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India’s Jewel in the Crown

Britain owes its former colonies. Yet, instead of returning plundered patrimony to its rightful owners, the British are clinging to stolen artifacts such as the Kohinoor diamond, which they embedded in the Queen Mother’s tiara and shamelessly flaunt in the Tower of London.

NEW DELHI – India’s Solicitor-General, Ranjit Kumar, recently declared that India would not seek the return of the Kohinoor diamond – one of the world’s oldest and most valuable – from the British, to whom India had “gifted” it. The statement shocked India and unleashed passionate debate – so passionate, in fact, that the government scrambled to declare that it still wants the gem back. But the government’s commitment to securing that outcome remains unconvincing, at best.

Kumar was responding before the Supreme Court to a suit filed by the All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front, an NGO, demanding that the government seek the return of the famed diamond, which can be found among Britain’s crown jewels. He claims that the erstwhile Sikh kingdom offered the gem to the British East India Company in 1849 as “voluntary compensation” for the expenses of the just-concluded Anglo-Sikh wars. Add to that the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, which does not permit the government to seek the return of antiquities exported before India gained its independence in 1947, and, according to Kumar, the Indian government has no recourse to secure the diamond’s return.

The uproar that Kumar’s statement triggered has forced government spokesmen to backpedal furiously, asserting that Kumar’s was not the final official view. The Ministry of Culture announced that a claim will still be pursued. But unless Kumar is instructed to file a new deposition before the Supreme Court, his statements appear to have put paid to India’s claim to the world’s most fabled diamond. So the question is whether that should indeed be the final outcome.

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