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24 October 2022

Why the Koh-i-Noor diamond represents empire

It’s a lightning rod for resentment of colonial loot and a symbol of what the British took from India.

By Soumya Bhattacharya

At 105 carat, the Koh-i-Noor is nowhere near being the largest diamond in the world. Nor, by many accounts since it was first displayed in 1851, is it the prettiest. But it is arguably the world’s most controversial. It is part of the Crown Jewels and is on display at the Tower of London. The Queen Mother wore it in her crown at her coronation in 1937. Traditionally, it is part of the Queen consort’s crown.

Days after the death of Elizabeth II, social media was incandescent with pleas that the diamond be returned to India. Most recently, a spokesperson for the Indian prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party said that if the new consort, Camilla, were to wear the Koh-i-Noor at her coronation on 6 May next year, it would “bring back painful memories of the colonial past… Recent occasions, like Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the coronation of the new Queen Camilla and the use of the Koh-i-Noor does transport a few Indians back to the days of the British Empire in India.”

Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last maharaja of the Sikh empire. GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1849, Maharaja Duleep Singh, then only 11 years old, signed the Treaty of Lahore. Scarcely able to comprehend what he was doing, the boy signed over his kingdom of Punjab to the East India Company and the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. The Koh-i-Noor, Persian for “Mountain of Light”, reached England in 1850. It was put on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The historian William Dalrymple, co-author, with Anita Anand, of Koh-i-Noor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (2017), argues that Britain consciously made it into a “unique icon” and “gem of gems” when it was put on display at the Great Exhibition. This was the beginning of the diamond being seen as a symbol of imperial pillage and plunder, a totemic expression of all the violence, dispossession, hardship and depredations that the expansionist, ruthless empire visited upon its colonies. The diamond’s curators at the Tower of London called it a “symbol of conquest”. And its presence as the centrepiece of an imperial crown lent further potency to it becoming a symbol of the evils of empire.

At the Oxford Union debate in 2017, the Indian writer and member of parliament for the Congress party, Shashi Tharoor, eloquently argued that Britain should pay India reparations for its centuries-long colonial exploitation. “It’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it,” Tharoor said. He also asserted that through the period of British colonial rule, India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27 per cent to less than 2 per cent. He spoke of how the British crippled India’s hand loom industry and turned the country’s “weavers into beggars”.

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Photo Library via Getty Images

Over the years, the Koh-i-Noor, with its prominence among the Crown Jewels, has turned into a lightning rod for the bitter resentment of colonial loot and a symbol of what the British took from India.

If the diamond is to leave the Tower of London, its cultural restitution could be tricky, and will likely be embroiled in diplomatic and intergovernmental disputes. India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, among others, all lay claim to it.

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But Camilla certainly should not wear the Koh-i-Noor as part of her coronation crown. That will rile too many people. It would be offensive, insensitive and downright tone deaf.

[See also: Rishi Sunak becomes Prime Minister after Penny Mordaunt fails to make Tory ballot]

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