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India Demands its Kohinoor Diamond Back
Is the reign of Charles III going to be characterized by ‘returnism?’
By: Neeta Lal
The September 8 death of Queen Elizabeth II has stirred growing clamor from India for the return of the Kohinoor diamond, one of the world’s most contentious gems, which now adorns the queen’s crown and is stored in the Tower of London.
Indian social media is abuzz with the term “Kohinoor," with netizens making angry demands on the British government to return the “stolen” jewel to its country of origin.
“Britain, it’s time to hand back our Kohinoor and everything else you looted from India. it’s payback time now!” wrote one Twitter user from Delhi. “The jewel belongs in India’s treasury and it’ll be an insult if Camilla wears it! Britishers, we threw you out 75 years ago, remember? Colonial exploitation has long ended,” commented another user from Bengaluru.
The 105.6-carat oval-shaped Kohinoor, which means “mountain of light” in Persian and is worth US$591 million. Believed to have been found in the Kollur mines in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh between the 12th and 14th centuries during the Kakatiya dynasty rule, the jewel passed hands through several Indian dynasties before being presented to Queen Victoria.
The Kohinoor, of course, while quite literally the jewel in the imperial crown, is just one of millions of artifacts looted from the peoples Great Britain colonized from the 16th to the 20th Century, among them the Elgin Marbles which once adorned the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone, the key to ancient languages of the Middle East. Giving back any of them puts the UK on a slippery slope on which many countries would rightfully demand a return of them all.
The UK’s defenders argue with some justification that the British imperial system has preserved these millions of artifacts, keeping them in safety from destruction in wars and from theft by warlords. The British Museum houses as many as 8 million items alone. It remains to be seen how loud the former colonial clamor will be to reclaim them now that Elizabeth is gone and Charles is on the throne. The first to come under public scrutiny, even as Charles begins his reign, is the magnificent Kohinoor.
The first verifiable record of the diamond comes from the 1740s when Muhammad Maharvi notes the Kohinoor as being one of many stones on the Mughal Peacock Throne that Nader Shah looted from Delhi. The diamond then changed hands between various factions in south and west Asia until being ceded to Queen Victoria after the British annexation of the Punjab in 1849, during the reign of the 11-year-old emperor Maharaja Duleep Singh.
The Kohinoor is currently set in the queen's crown, stored in the Tower of London's Jewel House and is accessible to viewing by the public. It is placed in the Imperial State Crown, which was produced in 1937 for King George VI’s coronation and eventually passed on to Elizabeth II. The diamond, however, is scheduled to be worn by the Queen’s daughter-in-law and King Charles III’s wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, during Charles’s coronation later this month.
For decades, the priceless jewel has seen many claimants. Pakistanis, Afghans, and Iranians have also laid claim to the precious stone. Most recently in 2019, the Pakistan government staked a claim to the diamond saying that “…colonizers stole the gem from its territory,” thereby claiming to be the gem’s rightful owner.
Kohinoor has long remained a point of friction in Indo-British relations as well. Many Indians – including Parliamentarians – believe the diamond was “stolen" during the colonial era and should rightfully be returned. Several called upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi and president Droupadi Murmu, who paid tribute to the Queen in London after her death, to formally request the Kohinoor be returned.
India first demanded the return of the stone in 1947, the year it gained independence from the British after a freedom movement fought over two centuries. It made another formal request in 1953 and yet again in 1997 when the queen visited India to mark the 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. However, Britain denied all the requests, saying the stone had been part of its heritage for more than 150 years.
Former British prime minister David Cameron, during his visit to India in 2013, famously said returning the stone was not “sensible.” “I certainly don't believe in 'returnism', as it were,” he said.
Although no plans for the gem have been disclosed, the fact that it still remains in the UK today after the Queen’s passing at age 96, is disconcerting to many Indians. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Venkatesh Shukla has started a petition aiming to get 1 million signatures on LinkedIn, reminding the “honorable country” UK to return the “loot.” So far, it has just 6,500 signatures.
The petition, launched in cooperation with non-profit Change.org India, seems to be foundering. The organization tweeted about the launch of the petition on September 13, claiming that it – in Shukla’s words – was “no longer morally defensible for the UK to hold on to this loot.”
It added: “…how could a country that wants to be seen as a moral and honorable nation could be so blind to the message Kohinoor in the crown sends. Hence the petition…It is no longer morally defensible for UK to hold on to this loot. The honorable thing to do is to return to where they took it away from – to India. It is good for UK.”
Wrote Shukla, “Every time the crown appears with Koh-i-Noor as the jewel of the crown, it reminds the world of Britain's colonial past and the shameful way they got a five-year-old prince to “gift” it to Britain.”
Other Indians concur. Prateek Khandelway, who signed Shukla’s petition says that not only the Kohinoor, but all those treasures – public or private – “stolen” by British rulers should be returned to India.” although he is “not hopeful” of their return he admits that “signing the petition will create awareness about UK’s robbery and at least shameface them if nothing else. ”
Although the Indian government has made no formal claims for the return of the Kohinoor lately, some politicians hope that the current groundswell of anger against the British government will translate into some official action.
“The dynamics of the Indo-British bilateral relationship have changed completely. We’ve beaten the British economy to become the world’s fifth largest. Indian companies create employment for thousands in Britain and their government wants to do business with us. it’s high time they realized that they can’t afford to irk India anymore. Good diplomacy is good business sense. Handing over the Kohinoor to us is a good start,” said Manik Ram Choudhury, a Congress municipal counselor from Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh.