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Should the Brits give the Kohinoor back to us?

It is a story that most of us were taught at school.

The British, we were told, had stolen the Kohinoor, the largest diamond in the world, from India and stuck it in the middle of the royal crown. So, every time the Queen of England (and the King before her) put on the crown, it served as a reminder of the British plunder of India’s riches.


Some of those facts are wrong, but the basic thrust of the story is correct. No, the Kohinoor is not the largest diamond of the world. It is around 105 carats, which is big but not so huge as to merit a top place in the record books. It does not form the centrepiece of the royal crown, mainly because there is no such thing. The British royals have many crowns. The Kohinoor is embedded in a crown that was made in 1937 for the mother of the late Queen Elizabeth II. And while its origins are the subject of some controversy and dispute (it is said to have been part of the Indian Peacock Throne which the Persian brigand Nadir Shah looted and took to Iran and it later became the property of Afghan Kings), there is no doubt that the British forced a Sikh maharaja to give it to them.


  All this is important because it had been suggested that at the next year’s coronation of King Charles, the crown that includes the Kohinoor would be used by Camilla, the Queen Consort. That may not happen now because the British royal family has taken note of Indian sensibilities in the matter and may not want to offend us.


   Should the Brits give it back to us? Most of us would say yes but the matter of ownership is complicated. Who gets it back? Persians, Afghans, the descendants of Sikh maharajas or the government of India?


   But the complicated matter of the Kohinoor is an exception. There are thousands of Indian antiques and antiquities that were looted from our country and lie in British hands. Should the United Kingdom (UK) return them to us?


   I would say yes. And, so, I imagine would millions of people in countries all over the world whose artistic treasures were looted by the British and are now housed in the UK’s museums or in private collections.


   The most famous of those are the Elgin Marbles looted from Greece between 1801 and 1812 by Lord Elgin. Even when Elgin stole half the sculptures from the Parthenon and took them home to England, his actions were seen as theft. Lord Byron, the poet, linked the removal of the statues to looting and vandalism, but Elgin was able to sell his booty to the British government.


 "Besides, who decides whether a nation can be entrusted with its own art treasures? Foreigners who stole the treasures to begin with?"

   The Greeks have been demanding the return of the marbles (so called because many of the statues were made from marble) for over a century now. The Egyptians, whose famous monuments and pyramids were also looted by Brits, have made similar demands. In nearly every case, the British have refused to give them back. It is the same with the many Indian artefacts, looted from temples that lie in private and official British collections.


   The argument consistently offered by successive British governments has been that all of those looted artworks and sculptures are actually much safer and better looked after in the British museums than they would be in their countries of origin.


   This was a time when this argument, as offensive as it may sound to us, had at least some merit. Many of the countries that were demanding the returns of works of art had unstable regimes and often such regimes wanted to use the return of those objects to legitimise their reigns.


   But over the years, this argument has run out of steam. The Greeks, for instance, have built a gallery to accommodate the Elgin Marbles for when (and if) they are returned. And certainly, it no longer makes any sense to say that if the Brits returned artefacts looted from our temples, Indians would not be able to care for them.


  Besides, who decides whether a nation can be entrusted with its own art treasures? Foreigners who stole the treasures to begin with?


   Consider an everyday parallel: A man robs your home. When he is apprehended, he refuses to return your property on the grounds that he will look after it better than you can. Would anyone take such an argument seriously?


   Moreover, this whole business of who will look after it better is quietly shelved when it comes to other cases of stolen art. For instance, the Nazis stole art works that are now worth billions from Jews. Over the last few decades, there has been a systematic attempt to track them down and return them to their rightful owners. In many cases, the art works have been sold and resold to wealthy collectors. The courts have ruled that even if the collectors bought them in good faith, they were still stolen property that had to be given back to the families of the rightful owners.


   The wealthy private collections and museums that bought these stolen art works could well argue that they have the resources to take better care of the art than the current generation of the Jewish families they were stolen from. And yet, nobody would accept such a defence. Theft is theft.


   But this is exactly the argument that Britain gets away with when it comes to the artefacts it stole from around the world in its glory days. We are told that the British Museum is a global repository of international culture and art, so it is better that the art remains there.


   This is bunk. The British Museum is not some United Nations of art. (One clue as to its identity may lie in its name: British Museum.) And even if it is, no museum has the right to keep property that belongs to somebody else without permission.


   Unfortunately, we focus too much on just the Kohinoor. Of course, the Brits should return it. As even they seem to have recognised with the second thoughts over the coronation crown, it is a symbol of an unhappy chapter in the UK’s history. But by focusing only on a diamond, we risk taking the attention away from the thousands of other stolen art pieces that lie in museums abroad (and especially in England) with no clear provenances that were looted from us


   It is our art. Our history. And it belongs at home.



Posted On: 16 Oct 2022 11:12 PM
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