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© Neena Bhandari

ImagePressure is mounting on England's royals to return India's abled Kohinoor diamond. As the 47th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference concluded last week, images of our "commonwealth" in Britain come flashing to mind.

Growing up in India, I would linger over images of jewels and marbles, paintings and sculptures that had been shipped to the British Isles from its numerous colonies. Of particular interest were pictures of the Kohinoor diamond,  the centrepiece of the Queen Mother's crown.

Several years later, I got a chance to see the real diamond, said to have caused more intrigue and bloodshed than any other gem in history. On a cold, wet day, I stood in the queue with hundreds of others from different nationalities to have a glimpse of the diamond secured in the Crown Jewels section of the Tower of London. I must confess the deep sense of anger and frustration at having to pay a substantial fee and then wait for hours to see something that belonged to my country.

The Kohinoor had a chequered history before it was taken from the 11-year-old Sikh ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh in1849 by the then Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, as a gesture of submission to imperial rule.The earliest authentic reference to the Kohinoor, which was unearthed from a mine in South India, is found in the Baburnama, the memoirs of Mughal Emperor Babur.

One account says that in 1297, Sultan Allauddin Khilji, ruler of Delhi from 1295 to 1316, defeated the last king of Gujarat and got the Kohinoor. Another says the diamond came into the hands of the Hindu ruler of Gwalior and was presented to Mughal Emperor Humayun by the family of Raja Bikramajit as a token of gratitude for protection. It formed part of the Mughal treasure for the next two centuries until in 1813, Shah Shoojah took refuge with Ranjeet Singh, father of Duleep Singh.

Once in England, Queen Victoria had the diamond recut,reducing it from about 190 to 108 carats. In the coronation crown, which has more than 2,800 diamonds, Kohinoor is setin the front cross with another large 17.34-carat diamond given to Queen Victoria by the Sultan of Turkey.

Since then, different individuals have surfaced both in Britain and in India staking their claim to the diamond. As the second Anglo-Sikh battle, after which the Kohinoor fell into British hands, took place on territory now in Pakistan, Islamabad is yet another claimant to the jewel.

India, along with Greece, China, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, has been demanding the return of treasures taken during British rule. The United Nations minimal draft legislation prepared by the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit) provides for retrospective moves that
can allow a country to claim back stolen treasures lodged inanother country.

While Britain may have joined 91 other countries in signing the United Nations Convention on Stolen Treasures in 1970, it is unlikely to sign the Unidroit draft legislation of 1995 as that would open the legal doors for India and other countries to reclaim the countless treasures lying in
various British museums and with the royalty.

Bhaskar Ghorpade, president of the Association for the Restitution of the Cultural Heritage of India (ARCH-India), says, "The diamond - belonging to a class of property which was removed in such circumstances that title never passed or is defective and voidable under contemporary international law - is ground enough for India to be Kohinoor's legitimate claimant."

Ghorpade, a London-based barrister who successfully fought the case for the restoration of the famed Pathur Nataraj statue to India, says, "The debate of the once richer and stronger nations holding the cultural treasures of other nations is moving from museums into parliaments. International pressure and national sentiment should be created to get back the Kohinoor through diplomatic dialogue.

"Kohinoor is India's national treasure and the case for reclaiming the treasure is very strong. It is time the British at least concede in principle that they possess looted property, which has to be returned to the country of origin.''

Other items that India wants to have returned include the Mughal manuscript, the Badshahnamah, which is in Windsor library; the first or second century Amravati marbles; a gold sword of Emperor Jehangir and the Timor Ruby, both of which are in the Queen's collection; archives in the former India Office library (now part of the British Library); and paintings.

In addition, there are troves of sculptures and manuscripts in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were gifted to successive viceroys or acquired by company collectors such as William Jones, who founded the Royal Asiatic Society.

A standing commission on museums and galleries had reported that the Indian collections were scandalously neglected. Only 1 or 2 per cent of the Indian collection is on display; most remains stored.

Ghorpade says: "Laser technology enables British museums to continue to display perfect reproductions while returning the treasures back to the rightful claimants."

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without the permission of the writer. This article was published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2001.

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