A Rock and a Hard Place

India's myopic approach to recovering the Kohinoor

01 September 2016
The Amaravati Marbles, removed from India under colonial rule, are among the hundreds of misappropriated Indian artefacts that remain in British possession.
ALL IMAGES COURTESY DONALD HEALD RARE BOOKS
The Amaravati Marbles, removed from India under colonial rule, are among the hundreds of misappropriated Indian artefacts that remain in British possession.
ALL IMAGES COURTESY DONALD HEALD RARE BOOKS

On 18 April, the Supreme Court heard a Public Interest Litigation seeking the restitution to India of, among other cultural artefacts, the Kohinoor diamond, which is currently part of the British crown jewels. Arguing on behalf of the Indian government against any official action, Ranjit Kumar, the solicitor general, told the court, “Kohinoor cannot be said to be forcibly taken or stolen as it was given by the successors of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to East India Company in 1849 as compensation for helping them in the Sikh wars.” This caught many by surprise. Though the government had not actively pursued the return of the diamond in recent years, it had consistently asserted India’s claim to the gem since very shortly after Independence. Kumar’s position was lambasted by the media, which took it as an Indian surrender.

The next day, the government declared “its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner.” On 23 July, it convened a meeting to discuss potential strategies, which involved the ministers of both foreign affairs and culture. Among the options reportedly considered was a treaty with the United Kingdom to give up Indian claims to all other artefacts misappropriated by the British in exchange for the return of the Kohinoor.

This was a startling proposition. Unlike the Kohinoor, which is just a rock, several of these other artefacts are pieces of exceptional workmanship. Take the Amaravati Marbles, a collection of 120 Buddhist sculptures and inscriptions displayed in the British Museum. These were part of a ruined stupa dating back to the second century BCE in what is now Andhra Pradesh, and were excavated and shipped to Britain in the nineteenth century. Recently, the government of Andhra Pradesh has sought their restitution. And these marbles are only a small part of the British Museum’s extensive collection of objects taken from India during colonial rule. Elsewhere, there is also Tipu’s Tiger. This mechanical toy, commissioned by the eighteenth-century monarch Tipu Sultan, is currently one of the more popular exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum—which also holds a large number of looted Indian artefacts. Unfortunately, most Indians place little value in the return of these objects, if they are aware of them at all.

Prashant Reddy Thikkavarapu studied law at the National Law School of India University and Stanford Law School, and is currently a research associate at the school of law at Singapore Management University. He tweets as @preddy85.

Keywords: government colonialism diplomacy British rule artefacts Kohinoor recovery restitution Amaravati marbles
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