The last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire Duleep Singh was just 10 years old when he was forced to travel to Britain from his homeland in modern-day northern India to present Queen Victoria of England with the Kohinoor — then the most fabled diamond in the world and today the most famous gem in the British Crown Jewels. Now, India wants it back.
It wasn't just the jewel the little boy handed over back in 1849 — his entire Kingdom of Punjab was being stripped from him by colonial British India, following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The war had been waged and won on the British monarch's behalf by the British East India Company (EIC) — a multinational owned by aristocrats and wealthy merchants which commanded huge private armies, took responsibility for administering the colony, and at one point was responsible for half of the world's trade. It was on the EIC's insistence that the spectacular Kohinoor diamond was included in the punitive peace treaty inflicted on the defeated Kingdom of Punjab.
It was an awe-inspiring spoil of war. Historical evidence points to the diamond being dug from India's famed Golconda mines in the 13th century, weighing 793 carats. It passed through the hands of Mughal emperors, Persian Shahs, and Afghan Emirs before becoming the prized possession of the Sikh Empire. The Punjab warrior king and founder of the Sikh Empire Ranjit Singh, the "Lion of Lahore," was said to have worn the Kohinoor strapped to his bicep — though this may have been unwise, given that according to legend a curse was placed on the diamond in 1306 decreeing that lethal bad luck would befall all men who wore it.
The British royal family apparently took that curse seriously, embedding into crowns worn solely by female monarchs — today it's part of the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. They also decided it needed polishing up a bit, and recut the gem to make it more sparkly — shearing off about 40 percent of its weight in the process — though it remains the size of a hen's egg.
Its fame and the fact it has never been sold means it is priceless, but in the 1500s the Mogul ruler Babur claimed the diamond's value corresponded to about half of the world's total production costs in one day.
The Kohinoor can be seen set in the Maltese Cross on the front of the Queen Mother's Crown, atop the coffin of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother during her funeral in 2002. Photo by Alistair Grant/AP
Now, the diamond is the focus of vocal demands for repatriation from prominent members of the political establishment in India — a demand first made by the Indian government upon the country gaining independence in 1948, but which has been consistently rejected by successive British governments. Britain's refusal to consider returning the stone is widely seen as just one example of the government's unapologetic attitude towards colonial-era pillage.
A group of Bollywood stars and businessmen calling themselves the "Mountain of Light" group, which is English translation of Kohinoor, said last November they were instructing lawyers to begin legal proceedings at the British High Court to get the diamond back. This month, India's Supreme Court has been hearing a case filed by an NGO demanding the diamond be returned.
The gem hit global headlines this week when India's Solicitor-General Ranjit Kumar on Monday warned the country's Supreme Court against lodging a formal claim for the diamond, saying it had no grounds to demand the Kohinoor's return because it was not "stolen or forcibly taken" and had been a "gift" to the EIC.
The claim was met with outrage in many parts of India, including by the Maharaja Duleep Singh Memorial Trust, which commemorates the former child ruler and manages a museum which has a replica of the diamond. "This is an irresponsible statement. Kohinoor diamond was the pride of not only Punjabis but the whole country," said Ranjit Singh Talwandi, president of the Trust. British Sikhs also reacted angrily, with the Sikh Federation UK telling IB Times that the solicitor general "clearly lacks basic knowledge of Sikh history."
In a statement reported by the Indian Express on Tuesday, the Indian government said "it reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner."
According to Dr. Chandrika Kaul, an expert on the British Empire and modern South Asian history at St. Andrews University, while serious questions can rightfully be posed about the manner of the diamond's acquisition by the British, it is important to understand that it represents just the most recent in a history of controversial transfers of the gem.
Kaul says the issue of who rightfully owns the Kohinoor remains open today, after it was originally mined in southern India as long ago as the 13th Century, before passing into the possession of the Muslim Mughal empire and rulers of Persia and Afghanistan, prior to falling into the hands of the Kingdom of Punjab.
"There are question marks about who really is the rightful owner of the diamond, who got it from who, and the process [of the transfers] is quite murky," she said. "Ultimately, this claim goes back to the Mughals, and nobody is talking about that."
Those comments were echoed by Professor Peter Robb, Research Professor of the History of India at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who said that while the actions of the EIC and British monarchy — which had 40 percent of the diamond sheared off three years after acquiring it in order to make it more visually pleasing — may now appear unsavory, they were consistent with the conventions of the time.
"Whatever one thinks of this from present-day standards (given the conquest of the Punjab), its acquisition was legal, by the laws of the time," he wrote in an email.
According to Robb, the fact the gem was possessed by so many different people, "none of whom ruled a country or nation called 'India,'" is critical to the debate regarding who can be deemed its rightful owner today. Since 1976, the gem has also been claimed by Pakistan.
"Does it belong to the 'people' of India in some mystical or atavistic sense, because it is believed to have been found in what is now Indian territory?" Robb wrote. "Putting the question that way shows that no such legal doctrine could be devised; if it were applied generally over world history a vast number of absurdities would result."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already succeeded in having major artifacts returned to India from abroad since coming to power in 2014 — namely, a 10th Century statue of Goddess Durga returned by Germany, an almost 900-year-old sculpture known as the Parrot Lady repatriated by Canada, and antique statues of Hindu deities that were previously on display in Australian art galleries.
But the British government has always remained bullish on the Kohinoor, with current UK Prime Minister David Cameron stating in 2010 that repatriation would set an "unworkable precedent."
"If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty," he told Indian media during an official trip to the country.
At least 16 national governments have expressed a desire for items held by the British Museum to be returned to the territories they originated in. Prominent examples include the collection of Classical Greek sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles, and the Rosetta stone on which a decree issued at by the Egyptian King Ptolemy V was inscribed in 196 BC.
But while St Andrews University historian Kaul accepted possession of the Kohinoor fitted into the wider context of Britain's enduring colonial legacy, she was keen to point out that the demand for its repatriation is not an issue of great importance to most Indians.
"This is not a widespread public demand which transcends all political and economic classes, it has always been a rallying point for some disaffected groups," she said.
Robb, meanwhile, warned against giving into nationalistic urges while so many questions persist around the validity of the various claims made to the diamond.
"All sorts of patriotic emotions can be stirred up but that does not mean they ought to be acted upon or that they have objective merit," he wrote.
Support for the repatriation of the Kohinoor is not confined to India, with UK Member of Parliament Keith Vaz — the UK's longest serving MP of South Asian ancestry — consistently demanding the gem's return.
"Previous statements and reporting on the Solicitor General of India's comments to the Supreme Court are puzzling," Vaz said in an email. "I welcome the clarification by the Indian Government that it intends to make all efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner."
"I hope that the Indian Government will be in a position to convey its intentions to the Supreme Court soon."
But regardless of the Indian government's actions, Robb believes calls for the Kohinoor's repatriation will continue to fall on deaf ears for the foreseeable future.
"I cannot imagine there is any chance of its being returned anyway, on the usual arguments about the precedent that would be set," he wrote. "Unless a British government decided that a grand pointless gesture would serve some other purpose."
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