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.
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.