Jewel chase

Besides India and Pakistan, many descendants of Maharaja Dalip Singh have staked their claim to the Kohinoor, reports K.R.N.Swamy

THE recent move of the British government to display a replica of the original uncut Kohinoor, as it was taken from its last Indian owner Maharaja Dalip Singh, in the Natural History Museum in London, again brings back controversies surrounding this historic treasure.

In 1852, the British re-faceted the 181-carat Kohinoor to 106 carats. According to one historian, replicas in themselves need not worry us, for there are a number of replicas of the Kohinoor all over the world. These duplicates are made by the Diamond Trading Corporation. It has made copies of 51 world-famous gems, with unrivalled precision, using laser technology. It is unthinkable to have a major display of diamond replicas, without bringing in the Kohinoor. In fact, in India too one has seen such exhibits. In the former summer palace-museum of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Rambagh Gardens at Amritsar, there is a copy of the famous diamond.

The question before us is whether there is any chance of India getting back the diamond? Here, it is necessary to know that Pakistan feels that it has a greater right over the diamond than India, as it was taken from the minor Maharaja Dalip Singh who ruled from Lahore in 1839. In fact, the British are cashing in on this controversy to ensure that the diamond is not returned to the subcontinent. In June 2000, as stated by the Rajya Sabha member Kuldip Nayar, the British High Commission in India had expressed its ambiguity over the ownership of the diamond. Most importantly, it said it wasn’t sure whether the Kohinoor rightfully belonged to India. One spokesman of the British government pointed out that the Kohinoor had been in the possession of Mughal rulers in Delhi for 213 years, with rulers in Kandahar and Kabul for 66 years and with the British for 155 years.

Kept at the Tower of London, the Kohinoor is set in the Maltese Cross of the coronation crown made for the Queen Elizabeth (late Queen Mother) in 1937. The Kohinoor (106 carats) is valued much higher than any other diamond equal in quality and size and there is no chance of it being sold by the British. According to gemologists, its reserve price, if sold in an international auction could be as high as $10 million. A few years ago, the 69 carat Taylor Burton diamond (smaller than the Kohinoor) was sold for $3 million, whereas the 137 carat Premier Rose diamond (larger than the Kohinoor) was sold for more than $10 million.

A few years ago, the famous betting firm of Ladbrookes in London declared that the bets were 1:100 against the diamond going back to the subcontinent. The odds came down 1: 50 if India and Pakistan were to jointly demand it from Britain.

Then again, in case a joint demand is made by India and Pakistan and the British concedes it, where will the diamond be kept? As per international conventions, it has to be on display six months in India and six months in Pakistan. The security requirements would be require a lot of expense. And, it would be impossible to cover the cost with the entrance fee charged from the visitors. We have also not been able to keep the Nizam’s jewels — our national treasure — on permanent display, due to the cost involved in providing adequate security.

Another part of the problem is that within India, there are many claimants to the treasure and they are prepared to go to court for it. In 2002, the Jagannath temple in Puri had staked its claim on the Kohinoor, stating that prior to Dalip Singh taking possession of the diamond, it was the temple’s property. Its lawyers’ claim that they have documentary proof that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had bequeathed the diamond to the temple before his death in 1839. For this, the temple lawyers, quote from a letter preserved in the National Archives of India. This letter was written by the British Political Agent to Ranjit Singh’s Court (dated July 2, 1839) and addressed to T.A. Maddock, the officiating Secretary to the Government of India. It says: "During the last days of his illness, Ranjit Singh is declared to have bestowed to charity — jewels and other property to the supposed value of 50 lakh. Among the jewels, he directed the well-known Kohinoor diamond to be sent to the temple of Jagannath."

In 2001, Kunwar Meet Pal Singh, who claimed to be one of the Maharaja Dalip Singh’s direct descendants, stated that his family had received a letter from the Secretariat of Queen Elizabeth II. The letter signed by Deborah Bean, the Queen’s chief correspondence officer, stated, "The Queen has taken notice of their earlier comments on their royal legacy and other articles, including the Kohinoor diamond." Bean had apparently written that she had been instructed to send Singh’s letter to UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook "so that he may know of your approach to Her Majesty on this matter and may consider the points you raise."

Other individuals have surfaced both in Britain and in India, staking their claim to the diamond. They claim they are descendants of Dalip Singh. Beant Singh Sandhanwalia staked a claim last year, saying he was a descendant of Duleep Singh’s cousin. And William D. Forbes, a retired Scottish surgeon who migrated to Canada 40 years ago, has recently said that he is the heir to the priceless jewel. He claims to be the great-grandson of Dalip Singh.