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Return Kohinoor trends as Queen Elizabeth dies. But will UK give it back to India?

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaSep 14, 2022 | 15:56

Return Kohinoor trends as Queen Elizabeth dies. But will UK give it back to India?

Indians demand the Kohinoor's return every now and then while the British actually have a legal treaty to back their ownership. (photo-DailyO)

The day Queen Elizabeth II died, the most trending hashtags in India included “Elizabeth”, “King Charles”, and of course, “Kohinoor”. The famed diamond has always been the subject of controversy with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran laying claim on it; while Britain (and even the Indian Supreme Court) claims that the Koh-i-Noor was not stolen but procured by a legal treaty. 

The Queen’s death and John Oliver’s resurfaced video has brought Kohinoor back to drawing-room conversations. 

Desi Twitter was quick to remark that now that the Queen has kicked the bucket, India will get back the Kohinoor which was embedded in the crown worn by her mother Elizabeth I (formerly referred to as the Queen Mother). Today, the 105-carat oval-shaped diamond can be viewed by the general public at the Tower of London’s Jewel House. 

Be it in politics or memes, the cause to get the diamond back has been in the popular conversation even though the legal and logistical aspects of this “colonial reparation” are obviously ignored. 

John Oliver, who is known for his biting satire on his comedy-news talk show Last Week Tonight, once broke down the Kohinoor controversy on a Season 2 episode in 2015. 

As always, he presents news segments and then adds his own hot takes. On this episode that is understandably trending again, he started off with a 2014 NDTV interview with then-Britain Deputy PM Nick Clegg, who gave a confused mishmash of an answer when asked about the diamond’s status. 

To quote Clegg, “There is no doubt in our mind that the diamond was relocated to this country under legal conditions which are not in any doubt that there is clarity and sincerity with which the Queen holds the Crown Jewels, all of them, in trust and on behalf of the nations, has done for many generations, and future monarchs will continue to do so.”

The following was Oliver’s response. 

“What he’s basically saying is that, ‘I understand that you want the diamond but the thing is we have the diamond. You don’t. And we’re going to keep having it forever. So, in summary, finders keepers cheerio.”

Oliver also focused on a 2013 article from The Huffington Post in which the then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted as saying, “They’re not having it back." 

But what was the origin of the Kohinoor?

The Kohinoor has passed through several hands ever since it was first discovered in a mine in Kollur, Andhra Pradesh; the timeline being somewhere between 12th and 14th centuries. The origins behind such a legendary gem would also obviously be the stuff of legends. 

The Koh-i-Noor on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London (photo-The Illustrated Exhibitor)
The Kohinoor on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London (photo-The Illustrated Exhibitor)

According to the first Mughal monarch Babur’s personal writings, he received a renowned diamond in 1526 following his conquest over Delhi and Agra after the First Battle of Panipat. This diamond, he wrote, was looted from the Kakatiyas by Allaudin Khilji during the Delhi Sultan’s raids over South Indian kingdoms. 

The diamond goes to Persia (now Iran) and Afghanistan

Now again, this is just one of the several theories around the diamond’s origin and it can’t be established as historical fact. According to Persian historical sources and hagiographies, the ruler Nadir Shah in his Indian invasion of 1738 carried along with him Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne, a grandiose seat with several jewels embedded on it including the famed Kohinoor. In fact, it is even said that it was Nadir Shah’s exclamation “Kohinoor!” (Mountain of Light) on seeing the diamond that led to its name. 

A potrait of Shah Jahan sitting on the Peacock Throne (photo- The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A potrait of Shah Jahan sitting on the Peacock Throne (photo- The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shah went on to found the Afsharid dynasty that began collapsing after his death. His grandson eventually gave the diamond to the Afghan Empire’s founder Ahmad Shah Durrani. 

As fate would have it, the Kohinoor would be lost with another king’s grandson. Durrani’s grandson Shuja Durrani embedded the diamond in a bracelet, a fashion choice he wanted to highlight while meeting Scottish statesman M Elphinstone. A year later, Shuja even joined forces with the British to prevent a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. 

The result was Shuja being badly defeated and running away to Lahore, carrying the precious diamond with him. In the city that lies in modern Pakistan today, the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh offered him a hospitable stay. What did Singh ask in exchange? The diamond, of course. 

The Sikh Boy Prince gifts the diamond to England’s Queen 

According to Anita Anand and William Dalrymple’s 2017 book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond, the diamond was either left to the Sikh state or donated to the priests of Jagganath Temple in Puri, Odisha. The book also touches upon the probability of the diamond being in Claude Martin Wade’s care (the British agent to rulers such as the Mughal prince Shah Shuja and Ranjit Singh). 

Whatever be the case, it is recorded history on how the British procured the diamond through “legal” means. Singh could not sustain his massive empire with his successors unable to secure a victory for the Sikh Empire in the subsequent Anglo-Sikh wars. With Singh’s older sons deposed from power, the British managed to sign a treaty with his 7-year-old son Duleep Singh. 

Portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh by FX Winterhalter (1854)
Portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh by FX Winterhalter (1854)

Duleep Singh was placed on the throne with his mother Jind Kaur acting as regent. But with the Sikh Empire defeated in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1846), Kaur was as powerless as Singh. The peacemaking Treaty of Lahore was signed by the two sides with one of the terms being, 

“III. The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Runjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”

After another defeat in the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1849), 10-year-old Duleep formally surrendered the diamond to the then-Governor General Lord Dalhousie. The diamond was eventually shown to British audiences in the so-called “Great Exhibition”. 

Britishers look at the Koh-i-Noor at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (photo-The Illustrated Exhibitor)
Britishers look at the Kohinoor at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (photo-The Illustrated Exhibitor)

Desiring to give up his life in Lahore and move to England, Duleep Singh even went overseas and at the age of 15, he himself was the one who offered the diamond to his coloniser's country’s monarch, Queen Victoria. 

Instead of wearing the diamond as a Crown Jewel, the Queen sported the diamond as a brooch. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Queen Victory wearing the Kohinoor as a brooch in a painting by FX Winterhalter (1856)
Queen Victoria wearing the Kohinoor as a brooch in a painting by FX Winterhalter (1856)

Now, what do the governments of India and Britain have to say? 

The Treaty of Lahore has been used as a convenient excuse by several British royalists to justify the ownership of Kohinoor, as is evident from the statements that former PMs and other British parliamentarians have offered. 

There are, of course, exceptions such as the Indian-origin Labour Party politician Keith Vaz. The longest-serving British Asian MP, Vaz, called for the diamond to be returned to India during Indian PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK in 2015. Unsurprisingly, his demand went unheard. 

A year later, in 2016, the Supreme Court of India offered its judgment on a suit filed by the All India Human Rights & Social Justice Front, a collective that demanded the diamond’s return. 

Queen Elizabeth II's crown with the Kohinoor Diamond embedded in the centre (photo- Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II's crown with the Kohinoor Diamond embedded in the centre (photo- Getty Images)

Coinciding with the visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the judgment could be best summed up by the then-Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar as “It [Kohinoor] was neither stolen nor forcibly taken away.” 

So, when it comes to the question of the diamond’s ownership, according to the British, it is legal. Chances of colonial reparations seem bleak, given how the royal treasuries are filled with similarly “legally procured” valuables from former colonies which included pretty much all of Africa and most of Asia and Middle East . 

As former UK PM David Cameron told NDTV in 2010, 

“If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. It is going to have to stay put.”


Last updated: September 14, 2022 | 15:56
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