Kalyani Unkule raises a valid concern about the maintenance of the Kohinoor diamond in India, given its intriguing history and proposes an alternate way to protect its legacy and improve global ties.
A bid to reclaim the Kohinoor diamond from Britain has once again gained momentum over the past weeks. The debate has almost exclusively centered on the diamond’s mid-nineteenth century transfer, from Maharaja Ranjeet Singh to Queen Victoria, including much hair-splitting about the extent to which the “gift” could be deemed voluntary. In the first place, it is dangerous to invoke a historic episode in support of demands for repatriation. After all, its time in possession of Ranjeet Singh is only one stint in the Kohinoor’s long and distinguished career as a coveted crown jewel. Assuming it eventually makes its way back to India, will we then countenance potential future claims made by Iran that its rightful ownership lies with the Persians who intermittently ruled the Indian subcontinent all those centuries ago and indeed some of whom were custodians of the diamond at distinct junctures? Thus, choosing an arbitrary point in history to serve as rationale, far from being an effective resolution, sends us down the slippery slope of further contestation.
Secondly, there appears to be an unease surrounding its particular location in the Tower of London; allegedly serving as a constant reminder for imperial subjects of their erstwhile subjugation and economic exploitation. When referring to the mnemonic significance of buildings and artefacts, the German language distinguishes between a Denkmal and a Mahnmal. Unlike a Denkmal , which is a monument of historic significance, the term Mahnmal is reserved for certain parts of heritage that embodies a contested past and serves as a warning for future generations. The Second World War left in its wake, piles of rubble, where centuries-old architectural marvels once stood across Europe, particularly in Germany. In many cases, plans for restoration were debated for decades and in the interim, these ruins were brought to new life as reminders of a horrific era and as motivation to prevent its recurrence at all costs. These cases teach us that treasured artefacts and monuments must sometimes be appreciated for the bitter lessons they embody.
Viewing the Kohinoor from the conceptual lens of Mahnmal allows us to do a great service to generations to come, by keeping the memory of an empire alive. It also recognizes the attachment of those who associate its current location as a figment of an imperialist hangover or perpetuation of an empire under novel guises, rather than dismissing it as a boorish sentimentality. In the age of active forgetting, and deliberate obliteration of histories, what could be a more effective way to remind ourselves that certain chapters from our shared past must either be learnt from or they would repeat themselves?
And then, there are the costs associated with transfer, rehabilitation and upkeep of the jewel. Whether this is the best way to expend tax revenues in a developing county is a question that merits serious consideration. Nor have we come across any plans or suggestions on the manner in which the Kohinoor will be housed in India, what arrangements will be made for its maintenance and security? And what measures will be taken to ensure it generates a revenue stream that defrays some of the costs mentioned above?
Given all these considerations, demands for the diamond to be sent back to India seem inadequately thought through, narrow-minded and backward looking. The one conceivable argument that can be made is that, as an artefact with a fascinating history and a curious mythology – not to mention thousands of land, air and nautical miles – behind it, the Kohinoor should form part of a global heritage and its glimmer should bedazzle many regions and people. However, this inspires a proposal of a very different kind. India should dedicate this artefact to the common custody of humanity and the diamond that started its journey in the mines of Golconda should travel freely around the world, making stops now in Lagos, then in Ljubljana and then back briefly in London via Lahore.
Precedents are now indeed available, thanks to the growing menace of destruction of cultural heritage in conflict-ridden parts of the world! Archaeological treasures, works of art and manuscripts from Syria and Mali are currently going around various countries and continents, drawing the necessary attention, expertise and resources for their restoration as a result. This approach would also align with the British Government’s stated intent , “to link up with other institutions around the world to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world”, as expressed by Prime Minister David Cameron.
It bears recollecting that the Kohinoor has defied permanent ownership throughout its lifetime. The most constructive role that India can play towards safeguarding its unparalleled legacy and enhancing its luster is by unlocking its future, rather than shackling it to the past.
Kalyani Unkule is the Assistant Dean (International Collaborations) and Assistant Professor of Jindal Global Law School.