Mixed signals on Indian bid to recover Kohinoor diamond

Solicitor general surprises many by saying India should forgo claim for jewel from UK

India has said it will make all possible efforts to get back the Kohinoor diamond from Britain despite comments by New Delhi's solicitor general that the priceless jewel should stay with the former colonial ruler, the government said on Tuesday.

India has repeatedly demanded that Britain return the 105-carat diamond, which was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 and today sits on display as part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

India’s solicitor general surprised many on Monday when he told the supreme court that his country should forgo its claims to the jewel because it was given to Britain as a gift by an Indian king in 1851, rather than stolen as many Indians today believe.

The government said on Tuesday his view did not represent its own and that it was yet to give its opinion to the court, which is hearing a case demanding the diamond be returned.


“The government of India further reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner,” the ministry of culture said.

Light of the world

The Kohinoor – meaning light of the world – was at the centre of a long-standing diplomatic row between India and Britain, with New Delhi demanding that London return the "stolen" diamond, as atonement for its colonial excesses.

However, during a visit to India in 2010, British prime minister David Cameron categorically declared, like many of his predecessors, that the diamond would remain in London.

“What tends to happen with these questions, is that if you say yes to one, then you would suddenly find the British Museum empty,” he said, referring to the tens of thousands of looted artefacts on display at the London museum.

Set in the crown worn by Queen Elizabeth II during her coronation in 1953, the Kohinoor was mined in the 11th century in India's southern Golconda region, near Hyderabad.

Writing in The Great Mughals, British historian Bamber Gascoigne declared that the Kohinoor first made its appearance in 1526, when the second Mughal emperor Humayun, presented it to his father, Babar.

Babar casually calculated that the diamond could provide food for 2½ days to the entire world, and promptly handed the stone back to his son.

Humayun in turn presented the stone to Shah Tahmasp of Persia for offering him shelter, after he was militarily defeated and driven out of India by a rival.

After a series of owners and a riveting and bloodstained history, the Kohinoor found its way back into the treasury of Shah Jahan, the fourth Mughal emperor, in the early 17th century.

Thereafter, it passed into the hands of the Afghan kings in Kabul and then to Ranjit Singh, India's first and only Sikh ruler, in the early 19th century.

Waistcoat pocket

When the Sikh province of Punjab was annexed by the British, the Kohinoor was presented to commissioner Sir John Lawrence, who left it lying in his waistcoat pocket for almost six weeks.

His valet chanced upon it and restored it to Lawrence – who later became India’s viceroy – and he forwarded it Ranjit Singh’s minor heir, Dalip Singh, “asking” him to “present” it to Queen Victoria.

The diamond arrived in time to become the prime exhibit at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, after which it ended up in the Tower of London as part of the royal jewels.

After independence in 1947, many Indian politicians and others demanded the Kohinoor and numerous treasures back from Britain, but to no avail.

“The British rulers looted India and the government is making a mistake by not supporting our claims [to get the Kohinoor back],” said Nafis Ahmad Siddiqui, who petitioned the supreme court for the diamond’s return.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi