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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 49 New Delhi November 28, 2015

Claims over Kohinoor

Friday 27 November 2015, by Kuldip Nayar

The British establishment must have prevailed upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to mention Kohinoor during his official visit to the United Kingdom. Otherwise, it is not under-standable why he did not refer to the subject even once directly or indirectly.

Why I suspect the British Government’s hand is because of my personal experience. When I raised the subject in the Rajya Sabha after my campaign at London, the then Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, told me that I was ‘spoiling relations’ between Great Britain and India. His request distressed me. Yet I went along with him. It became clear to me then that New Delhi and London were on the same page on Kohinoor, although its real owner was India: after the partition the place has become part of Pakistan.

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 that of all three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At London, one Foreign office high-up had defended its decision not to return it on the ground that the Kohinoor belonged to Pakistan. I told him that let them return it to Islamabad. It would at least come back to the subcontinent.

It is clear that the British have no intention of returning the diamond or, for that matter, tonnes of material stored in the basement of Victoria and Elbert museums at London. This is contrary to a UNESCO resolution that the relics acquired during the occupation should be returned to the country to which those originally belonged. There was no response from England but France complied with the resolution and gave up the relics which it had come to own as a result of victory at war.

When the Nehru Corner was opened at the museum at London, I asked the curator how much of passion they had displayed. Her reply was—five per cent. Even then the entire expense was borne by us. I requested her for the display of other possessions at the Indian Government’s expense. She curtly said: No. She also rejected my proposal that we display the passions in India at our own expense and return them to the museum. The material at the basement of India includes manuscripts, books, maps, posters and such other material. People of India may never see that material since the government is reluctant to take up the subject.

Now that a different political party is at the helm of affairs, the matter of relics should be taken up again. The Modi Government should reopen the question of relics with London. This may embarrass the previous Congress Govern-ment for not having acted during its rule. But the country’s interest demands that what is part of its history should be in India, when the events took place. The British establishment should appreciate the feelings of Indians.

The UK has done well not to display the Kohinoor this time in the yearly exhibition of diamonds. Probably it has dawned on the Cameron Government that every time the Kohinoor is put to public gaze there is a demand from India that it should be returned to it. And it is confirmed now that the diamond belongs to them and that Lord Dalhousie fraudulently took it away from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Dilip Singh, a minor then during the British rule.

Despite this attitude the British have developed a strange, smouldering attachment to India which the passage of time has not extinguished. In a way they simply cannot get over India. There are so many of them, even today, who can recall someone or the other from their families who served in India during the Raj. Several homes display artefacts from India such as a painting, an ivory elephant or a bronze goddess.

As High Commissioner I felt it would be a good gesture to meet the tribe (the former civil and military officials who had served in India) of Raj veterans. They had spent their best years in our country and had never been invited by the Indian High Commissioner to his residence. It was not difficult to get their names; there are organisations which stay in touch with them and their names and look after their interests. The surviving members of the Indian Civil Services (ICS) then numbered ninetyseven. The ex-military hands numbered in the hundreds. We had to be selective, a job which the High Commissioner’s Army, Air Force and Naval advisers did with finesse.

The reception for the ICS officers was the first to take place. Fiftyseven of them turned up, some with their wives, children or grandchildren. I had also extended the invitation to the India League, which had helped India in its freedom struggle. The former Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, who had played a tremendous role during our national movement but later, unfortunately, supported Mrs Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, also came. I appreciated his gesture.

My impression is that when it comes to their empire, the British cannot be objective. There is pride, no humility; self-righteousness, no introspection. The British are proud, nostalgic but annoyingly patronising about their connection. At an exhibition on India and Great Britain (1600-1947), the emphasis was on the rule, not the struggle against it; on the nautch girls, not the people’s aspirations. Recently, the BBC also disseminated a programme which displayed India’s poverty and squalor. But that is not the true picture of India. There is a positive side which the British media intentionally ignore. I recall that during our national struggle Katherine Mayo came to India and wrote a nasty book. Mahatma Gandhi’s comment was: must she present the Drains Inspector’s report as our drains are indeed dirty!

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com