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Britain must face up to its colonial errors

ByOliver Lemarchand

Nov 17, 2015

The first recorded mention of the Koh-i-Noor diamond comes in a Sanskrit script, written over 5,000 years ago. In the early 1300s it was recorded as being in the possession of the Emperor of Delhi, and over two hundred years later passed into the hands of the Mughal Emperor Babur, a dynasty with whom the jewel remained protected and venerated for over 300 years.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the diamond left the South Asian subcontinent, the occasion of its departure being the assumption of power in Punjab by the British East India Company. The diamond is assuredly an Indian relic, a symbolic, material survivor of the turbulent historical periods through which the region has lived. The Koh-i-Noor, however, remains a permanent ornament in the British Crown jewels, firmly implanted in the crown of the Queen Mother which now rests alongside her.

The news that a conglomeration of Indian businessmen and Bollywood actors have combined in an effort to repatriate the diamond, and sue the Queen for its acquisition in 1849, has given colonial apologists a very public platform to air their antiquated convictions about the glowing legacy left by the ever-benevolent Anglo-India. One such member of this group of neo-sahibs is the historian Andrew Roberts, whose recent rejection of Indian claims of ownership of the diamond was founded upon the regrettably commonplace judgement that British colonialism ‘democratised’ the country, leaving behind in 1947 a ‘modernised’, ‘developed’ nation.

Not only do such opinions continue to perpetuate the myth that colonising nations’ principal aim was the so-called ‘civilising mission’ – itself a shameful justification of the unlawful, violent and oppressive occupation of foreign territories. They contribute to the all-too-convenient evasion of colonial guilt. According to this train of thought, the diamond cannot be returned – must not be returned – as it remains a rightful possession of a power whose noble business in developing a nation after its own model merited a reward, a certificate of its achievements.

In a word, the UK must confront its guilt and duty to repay, in some form, the damage which its occupation of Indian territories for the best part of 250 years wrought. The repatriation of the Koh-i-Noor would provide a symbolic, powerful gesture from the UK to India to begin the process, a signal of intent that it wishes to acknowledge the evils of previous governments, and at the very least try to offer a form of compensation. Evidently there is a need to re-align the relationship of two countries, both historically and diplomatically. The UK government’s refusal of the proposal illustrates just how deeply entrenched colonial apologism is amongst the political class, an attitude which does not yield itself to equal diplomatic relations.

Of course there are complications with repatriation of artefacts and other items of value. Some have pointed out that all such historically significant items do not belong to any particular nation, but to the world as a whole; that, if successful, the case of the Koh-i-Noor could lead to a more widescale effort at repatriation of historical objects unlawfully taken, emptying the world’s museums.

But the Koh-i-Noor cannot be treated as we treat thousands of other historical artefacts. Its place in Indian society for centuries was one which cultivated legend. It sat on the quasi-sacred Mughal Peacock Throne, and is said to have yielded an unparalleled power for whomever possessed it. Add to this its status as a remnant is of a cultural and historical legacy which includes British domination, and we begin to see why there exists such interest in the diamond. Practical considerations, though important, cannot be allowed to obstruct efforts to atone for centuries of racially-charged, aggressive occupation.

Image: Kirti Poddar

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