that cultural property is the common inheritance of humanity as a whole and should be kept where it is best looked after. At the other end of the spectrum is the view that a country’s cultural property must find a place in its region of origin as it provides a sense of shared heritage and a unifying national identity. In between is the position that accepts the role of “global museums” but questions the predominance of museums housed in Western and former colonial powers in this role.
The solution, if there is one, is complex and must strike a balance between practicality and fairness. Take the Parthenon Marbles, better known as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum as a case in point. There is no one who will disagree that the Marbles were acquired by Lord Elgin, the then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, through stealth and deceit. Britain does not want to lose them for obvious reasons, while Greece has built a strong case for their return. The country has been in the economic doldrums, and with a museum specially built to house the marbles, Greece understandably wants them back both as a matter of national pride and to help boost its national revenue.
In 1970, UNESCO produced the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property , one of the earliest international agreements on the restitution of cultural property. The problem was that the mandate of the Convention was not retroactive, whereas most of the illegal acquisitions were made before 1970. Dissatisfied with the result of the Convention, newly independent countries used other forums to make their case. They took it before the Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-aligned Countries, which in turn took the matter to the UN General Assembly. The UNGA passed several successive resolutions on the issue, of which one (resolution 3187) deplored “the wholesale removal, virtually without payment, of objets d’art from one country to another, frequently as a result of colonial or foreign occupation.” The issue went through several stages of the UN’s dispute resolution mechanism until in 1978 a UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee to deal with the return of cultural property was set up, accompanied by a strong appeal by the UNESCO Director-General on the issue. A major advance made by the new UN-sponsored instruments was that their mandate was retroactive, that is, they covered cultural property lost either as a consequence of foreign or colonial occupation, or through illicit traffic prior to the adoption of the 1970 Convention.
Of significance here is that the negotiations cover artefacts and cultural properties that are currently in safe places and open to the public, like museums, archives and libraries. It does not cover the equally important private sphere, where collections that ought to be in the public sphere are bought and sold by private collectors, with restricted public access.
Most of the personal wealth and possessions of the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, for example, is in the possession of families, descendants of British and Scottish soldiers and officers who fought the last battle against Tipu in 1799. This includes the incredible array of military equipment that Tipu possessed; his personal treasures; his books; and even the ring he was wearing the day he died (recently auctioned by Bonhams, the London auctioneer). These artefacts surely count as public heritage, but they make an occasional tantalising appearance in London’s great auction houses only to disappear from view once the sale is over.