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Kuldip Nayar: "I Don't Think India Will Ever Get the Kohinoor"


The Tribune, Jul. 17, 2005

Photo: Kuldip Nayar

With the British deciding to display a replica of the Kohinoor in a London museum, the spotlight is again on India's lost relic. Kuldip Nayar, former High Commissioner to the U.K., recalls why his request for the return of the jewel went unheeded.

Someone from amongst us, off and on, will continue to ask the British for its return. It is ours but I do not think India will ever get back the Kohinoor. At the common level, it is an emotional problem. Lord Dalhousie took it from Dalip Singh, the eight-year-old son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was explained that it was part of reparation which the British exacted after defeating the Sikhs in Punjab. This still is the British case and it considers the booty from the days of the Raj legitimate.

The Kohinoor is not the only relic the British government forcibly retains. It has kept back books, documents, papers, pictures, posters and paintings of the Raj and of our struggle for Independence. The British have taken advantage of the differences between India and Pakistan over the division of the material and distributed it among various museums in the U.K. It looks as if India has more or less accepted the appropriation of the entire material by the British government.

I raised the question of Kohinoor's return when I was India's High Commissioner to the U.K. in 1990. A couple of newspapers in London published my statement that the Kohinoor belonged to India and that we must get it back because we were the rightful owners. During my short stint in the U.K., I found that the British would be embarrassed whenever I talked to them about the Kohinoor. When I visited the Tower of London with my family to see Indian diamonds, including the Kohinoor (the crown has been studded with part of the Kohinoor), British officials, who showed us around, were very apologetic. They said: 'We feel ashamed to show them (diamonds) because they are from your country.' I recall the remark which our old servant, Murli, made after seeing the diamonds: 'We must take back the Kohinoor when we return to India.' His words reflected the popular Indian opinion.

I did not stay long enough in London to pursue the claim over the Kohinoor. But when I was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, (1997-2003), I took up the matter in the House as well as with the government. I got a petition signed by some 50 M.P.s - Opposition leader Manmohan Singh was one of them - to request the Government of India to ask the British government to return the Kohinoor. Jaswant Singh, the then Foreign Minister, assured me that the government would take up the matter with London forthwith. I presumed that he had done so.

After some months I asked a question in the House: 'What was the progress on the return of the Kohinoor to India?' Jaswant Singh's reply was that the government had taken up the matter with the U.K. through the Indian High Commission at London. To my horror, I found during a visit to London that it was not true. The Indian High Commission had no knowledge of any step New Delhi had taken, if at all. Apparently, the government was procrastinating and not coming out with the facts.

I would remind Jaswant Singh of the Kohinoor at practically every session but his reply would be merely a gentle smile. Once when I talked to him about the return of the Kohinoor, he was cold. But he was frank. He told me that by raising the issue of the Kohinoor, India would be unnecessarily spoiling relations with the U.K. It was a revelation to me. I would have brought the issue before the Rajya Sabha but then it was near the end of my tenure.

What hurt me was a remark by a British official in Delhi at a party some time later: 'Mr. Nayar, the Kohinoor does not belong to India. If ever things come to such a pass when we have to return it, we would rather give it to Pakistan.' I said in reply: 'By all means, do so. The Kohinoor would at least return to the Indian subcontinent.'