Who owns history, Mr. Cameron?
Last Week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, during his official visit to India, made a disconcerting statement in Amritsar. He said his country would not return the 105 karat Kohinoor diamond, one of the largest in the world, which was taken in 1850 from South Asia as a â€œgiftâ€ to the British monarch Queen Victoria. He reiterated that the â€œdiamond in the Royal Crown is ours.â€ â€œI do not believe in returnism, as it were. I don't think it is sensible. The right answer is that the British Museum and other cultural institutions around the world should make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world,â€ he said.
The history of the Kohinoor diamond is a fascinating one. It was mined in the thirteenth century in Andhra Pradesh, and was initially in possession of King Prataparudra in that region. Kohinoor stayed with the Mughals for a long time. Emperor Shahjahan affixed it on his Peacock Throne to add glamour to the piece. The Kohinoor fell into difficult times when it was seized by Persian King Nadir Shah when he attacked Delhi.
But Nadir Shah himself was soon deposed from his throne. So Durrani carried it with him to Lahore where, in return for the stone, he got help from Ranjit Singh, the king of Punjab, to get back his kingdom. Soon after, the British came to Punjab and raised their flag on the citadel of Lahore. According to the terms of the Treaty of Lahore Ranjit was asked to surrender the Kohinoor to the British. In fact, the Maharaja of the Punjab was asked to â€œgiftâ€ it to the Queen of England. Kohinoor is said to be priceless. But according to an assessment made by the Royal family it is worth $20 billion.
The question that begs an answer is, with the dissolution of the British Empire in South Asia can the British queen keep this stone since it was acquired under false pretence? It is only logical that it should have been gracefully returned by Her Majesty to the place of origin. India has already requested for the return of the diamond, but neither the queen nor her successive governments have responded positively so far.
The British have always been hypocritical when the sensitive matter of return of art and other treasures forcibly taken during conflict was mooted. First, during the Napoleonic wars, France had plundered many art pieces from Italy. The French justified the â€œlarge scale and systematic looting of Italy by seeing themselves as the political successors of Rome.â€ The French forces also proffered the opinion that their sophisticated artistic tastes would allow them to appreciate the plundered art. Britain, which was the victor in the Napoleonic wars did not subscribe to this view. So when the Duke of Wellington finally defeated Napoleon in 1815 he took steps to repatriate art plundered by the French.
Second, during the Second World War, Germany appropriated art from public and private collections throughout Europe and Russia. It plundered 427 museums and destroyed 1,670 orthodox churches in Russia alone. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany raided 237 Catholic churches and 532 synagogues. So at the end of the Second World War, the British, as one of the Allies, immediately went to work to return treasures taken by the Germans.
A working party chaired by Nicholas Serota, head of the British Tate Museum, laboured to help museums look through their collections for materials that dated to those events. An international Convention was crafted in the Hague in 1954, which was the first step taken to return art stolen by the Germans in the 2nd World War.
In spite of all the laudable steps, the British were reluctant to act when it was their turn to return valuable objects taken when they were the colonisers. Besides the Kohinoor diamond, the British have in their inventory the exquisite Elgin marbles from Greece, the Rossetta stone from Egypt and many more. In fact, there are also several valuable pieces of artifacts from Bangladesh which are housed in the South Asia section of the British Museum. These items are the heritage of our people. But they are unable to access them because of the prohibitive cost of travel to London to see them.
Britain's argument, which Mr. Cameron is parroting, is: treasures should be accessible to greatest number of people, which means retaining them in the great museums of the world, like the British Museum. Another argument is that â€œhistory is history and modern museums should not be punished for past sins.â€ Again, it is sometimes legitimate for countries like Britain to remove artifacts in order to preserve or save them. The Kohinoor and other valuable items need to remain with them for all these good reasons.
But Mr. Cameron should also consider other cogent points. First, display of the Kohinoor in the crown of a British monarch is an anachronism. This is based on a false notion that only western minds can appreciate these treasures. This is highly offensive. Second, most of these treasures were acquired illegally and unethically. The Kohinoor was already willed to a temple but was forcibly â€œgiftedâ€ to the British queen. There is therefore a moral imperative for their return to their place of origin. Thirdly, it may be true that developing countries in the past were not capable of looking after their heritage. But that fortunately has now changed. In fact, controversial upkeep in well-known western museums may have harmed many artifacts which they claim to protect.
Mr. Cameron is a young politician who is much in synch with his present generation. We are therefore surprised to learn that he does not hold progressive views on these matters. The world has changed dramatically since the days of Queen Victoria. South Asia cannot be denied of its rich heritage because of its colonial past. Britain with its present status does not own history nor is it capable of defending its history. In all fairness, let Britain understand its own limitations now.