Uneasy the head that wears the crown

Queen Alexandra wearing the Koh-i-Noor in her Coronation Crown.Picture taken on August 9, 1902.Photos: Special arrangement  

he 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.

 The latest attempt to retrieve the gem came early this month, shortly before the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Britain. A group of Indians — described in the media as “Bollywood stars and businessmen” — announced the initiation of legal proceedings in London’s High Court for the return of the stone. Their lawyers said that they would use the provisions of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act, 2009, to base their case.

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.

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. 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.  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. 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.