Free Press Journal

India’s Lost Treasures: Of Kohinoor and select antiquities recovered


In December 2015, a Pakistani citizen approached the Lahore High Court asking the government to get Koh-i-Noor back from Britain. Meantime, India is working hard to retrieve its plundered treasures. Tripti Nath reports.

The Tower of London which gives a place of pride to the fabled diamond- the Koh-i-noor, figures on the top of the list of ‘must see places’ in London. The diamond was in the crown worn by the Queen Mother at the coronation of her husband King George VI in 1937 and again at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.

A recent petition by a Pakistani Barrister, asserting his nation’s claim to the Koh-i-Noor, has raised many an eyebrow in India. In his petition to the Lahore High Court, Jawaid Iqbal Jafree, has asserted that the Kohinoor diamond was “Pakistan asset” and is in “illegal possession” of Britain. According to a report in The Telegraph, “In the last half century, Mr Jafree has written more than 786 letters to the Queen and various Pakistani officials asking for the diamond’s return. His High court petition notes that his letters have never been acknowledged, except once by the Queen through her principal private secretary.”

But, this is not the first time that Pakistan has laid claim to this priceless jewel. The first request for its restoration came from Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976. The then British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan refused, replying “I need not remind you of the various hands through which the stone has passed over the past two centuries, nor that explicit provision for its transfer to the British Crown was made in the peace treaty with the Maharajah of Lahore. I could not advise Her Majesty the Queen that it should be surrendered.”

The British government has so far not commented on the petition of Jaffre in the Lahore High Court. In 2000, the Taliban demanded the return of the gem to Afghanistan. Former President of Afghanistan, Mr Hamid Karzai who was in India recently denied knowledge of such a request by the Taliban. All he said was the Koh-i-Noor once belonged to the Afghan Kings.

The Koh-i-Noor’s origins and early history have not been conclusively established. According to some accounts, it was a royal treasure dating back to  3000 BC.  It is widely believed to have come from the Kollur Mine in the Guntur District of present-day Andhra Pradesh, India, during the reign of the Hindu Kakatiya dynasty in the 13th century.  It changed hands many times between feuding factions in South Asia over the next few hundred years, before ending up in the possession of Queen Victoria following the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849.

For almost seven decades, India has been requesting the British government to return the 105-carat Kohinoor- one of the most valuable diamonds in the world. Prominent Indian citizens and British Asians have thrown their weight behind this legitimate demand but the British government has not conceded. India first demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor in 1947 soon after independence. A second request followed in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

In 2000, 25 members of the Indian Parliament wrote to the Prime Minister of the day and requested him to take up the question of the return of the Kohinoor with the United Kingdom. The gem, whose name means Mountain of Light in Persian, was mined in India around 1100. It is believed that it carries a curse lethal to male owners and “only God or a woman can wear it with impunity”.

The unyielding British position on India’s request is well known and British Prime Minister David Cameron categorically ruled out returning the Kohinoor to India during his 2013 India visit. He said, “I do not think that is the right approach. He went on to compare the Indian request with the demand made for years by Athens to get back the classical Greek marble sculptures. “It is the same question with the Elgin Marbles. “Cameron said that he certainly does not believe in returnism as it were. “I don’t think that’s sensible.”

One needs only to recall what he said about the Kohinoor in an interview to Dr Prannoy Roy on NDTV during his India visit in July 2010. “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British museum would be empty. I think, I am afraid to say, to disappoint all your viewers, it’s going to have to stay put.”

Interestingly, India’s former High Commissioner to UK and noted author, Kuldip Nayar, who has been campaigning for the return of the Kohinoor to India for almost two decades, has no problem with the petition by Jafree.

“Let the Kohinoor come to the subcontinent.  At least, get it moving from Britain. It is our priceless national treasure. I expect a nationalist Prime Minister like Modi should be the first to demand its return,” Mr. Nayar candidly remarked. In a recent article, Mr Kuldip Nayar wonders what may have stopped Mr Narendra Modi from mentioning Koh-i-noor during his visit to the United Kingdom.

He says, “The British government has even questioned the ownership of Kohinoor. It says that after the birth of Pakistan, the ownership of Kohinoor vests not only on India but on all the three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

Mr Nayar recalled that when he was High Commissioner in London, a British journalist asked if the Kohinoor should be returned to India or Pakistan, he said, “Give it to either. Give it to Pakistan. We will settle it later. He recalls that when he raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha, the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told him that he was “spoiling relations” between Great Britain and India.

