One of India’s biggest lingering gripes about the British Raj is the fact that one of the world’s most famous diamonds, the Koh-i-Noor (Persian for “Mountain of Light”), is still held by the British government in the Tower of London as part of the monarchy’s crown jewels. The Koh-i-Noor was mined in what is today Andhra Pradesh, an Indian state, in the 13th century. Thereafter, it was allegedly “gifted” to Queen Victoria by Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab region of northwestern South Asia. The British annexed the Sikh Empire in 1849, when Duleep Singh was 10 years old.
However, a group of Indian businessmen, actors, and luminaries named Mountain of Light, after the diamond, is attempting to have the 105-carat stone returned to India through legal means. The group has instructed lawyers to begin proceedings in London’s High Court demanding that the Koh-i-Noor be returned to India.
This move comes just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the United Kingdom. The Indian government is not behind the current lawsuit, though there is a broad multiparty consensus in India that the diamond must be returned. Modi’s visit to Britain will focus on attracting investment to India, rather than other issues. If Modi does raise the issue of the Koh-i-Noor at all, it could be seen as a symbolic move to shore up domestic support in the aftermath of his party’s defeat in Bihar.
While the voluntary return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond would be well received in India and would improve bilateral relations, relations between the two countries are driven by trade and investment and are unlikely to change regardless of where of the diamond stays. In a previous article, I questioned whether there was necessarily a rational case for returning the diamond, as it had exchanged hands several times, always through conquest.
Also of interest here is the question of whether or not the Mountain of Light group has a strong legal case for regaining the jewel for India.
It seems as though the legal case was not well thought through and is designed to garner publicity rather than to have a strong chance of succeeding. The Mountain of Light group seeks to base its case on the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act of 2009, which allows the return of stolen art and objects to their rightful owners. However, the premise of using the Return of Cultural Objects Act of 2009 for the Koh-i-Noor is shaky because the act itself declares that it only considers claims from the Nazi era, defined as the period from January 1, 1933 to December 31, 1945.
Furthermore, the Koh-i-Noor situation resembles the Greek government’s attempt to regain the Elgin Marbles, housed at the British Museum. The marbles were removed from the Parthenon in 1801 with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece. Legal experts who examined that case agree that Greece has a weak legal case because the whole exchange took place legally under the governments then in power. Finally, the statute of limitations for such claims (no more than a few dozen years by any definition) has expired and returning the marbles would set a bad precedent by opening up an endless Pandora’s Box of historical claims and counterclaims.
Similarly, in the case of the Koh-i-Noor, even if it seems fairly obvious that Duleep Singh was not a free agent and was coerced to give the jewel to Queen Victoria, given the circumstances of his empire’s conquest and his youth, this is almost impossible to prove. An additional legal provision was in force then: the right of conquest. This allowed a country to annex another one by the principle of “might makes right.” This essentially gave Britain the legal right to dispose of the wealth of its new territory as it wished. Additionally, there is the problem of the statute of limitations, as with the Greek case. What’s more, the Sikh Empire no longer exists and it is unclear whether the modern Republic of India is its legal successor state, with all the rights and privileges of representing the Sikh Empire in court. The Sikh Empire also included territory in present-day Pakistan, including its erstwhile capital, Lahore.
This, unfortunately for those who wish to see the jewel returned, is how international law works. Emotion alone cannot win a lawsuit in court. The case for the return of the diamond is not very strong and it is unlikely to succeed. The best way for India to acquire the Koh-i-Noor would be for its government to one day convince the British government to return the jewel as a goodwill gesture in order to promote an economic and security relationship that would far outweigh the logic of keeping the diamond.