MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling on India's "hollow crowns"

Published by MAC on 2016-05-09
Source: Nostromo Research, Scroll.In

Another game of thrones?

Diamonds are back in the news.

In Britain we've just finished commemorating Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary amid a motley of televised tributes, notably the four-part TV series "The Hollow Crown". 

A fortnight ago, we were regaled by a certain Mrs Windsor, celebrating her 90th year on earth as England's longest ruling monarch. (She at least wore her inherited glitz more comfortably than most of her male predecessors).

And, just last week, what's arguably the world's most notorious metastable allotrope of carbon (that's a diamond to you and me) also hit the headlines - in India, if not in the UK.

The massive 106-carat  Koh-i-Noor stone has, for a hundred and sixty-odd years, resided in the Tower of London. Luckily, it didn't seem to have any head attached  to it when it arrived here. But, ever since then -  especially after Indian independence in 1947 - the Koh-i-Noor has been wreathed in controversy.

Can we possibly dispute that, by any yardstick, India that has the right to demand its return? 

However, the Modi government itself seems at sixes and sevens over whether to reclaim the gem. India's Solicitor General has apparently told the country's Supreme Cout: "If we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us”.

Ah, now there's an intriguing prospect!

Daylight robbery

In the second artice below, Girish Shahane - a visitor to London sponsored by South African diamonds (presumably Anglo-De Beers) - points ou that the Koh-i-Noor is only one of many such treasures that have been robbed from India over past centuries. Some of them ended up in Persia, today's Iran, where they remain.

In 1972 India passed the Antiquities Act, purportedly to stop  further such pilfering. But, Girish Shahane asks: "[H]ow many of the artefacts had been sneaked out of India illegally after...the Antiquities Act came into force", adding the suspicion that number is being "uncomfortably large".

Nonetheless, we wonder if such speculation as to who go what; who profited from trading it; and whether the shabby commerce can be legally rectified isn't secondary to  a much more important point?

Two weeks ago, Sreedhar Ramamurthy, representing the Indian NGOs environics, and mines, minerals and People (mmP), joined a panel of speakers at a well-attended London Mining Network Day School. This closely followed upon his participation at the Rio Tinto AGm a few days earlier. (See: Rio Tinto 2016 AGM)

Sreedhar graphically described the likely consequences of Rio Tinto's latest attempts to grab control of the country's largest diamond deposits at Bunder, in Madhya Pradesh (see: Rio in Bundelkhand: diamonds or dust?)

Carats and a Big Stick

If the project proceeds to a bankable feasiblity study, you can be sure that the last authority to offer any objection will be Indian's own administration. Not only is the UK company poised to feed a domestic market with rough and polished gems for which many Indian citizens are gagging; they may also also bring in billions of dollars worth of foreign exchange.

Never mind that, for thousands of people (not to mention tigers) living in the Bunder region, this is effectively a foreign theft of their  "historic" resources. And one their government is doing absolutely nothing to prevent.

Girish Shahane mourns that India's national pride "does not extend to valuing the treasures we have, which far outweigh what left the country in centuries past".

If one extends that definition to include forests, wild life, and indigenous livelihoods, it's difficult to disagree.

Why govt is wrong to argue Kohinoor was ‘gift’ to British

Seema Chishti

Indian Express

4 May 2016

A former Permanent Representative to UNESCO says India has always had a principled line on the Kohinoor’s return, and the matter has been in the
domain of the MEA, not the Culture Ministry.

New Delhi - Former Foreign Service officer Bhaswati Mukherjee, who served as India’s Permanent Representative to UNESCO, is “very surprised” that the government told the Supreme Court that the Kohinoor was a “gift” to the British and could not be reclaimed.

According to Mukherjee, the government’s response, articulated in court on April 18 by Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, amounted to a reversal of “principled positions taken since 1947, including under the former NDA regime between 1999 and 2004”.

The SG had conveyed to a Bench led by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur the view of the Ministry of Culture that “if we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us”. He had said that he was yet to get instructions from the Ministry of External Affairs on the matter.

Yesterday, Modi govt said Kohinoor was a gift, today it wants it back. However, the government reversed its stand the very next day, and issued a statement saying “it reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner”.

The 106.5 carat diamond, which was mined in Golconda, was acquired by the East India Company after the Sikhs lost to them in 1849. It is now part of the British Crown jewels housed in the Tower of London.

“I was very surprised when we heard the first response from the Ministry of Culture, as it was clear that the Ministry of External Affairs had not been consulted. When they backtracked the next day, it was clear that they had finally consulted the MEA,” Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee was Joint Secretary for West Europe in the MEA from 1998 to 2004. During that period, she said, “Parliament questions on the return of cultural objects stolen from India by the UK, including return of the Kohinoor, were always responded to by Europe West Division of MEA, and not by the Ministry of Culture.”

And the standard response, she says, “was that this issue was being discussed with the British government to ensure its early return to India”.

This was also how the External Affairs Ministers in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, always responded, Mukherjee said, in regard to both the Kohinoor and the Kalgi (of Maharaja Ranjit Singh).

“I recall that when our High Commission in London reported that the Kalgi had been spotted in a small room on the second floor of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, our then External Affairs Minister, Shri Jaswant Singh, asked me to take up this matter immediately with the UK High Commissioner Sir Rob Young.”

The demarche however, “did not end well”, Mukherjee said. “The Kalgi had disappeared when we went to the V&A a week later. We were told it was all a mistake and it had never existed!”

According to Mukherjee, the concern over bilateral ties turning sour was misplaced. “UNESCO Conventions on war loot and other objects taken away by one country can be pleasantly negotiated between two parties and discussed. There are many elegant solutions and ways in which this could end,” she said.

One of the solutions, she said, could be to “send the object to the country of origin every few years, even if a full return is not possible”.

