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The Kohinoor


The Hindustan Times, Aug. 19, 1995

Photo: Khushwant Singh

All victorious armies plunder, rape and kill. Some go on the rampage without the slightest concern about public opinion, but the British did it with finesse and more thoroughness. It was during my years in London as a student and then with our High Commission that I saw some of the loot they had taken from the Punjab.

There was of course the diamond Koh-i-noor taken from the boy Maharajah Dalip Singh, the youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. It was cut into three: one piece each in the crowns of the King and Queen of England and one piece in the Tower of London Museum.

There was Ranjit Singh's gold-leaf-covered throne in the Victoria & Albert Museum. There are innumerable weapons: cannons, muskets, swords, spears, shields and chain-coat shirts in the War Museum. Manuscripts, documents, miniature paintings, scriptural texts, ceremonial robes - you name them, they had them, looted from all parts of India in the process of expanding their empire from the Arakan to the Indus.

More than what could be seen in the museums were priceless artefacts taken by governor generals, army commanders, residents and senior civil servants. These were in private collections in castles and country mansions now divided between descendants of the predators. There is little hope of our ever getting any of these back to our country.

Why I bring this subject up now is the arrival of a B.B.C. team this week to do a radio documentary on relics of the Sikh Raj in private collections in England. The spadework was done by Harbans Singh who was a colleague in India House. His daughter, Rani, accompanies the team with the producer of the programme Nigel Acheson. Mark Tully, now a freelance journalist, will elicit opinions of Indians including myself.

Harbans Singh has been able to locate many more relics than I was aware of. The biggest haul was made by Lord Dalhousie who annexed the Punjab after Sikh Darbar's troops were finally defeated in the battle of Gujarat on February 21, 1849. On March 29, 1849, the Koh-i-noor, which British envoys had seen earlier, was handed over to the English.

Then followed systematic loot of everything worthwhile in the Punjab. Queen Victoria desired certain objects for Windsor Castle; directors of the East India Company wanted their share; Dalhousie wanted to keep a lot for himself; other English officers took whatever was left. Some of these items were recorded in the correspondence, which passed between Calcutta and London. But of most of what was pocketed by English officers, both military and civilians, there is no record.

In the correspondence on record is a letter dated December 19, 1850 from Dalhousie to directors of the East India Company stating that he was forwarding to them two swords - one given by Holkar to Ranjit Singh and another known as 'Rustum' which had the genealogy of its wielders written on the blade in letters of gold. He added 'with these also, I have sent some singular documents worthy of preservation in England.'

Among them a copy of the Dasam Granth handwritten by Guru Gobind Singh. In the same letter he asks whether they would be interested in having 'the golden chair in which the Burra Maharajah held his state,' spear and sword which 'according to the Sikh traditions belonged to Gooroo Gobind' and 'a silver bungalow.' If the directors were not keen to have them, could Dalhousie keep them for himself?

These are only some relics of the Sikh Raj. Much more was taken from Madras, Karnataka, Bengal, Avadh and the Marathas both by the East India Company and thugs like Clive and Warren Hastings. Even after the winding up of the East India Company, viceroys and governors received valuable gifts from Indian princes when they visited their states. Some of them went to the treasure, some to line pockets of the recipients. All the loot taken from India is now in England.

Is there anything we can do to get some of it back to our country? Our best bet is to persuade the United Nations or one of its organisations like U.N.E.S.C.O. to pass a resolution that items of historical or artistic value taken as war booty should be returned to the countries of their origin.