AN AWFUL curse will befall any man who dares wear the Koh-i-Noor, according to a medieval Indian text. On the other hand, it said, whoever owned the “Mountain of Light” would also “own the world”. For centuries Mughal emperors, as well as Hindu and Persian kings, fought over the most legendary gemstone ever dug out. Eventually the Victorian British who took possession of it whittled the rock down from a glassy 186 carats to a brilliant 106, and gave it to their queen. Today it sits in the Tower of London, set in a fur-trimmed crown.
On April 18th its glittering story was set to spin again. The government of India rejected a request by an Indian NGO to reclaim the stone. In a baffling turn, the solicitor-general told the Supreme Court the jewel was neither “forcibly taken nor stolen” from colonial India. Rather it was “a gift” made by the descendants of Ranjit Singh, a Punjabi maharajah, in 1849: specifically, by his child, Duleep Singh, who was less than a year old when his father died and seven when he signed away his kingdom.
The Supreme Court ordered caution in forgoing the nation’s claims; other Indians cried foul; and within two days the government backtracked, resolving to “bring back the Koh-i-Noor diamond in an amicable manner”. Perhaps some official had been feeling over-amicable towards Britain after a holiday spent in India by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge earlier this month.
Many Indians would like to see the Koh-i-Noor come home. In November some tried invoking the Holocaust Act in Britain, which allows the return of Nazi loot to rightful owners. With the Koh-i-Noor, it is hard to say who the original owners would be. A Pakistani barrister filed a petition last year arguing it should go back to its previous domicile, in Lahore. Descendants of Duleep Singh want it for themselves. Afghanistan and Iran have their own ideas.
Successive British governments have flatly refused their demands. But it is hard to maintain that the Koh-i-Noor was ever a gift. Anita Anand, a historian working in Britain, cites theDelhi Gazette of 1848 which boasts the jewel was kept “under the security of British bayonets” as “one of the splendid trophies of our military valour”. To repatriate any spoils of colonial war might establish a precedent to empty out the British Museum.