Much attention has been given to a group of influential Indian personalities who are planning a legal bid to have the UK return the Kohinoor diamond to India. A sensitive subject at the best of times, this issue has been made all the more acute with the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UK.
The 105-carat diamond was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 after the second Anglo-Sikh war. The 1846 Treaty of Lahore specified the transfer of ownership of “the gem called the Koh-i-Noor which was surrendered by Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk to Maharajah Ranjit Singh and then surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”
The story of the diamond is significant as it enthuses debate over two key issues: Western custodianship of foreign treasures, and the legacy of the British empire.Zaid M. Belbagi
Far from being acquired under dubious circumstances, as has been claimed, the youngest son of the maharajah visited London to formally hand over the stone to the queen at a special ceremony.
The story of the diamond is significant as it enthuses debate over two key issues: Western custodianship of foreign treasures, and the legacy of the British empire. Concerning the issue of an Indian jewel remaining in the UK, issues of national patrimony are second to the preservation of arts and culture for the wider benefit of humanity.
The diamond has changed hands between warring parties several times in its long history, moving around the Indian subcontinent in the process. However, for the last 175 years it has remained in the UK, often on display for members of the public to appreciate its beauty.
The Kohinoor case is one of thousands of foreign artefacts kept in UK museums and artistic establishments. In this day and age, treasures are to be preserved and enjoyed, not fought after. Given the experience of recent years, should the treasures of Babylon and ancient Egypt, kept at the British Museum, be returned to their countries of origin, there is every chance they could be destroyed or looted.
It would be culturally irresponsible to return artefacts only for them to be destroyed. This is not a matter of cultural booty, but a very real concern for the need to preserve treasures for all of humanity to be able to enjoy. The botched glue repair to Tutankhamun’s priceless mask earlier this year in Egypt is another example of why the supposed repatriation of artefacts is not necessarily the best solution.
The other matter is the legacy of the British empire. Framing the Kohinoor issue as cultural theft threatens both Anglo-Indian relations and those with the wider commonwealth. Liberals and revisionists will always attack the British empire, which was far from perfect, but they ignore the hugely positive impact it had.
Globally speaking, Pax Britannica brought about by the empire made the 19th century comparatively peaceful in relation to the violent centuries that preceded it. For the first time since Pax Romana, citizens of the empire could travel the globe, using one currency and speaking one language, in relative safety.
Using the Indian example, rather than blame the ills of partition on the empire, a more helpful argument would be to recognize the distinction between the British colonial experience and those of other European powers.
Whereas the French infamously ripped telephones off the walls when leaving Gabon, and emptied the Bank of Morocco upon their exit, Britain took its colonial obligations more seriously. The establishment of the Indian railway network, postal service, army, political system, and the greatest legacy of all, the English language, gifted an independent India with a solid institutional legacy upon which to build.
Given the vast cultural exchange and shared history, Anglo-Indian relations need to be fortified, not weakened. There would be no better symbol of strength and commitment than a magnificent diamond such as the Kohinoor.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a government communications expert with experience in providing strategic advice in the Middle East. He is commentator on Gulf affairs, being a member of the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum (OxGAPs) and formerly a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). He regularly appears on TV.
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