The Case for KOHINOOR

The statement made in the Supreme Court of India on the Kohinoor diamond is astonishing and is contrary both to history and law.
Kohinoor was part of loot not “gift” and the very circumstances surrounding the Last Treaty of Lahore by which it is claimed that the diamond was ceded to the Queen of Victoria – the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed immediately after the Second Anglo-Sikh War and Duleep Singh who handed over the diamond was but a child – showed that the “gift” was anything but voluntary! And the law too permits the making and enforcing of the claim for return of Kohinoor to India.
In Resolution 3187 of 1973 The General Assembly, deploring removal during colonial or foreign occupation of objects d art, declared that  “the prompt restitution to a country of its objets d’art, monuments, pieces, manuscripts and documents […], is calculated to strengthen international co-operation inasmuch as it constitutes just reparation for damage done”.
The Resolution recognises the customary rule of prohibition against the use of force recognised in several instruments of international law commencing from the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815 to the Hague Conventions, UN Charter and the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and subsequent developments.
Opponents of the restoration of cultural artefacts rely on the fact that East India Company was a private corporation and India was not a colony of the British at the relevant time. They also rely on the principle of inter-temporal law according to which the issues should be assessed not on the basis of existing international rules but law in force at the relevant time.
Neither submission can prevail.

The site of the Parliament of UK has a section Parliament and Empire. It records that East India Company Loan Act and the East India Company Regulating Act made it possible for the government in Britain o extend a loan to the Company in exchange for recognition of the British state’s ultimate authority over the Indian territories.It leased to the Company continued political control of its Indian territory in exchange for a payment of £40,000 every two years. It also established the post of governor-general who, with a council of four members, was to have overall authority over the Company’s territories. More government control came with the India Act of 1784, under Prime Minister William Pitt. This created a committee of six government appointees, known as the Board of Control, who were to monitor and direct the Company’s policies. The government was also to have the final decision on the Company’s nominations for its officials in India. This and a further new law passed in 1786 greatly increased the authority of the governor-general over other Company officials. The ultimate control therefore lay with the government itself and liability cannot be disclaimed on the ground that East India Company, which in any event was established by Royal Charter, was merely a private company.

The inter-temporal principle cannot apply to human rights obligations. Cultural artefacts are part of the nation’s heritage and constitute its identity and the right to this cultural patrimony both tangible and intangible is basic to human dignity and indispensable for social and cultural progress. The very moral dimension of it makes it a human right. The instruments dealing with this subject, therefore, could not be said to define the norm but merely declared what already existed as an autonomous and binding principle.

It is sometimes also said that there can be competing claims by the Iranians or Afghans whose rulers held the diamond at different times. The diamond however came from the Kollur mine in Andhra Pradesh, India which was the only one to produce it at that time. As right to cultural artefacts is an imprescriptible human right and there is an obligation to return on all who may have acquired this physical cultural artefact by force the diamond has to eventually return to Indian territory no matter how many hands it may have passed through. Such artefacts are not considered private property and there is an obligation to preserve them within the territory to which they belong.

Interestingly the statement reportedly made by  in the Supreme Court was “If we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us. There will be nothing left in our museums.” Ironically David Cameroon had used almost the same words when he came to India in 2010; he said,”If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put”. 

It is not a question of which museum gets empty. Its the issue as to which museum is the right custodian of the artefact. And Kohinoor belongs to India.

 

Prince William, Kate, Diana Bench & Taj Mahal

I wonder why a request was made to remove the scaffolding from the pillars of Taj Mahal for Prince William-Kate Middleton photograph. The scaffolding was as much a symbol of love as the monument itself. After all the sentiment behind fixing what needs repairs (whether a monument or a relationship) can be love only!

But it seems those making the request had a different sense of both history and love.

William’s advice to the royal photographer who took their picture thus was, “I hope you got the symmetry right”! So symmetry can prevail over chemistry and can still be love. It is interesting to know, as has been written by Anant Kumar in Case Reports in Women’s Health (Volume 1-2, January-June 2014), that Mumtaz Mahal died of complications from repeated child-birth from what are preventable causes of maternal mortality many of which continue till today. Shah Jahan chose not to spend money to address those problems but built the monument instead. I doubt William was aware of it but in a way Taj can be symbolised in symmetry even after the chemistry is over!

Perhaps thats why there is a Diana Bench at Taj. The solitary figure of Diana sitting on the bench hinted loneliness and isolation and Diana separated from Charles just a few months later. I am sure Mumtaz Mahal would squirm in her grave when she sees that bench. Appropriately(?) a photoshoot on it is with one’s back to the Taj Mahal. In any case the dead are history. Why bother about them! The monument stands and symmetry counts.

Lord William Bentinck apparently felt the same way much before the Diana Bench. If he had had his way the Taj Mahal would have been dismantled in 1835 and its marble auctioned. Besides nothing that is native is important. Just like the 50 million lives lost to famines under British Raj. Bentinck had no qualms about dismantling the whole edifice. So William’s generation’s lack of concern for the minarets should not be much of a surprise.

In any event history does not necessarily mean going back in time! Surely not when you are a Royal.

A possible explanation  for the request is the distortion of the time-space continuum. It presumed we are still in colonial times and the Queen of England is the Empress of India. Or perhaps there was movement forward in time with Prince William becoming not only King but the ruler of India. After all Royals can do no wrong and in fact can do anything – time travel included.

There can be however another charitable explanation. Buckingham Palace, which is about 300 years old itself, was requiring urgent repairs for a long time but the the same were being deferred. It was reported that when a plumber entered the Queen’s bathroom to repair to the old-fashioned chain-pulled cistern he while trying to fix the problem leaned against the lavatory and part of the structure came away from the wall. If the former imperialist government can go slow on repair of the Palace why cannot the former colony do the same with Taj Mahal?

I wonder if the Diana Bench will be re-named now. Let Mumtaz Mahal ponder while we await the next generation of royals and another photo-shoot.