But if the return of the Kohinoor is not seen as feasible, why is it important for the government to keep staking its claim?

“The reality is that museums furnished by colonial looting have largely shaped the way a nation imagines its dominion, the nature of the human
beings under its power, the geography of the land, and the legitimacy of its ancestors, working to suggest a process of political inheritance. It is political imperialism at its worst. The paradoxical way in which the objects are displayed at museums are tangible reminders of the power held by those who hold on to them,” Mukherjee said.

Indian heritage debate: What about the Darya-i-noor and the Akbar Shah diamond?

A story of three emperors and three jewels exposes the absurdity of our attitude to historical treasures.

Girish Shahane


27 April 2016

Ashes and Diamonds. The great film’s title sprang to mind when I read about Delhi’s natural history museum burning down on Tuesday. Among other things, the fire symbolised the futility of demanding the Koh-i-Noor’s repatriation.Whether Gandhi’s spectacles or Tipu’s sword, we want historical artefacts returned to India out of a sense of national pride. But that pride does not extend to valuing the treasures we have, which far outweigh what left the country in centuries past.

I then recalled a pillar with three signs on it, pointing in different directions: Toilets, Torture Instruments, Centre of Education, they said. I was in the Tower of London, among Beefeaters and ravens, seeking the crown jewels and the Koh-i-noor. A short while later, I took my place on a conveyor belt in a darkened room and glided past glimmering showcases at a pace that allowed neither the time nor proximity necessary to scrutinise any exhibit. The tower’s torture instruments, and the history behind them, interested me more than the jewels, although, having come to England on a scholarship funded by South African diamonds, which had in the late nineteenth century eclipsed the output of India’s exhausted mines, I ought to have taken another round on the conveyor belt.

Years after my visit to the Tower, I would examine at greater leisure famous gems from India housed in Tehran’s Treasury of National Jewels. Many of them had come to Iran in 1739, as a result of Nadir Shah’s remarkably successful incursion. Sushma Swaraj made a visit to Tehran last week, even as the Indian government dithered over its stance on the Koh-i-Noor’s repatriation. I wondered why we had made no claim on Nadir Shah’s hoard, considering there are looted Indian gems in the crown jewels of Iran just as there are in the crown jewels of Britain. Among them is the Darya-i-Noor, which is almost twice the size of its more famous cousin the Koh-i-noor.

Complicated history

The history of those stones is complicated, and far from established. Wikipedia states about the Koh-i-noor, “It is widely believed to have come from the Kollur Mine in the Guntur District of present-day Andhra Pradesh, India, during the reign of the Hindu Kakatiya dynasty in the 13th century.” This is unlikely because the Kollur mine was only established in the late 15th century. The confusion is caused because two different diamonds have been claimed as the roughs that gave birth to the Koh-i-noor, and the two are frequently treated as the same diamond.

We can call the first Babur’s diamond. When the Mughal era began after Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat exactly 490 years ago, the new emperor deputed his eldest son Humayun to guard Agra’s treasury. In Agra, Humayun’s soldiers captured the fleeing family of Gwalior’s raja Bikramjit who had died fighting on Lodi’s side. Humayun stopped his guards from plundering the clan members, at which point, Babur writes, they gave Humayun jewels in gratitude, “among which was a famous diamond Sultan Alaudin [Khilji] had acquired… It must weigh eight mithcals. Humayun presented it to me, but I gave it right back to him." Eight mithcals equals about 35 grams or 175 carats, which is about the size of the Koh-i-noor when it got to London and before it was cut to its present shape.

The second diamond was considerably larger, and was presented to emperor Shah Jahan by Mir Jumla, having been discovered in the relatively new Kollur mine. This diamond is described by the European jeweller Tavernier, who was granted a peek at it during Aurangzeb’s reign. The diamond was originally massive, weighing nearly 800 carats, but had a major flaw within it. Tavernier wrote that a lapidary named Hortenso Borgia, who Shah Jahan assigned the task of cutting and polishing, had botched the job. Borgia was lucky to get away with a fine, since Shah Jahan must have been furious at gaining possession of the world’s largest diamond only to find it reduced to a fourth of its original size.

Vanishing treasures

Whether Babur’s diamond, taken by Alaudin Khilji in his southern raids, later became the Koh-i-noor, or whether Shah Jahan’s new find did, or whether it was another rock altogether, nobody can tell for sure. But let’s throw a third emperor and a third diamond into the mix to complicate matters further. Babur’s grandson, and Shah Jahan’s grandfather, the Great Mogol Akbar himself, had a diamond named after him, which was possibly incorporated into the famous Peacock Throne. After being taken to Iran, and then being bought and sold a number of times, the Akbar Shah diamond came into the possession of Malharrao Gaekwad of Baroda. It stayed in the royal family’s possession for decades. And then it disappeared.

It disappeared because it was sold surreptitiously. After 1972, it became illegal to export treasures like the Akbar Shah diamond, but that hasn’t stopped erstwhile royals from smuggling out heirlooms. A decade ago, an exhibition titled Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals ‒The Al-Sabah Collection toured the world’s most important museums. Viewing it in London, I wondered how many of the artefacts had been sneaked out of India illegally after the Antiquities Act came into force in 1972. The number, I suspected, was uncomfortably large.

The story of the three emperors and three diamonds uncovers the absurdity of our attitude to heritage. We are fixated on a few symbolic objects like the Koh-i-noor. Meanwhile, related antiquities with similar histories such as the Darya-i-noor don’t excite us at all. Even as we demand repatriation, analogous heirlooms like the Akbar Shah diamond have left and are leaving the country secretly. As for treasures that remain, we are denied access to most, and those on public view are threatened by neglect and destruction of the kind visited upon the Museum of Natural History.

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