Britain must return ‘stolen’ gem, says India
Dazzling, famous, very precious: the Koh-i-Noor is one of Britain’s prize treasures. Yet this week, the Indian government signalled that it wants the diamond back. Who does it belong to?
Deep within the Tower of London, set in the Queen Mother’s crown, sits the Koh-i-Noor. The dazzling 106-carat diamond is one of the world’s most famous gems; most visitors stop and stare in awe. But some just hiss at it, and move on.
They are tourists from India. For decades, their country has argued that the Koh-i-Noor was stolen by the British, and is rightfully theirs. The dispute escalated this week, as a rights group approached India’s Supreme Court with a request: to order the Indian government to recover the diamond.
Initially, the government refused, arguing that the Koh-i-Noor had been gifted to the British. Then, on Tuesday, it performed a dramatic U-turn: it would now make ‘all possible efforts’ to bring the gem back to India. Meanwhile, Britain has shown no intention of handing it over.
The dispute is rooted in the gem’s chaotic history. While its origins are shrouded in mystery, for centuries it was passed between the kingdoms of South Asia, often as war loot. By 1849, it had ended up in the hands of Duleep Singh, the ten-year-old ruler of the Punjab.
At this point, the British annexed the region. A treaty was drawn up, which called for the Koh-i-Noor to be ‘surrendered’ to Queen Victoria. Singh had little say in the matter. The diamond, together with Singh himself, was shipped to Britain, where it has remained ever since.
The gem is said to be worth £100m, but its monetary value is not the point. Its presence in Britain, say Indians, is a reminder of the nation’s ugly imperialist past. Returning it would send out a strong message of apology.
Yet for the British government, this is precisely the problem. As a former imperial power, Britain is filled with loot. If it handed back the Koh-i-Noor, a precedent would be set for other artefacts. As David Cameron put it, ‘If you say yes to one [request], you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.’
This is not the first time Britain has faced calls to return cultural property, and it will not be the last. What should it do?
The crown jewels
Give back the diamond, say some. For centuries, India was plundered by Britain. The damage can never be repaired, but handing over the Koh-i-Noor would be a strong symbolic gesture of goodwill. History aside, let’s also look to the future: India is set to be an important strategic partner for Britain. We should not anger it.
Sure, Britain may have taken the diamond by force, comes the reply – but then so did the Punjab. It has passed through so many hands that it belongs to no one. In any case, returning it would set off an avalanche of similar requests, and the world’s museums would become poorer places. The choice is clear: the diamond stays.
- If you were given the Koh-i-Noor, what would you do with it?
- Should Britain do more to apologise for its imperialist past?
- You have just been made king or queen of your own land. Come up with five laws for the kingdom. Explain your choices to the class.
- Depending on your opinion on the matter, write a letter as a representative of either the Indian government or the Tower of London, arguing why the Koh-i-Noor should be given back / kept in Britain.
Some People Say...
“If you don’t get caught, you deserve everything you steal.”Daniel Nayeri
What do you think?
Q & A
- The diamond was taken 150 years ago. Why does it still matter?
- Nations have long memories. Wars have been fought over land that was stolen centuries, even millennia before. This dispute is about more than just a precious stone: the pride of two countries is at stake.
- What does Britain even do with the Koh-i-Noor?
- The diamond is set in the crown of the queen consort – the king’s wife. As Britain currently doesn’t have a queen consort (as it has no king), the diamond, together with the crown, is on display in the Tower of London.
- Why can’t a king wear it?
- Because of an old curse, which says that a man who owns the diamond will face misfortune, and ‘only god or woman can wear it with impunity’. Hence the decision to incorporate it into the queen consort’s crown.
- The name is Persian for ‘Mountain of Light’, which is what Persian ruler Nader Shah is said to have exclaimed when he saw the diamond.
- A carat is a unit of weight for precious stones, equivalent to 200 milligrams.
- The Koh-i-Noor probably came from a mine in southern India in the Middle Ages. By some accounts, however, it was already in use as a royal treasure 5,000 years ago.
- South Asia
- The diamond passed through modern-day Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, who have all claimed it as their own.
- A fertile region that covers parts of India and Pakistan.
- To annex a territory means to take it, often by force, and add it to your own land.
- Other artefacts
- The most famous of Britain’s loot is the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures and other fragments that were taken from a temple in Athens in the 19th century. Greece has long tried to recover it. There are plenty more disputes of this kind: for example, China’s government claims that there are 23,000 stolen Chinese artefacts in the British Museum alone!