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Posted at: May 12, 2016, 1:06 AM; last updated: May 12, 2016, 10:02 AM (IST)

Why political contest over Kohinoor is a must

Controversy has lately erupted over whether Britain should return the Kohinoor diamond to India. A historian of the British empire explains the political stakes around ownership of the Kohinoor diamond. In fact, calls to “move on” misunderstand the purpose of international claims for restitution and compensation for past wrongs.
Why political contest over Kohinoor is a must
The Treaty of Lahore officially established that possession of the diamond symbolised power over the land from Delhi to Kabul. A file photo. AFP/PTI

IN a precipitous recovery from sudden historical amnesia, the Indian government overnight revised its decision not to request Britain to return the 106-carat Kohinoor diamond that became part of the British crown jewels after the British conquest of Punjab. The British government has declared its unwillingness to return the diamond, finding unwitting support among historians. William Dalrymple reminds us that before the British seized the diamond from the Sikhs in 1849, the Sikhs had seized it from Shah Shuja Durrani of Afghanistan, and it had passed through many others hands before that. It is futile then to demand restitution or a return of the diamond, for where would such claims end? Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan might as justifiably claim the diamond.

There is a certain wisdom in this view, but it fails to grasp the contemporary political dynamics that motivates international demands for compensation or reparations. Every good historian knows that it is impossible to undo the past. But, truth and reconciliation, reparations, apologies, and restitution are tools we have invented not to change the past but the present and future. They do not undo history; they make history. 

Moreover, removal of the Kohinoor from the subcontinent was arguably a symbolic violence on a different order from the struggle over its ownership among regional powers of the subcontinent and its borderlands before 1849. Indians should be aware of that precolonial past, and it does muddy the question of which regional government should receive the diamond if it is returned, but it does not fundamentally alter the stakes of the current debate about Britain's possession of the diamond.  

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Dalrymple notes that ignorance prevents Indians from demanding that Iran return the Darya Noor (the Kohinoor's sister diamond), but that ignorance is also a measure of the different political dynamics at work in Indo-Iranian versus the Anglo-Indian relations. Whatever differences exist between India and Iran, there is not a lingering sense of recent racial, political, or economic subordination between the two nation-states; if anything, they share a sense of cultural overlap and common recent subjugation to the West. And surely it matters that whatever subcontinental hands the diamond passed through, it did originate in the Golconda mines of the subcontinent (present-day Andhra Pradesh in India); there is no question that it is from the subcontinent.

Legendary named diamonds like the Kohinoor are the quintessential useless form of wealth. The Kohinoor is too famous and historically unique to have market value as a commodity. Its utility lies entirely in the realm of symbolism-which is why it was seized again and again by ruler after ruler. This is also why the British laid claim to it in 1849, to symbolise that they were the new unrivalled rulers of the territory Ranjit Singh once held. The Treaty of Lahore that called for its official surrender took care to mention that: “The Koh-i-Noor…was taken from Shah Sooja ool-Moolk by Maharajah Runjeet Singh.” This was not an incidental acknowledgment of historical trivia but a way of at once delegitimising Ranjit Singh's claim to the gem and inserting the British into the line of political inheritance symbolised by its history. That is why it became part of Britain's Crown Jewels.

The British justified their expanding control of the subcontinent by pointing to the political rivalries among its various regions and peoples. But, of course, the subcontinent was no more divided than similarly-sized Europe was in the same period. We must certainly attend to those earlier contests but not at the expense of acknowledging the particular and more recent injustices of European colonial rule. 

However bloody the precolonial past was, we live in a postcolonial world in which the division between haves and have-nots continues to echo the divisions created in the more recent era of European colonialism. It is hardly a mystery why continued British possession of the Kohinoor rankles in the subcontinent in a way that Iranian ownership of the Darya Noor simply cannot. The Treaty of Lahore officially established that possession of the diamond symbolised power over the land from Delhi to Kabul; since the British have ceded political claims to that region, they likewise cede the right to the diamond. The question remains whether India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan ought to receive it; and that is a struggle they will have to play out locally, as Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja Durrani did in their time. 

The Indian government was thus right to revise its hasty decision not to pursue the diamond's return. There has always been a political contest over the Kohinoor; there seems no reason why the contest should cease. It is not even important whether the demand for its return succeeds, since its value is entirely symoblic; it is more important that its ownership be contested, for in that contest lies cultivation of the deep historical awareness that Britons, Indians, and Pakistanis would all benefit from. 

Those who suggest Indians and Pakistanis “move on” from the idea of reclaiming the Kohinoor ignore the immense distortion imperialism introduced into the lives of “subject races,” generation after generation, as Edward Said once put it. They deny the reality of our postcolonial time and lives.

The writer, a historian of the British Empire, is a Professor of History at Stanford University. She is the author of : ‘Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East’ & ‘Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of Britain's Industrial Revolution’.

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