But this did not discourage Mr. Keith Vaz, the longest serving British member of Parliament of Asian descent from repeating his demand during Modi’s maiden visit to UK as Prime Minister last November. Mr. Vaz said, There is no excuse for not returning precious items such as the Koh-i-noor diamond, a campaign I have backed for many years.”

Around the same time, there were news reports that a group of  film stars from Mumbai and businessmen, which called itself the “Mountain of Light” after the translation of the stone’s name  united to instruct lawyers to begin legal proceedings in London’s High Court to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond. British Lawyers instructed by the group to seek the stone’s return, said they would base their case on the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act, which gives national institutions in the UK the power to return stolen art.

While Indians continue to hope for a miracle that may see the Koh-i-Noor return to India some day, the British are very consistent in their stand. It did not take the British government spokesperson more than a few hours to respond to this writer’s e mail regarding the British position on the matter.  “The UK Government does not believe there are any legal grounds for restitution of the diamond.”

The British government spokesperson said that “ the Koh-i-Noor Diamond has been in British possession for more than 150 years, when passed to the “Queen of England” under the Treaty of Lahore in 1849. The diamond is presently set in the Crown that was made for the late Queen Mother in 1937.”

It is worth noting that the British government does not assign a value to the diamond. A few months back, the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Ministry of External Affairs, sought the comments of the Archaeological Survey of India on the Kohinoor. ASI Director (Antiquities), Dr D N Dimri said, “ In our reply , we clarified that the Kohinoor was acquired by the British before India gained Independence in 1947. We said that though it belongs to us, it was taken by the British during  British rule and does not constitute a violation of our Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972. We said that MEA may take up the issue at the appropriate level.”

The question then is: What are the legal instruments that India can use to strengthen its claim for restitution of the Kohinoor diamond? Experts say that India’s hands are tied legally on this matter.  Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a specialist on heritage issues explained, “Invoking the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which has been signed by 105 countries at different times, does not really strengthen our case for retrieval of the Kohinoor because the acquisition of the diamond pre dates India’s signing of the convention in 1972.

The same position was spelt out by former Minister of State for External Affairs, Mrs. Perneet kaur, while replying to a question on efforts to bring back the diamond, in Parliament on November 25, 2010. She said, “Ministry of Culture/Archaeological Survey of India has not put forth any fresh demand on this issue as this is not covered under the UNESCO Convention, 1972 dealing with the restitution of cultural property.”

The expert said, “Under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, the government is required to prevent smuggling and bring back smuggled antiques and art treasures but the Kohinoor does not come under the definition of illegal smuggling or illegal export.”

 Other experts say that they have reasonable suspicion that people took advantage of the four year gap between the enactment of Antiquities and Art Treasures Act and its actual implementation on the ground in 1976. Persuasion through diplomatic channels or other influential channels is all that India can try to win back the world famous diamond.

It must be said to India’s credit that in four decades, we have succeeded in bringing back 16 antiquities. The ASI says that it has Treasures retrivedbeen able to retrieve Indian antiquities with the kind cooperation and proactive perusal by the Indian missions abroad. Dr Dimri who has been Director Antiquities, ASI for more than two years says, “Getting back two idols from Germany was not easy. While Canada volunteered return of an 11th century stone sculpture of a lady with a parrot from Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh that had been illegally exported, Singapore informed India about a bronze sculpture of the same period, of Uma Maheshwari, wife of Lord Shiva. It was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu. The stone sculpture of Goddess Durga which had gone missing from Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir during militancy in the early 90s and was found in Germany was retrieved with the active support of our mission. This may have been of the ninth or tenth century. “

“We have to work in close coordination with our missions abroad and the police and dig out evidence of public notice from books and journals of theft or cite theft records to prove that the theft and acquisition of our art treasures and antiquities happened after signing of the 1970 UNESCO convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property by that particular country. We also tell the country in question that the illegal acquisition of the property constitutes a violation of our Antiquity and Art Treasures Act, 1972. There are times when it takes us several years to establish ownership of art treasures and antiquities. The real problem arises in cases where our tangible cultural properties have   gone missing, resurfaced abroad but there is no report of theft. We are now looking forward to the return of the sandstone idol of seated Buddha that had gone missing from Mathura, from the Australian art gallery. They volunteered to return it.  “

Dr Dimri said that the ongoing creation of a National Antiquities Register by the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities of the Ministry of Culture will help us have a full and updated inventory of all antiquities across India. Next month, Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton will be visiting India. They can expect yet another demand for the return of Kohinoor.