By Daniya Ahmed
The Koh-i-Noor diamond, or mountain of light in Farsi, has become something of a multi-faceted jewel. In a tangible sense, it is an awe-inducing 105-carat gem that now permanently resides in the Tower of London. It is also a symbol of British colonial glory- or treachery, depending on where you are sitting and perhaps more importantly, where you are looking.
The 1849 Treaty of Lahore- signed by Maharajah Duleep Singh and the East India Company- is largely regarded as the transfer of ownership of the jewel from Maharajah Singh to the origin of the Great Empire. It is easy to make claims as to the chicanery and deception of British colonising agents to underpin calls for the Koh-i-Noor’s return. Albeit valid, most of these calls are made with a relative lack of in-depth analysis of the very terms of the Treaty dismissed as illegitimate.
“III. The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Runjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”
While this term is straightforward enough in definitively stating the transfer of ownership of the diamond from Punjab to the Queen of England, it also makes reference to the previous owner: Shah Sooja-ool-moolk, more commonly known as Shah Shuja Durrani. At surface level, this appears to be a minor detail peppered into a clause of the Treaty, but it unfortunately unveils a harsh reality: the Koh-i-Noor’s ownership changes did not start in Punjab or in what eventually became British India.
This only serves to complicate the issue of the repatriation of the Koh-i-Noor in the sense that it calls into question both the timeline which can be examined and also extends the region covered when demanding its return. When considering the entire timeline of the diamond’s possession, its 1729 acquisition by the Afsharid Shah of Persia must also be added to the list. Put differently, the Koh-i-Noor diamond may have originated in India but was part of the broader subcontinent- including Afghanistan and Iran- in various centuries. This therefore complicates the issue of its return by asking a simple question: where would the Koh-i-Noor even be returned to? Its ownership was transferred in Lahore which forms modern-day Pakistan but was undivided India at the time- which, post 1947, has been carved into three independent sovereign states. To add to the burden of location, the diamond once belonged to an Emir of Afghanistan- Shah Shuja Durrani- and a Shah of Persia. If the British government were to even consider the return of the gem, they would have a list of five distinctly separate countries to take into account: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Iran. In order to accurately determine the rightful ownership of the Koh-i-Noor, an arbitrary timeline also has to be selected in the sense that the period that constitutes the Koh-i-Noor being in its rightful place has to be agreed upon before any discussions occur. Given the precarious and unstable nature of South/Central Asian geopolitics, each country would of course claim that the timeline that is synchronous with its own self-interests as most valid.
It can, however, be argued that while the Treaty of Lahore is legitimate for all intents and purposes, the circumstances surrounding its signing are dubious at best. This argument generally alludes to the young age of Maharajah Singh when the British annexed the Punjab province. It is true that the Maharajah was only eleven years of age but if he was deemed competent and mature enough to be a Maharajah of the Sikh Empire- even if only in a figurehead capacity- the Treaty is still legitimate given that it involves the appropriate signatories in transferring ownership. To argue the age of the Maharajah invalidates the document is to decontextualize the very century in which this transfer took place- people at the age of eleven were commonly working full-time anyway. The phrase “possession is nine-tenths of the law” is applicable here in the sense that we ultimately cannot prove the that the diamond does not belong to Britain- the presumed owner in this case- even though we want to. Another technicality to consider is the legality of previous transfers of ownership including but not limited to the one between the Emir and Ranjit Singh. To properly ascertain who owns the Koh-i-Noor from a purely legal standpoint, we must first determine which previous owners came into possession of the Koh-i-Noor through the correct channel of transferring chattel under law. Not only is the information regarding legal ownership virtually non-existent, it would be fallacious to arbitrarily select which law would apply to different centuries and places. On this basis, the question of returning the Koh-i-Noor has no real locus standi and is, tragically, impractical.
Make no mistake, this is not a defence of British imperialism in India nor is it an approval for the way Maharajah Duleep Singh was eventually treated, or indoctrinated, by Mr. and Mrs. Login. What it is, though, is a practical view on the issue of the Koh-i-Noor’s return on the basis that the possibility of its return is too infinitesimal, too logistically complicated and too baseless. Irrespective of the atrocities and massacres committed by the British- which should of course be condemned- the multitude of questions and problems that arise when even considering the Koh-i-Noor’s return render it an insoluble legal matter.
The Koh-i-Noor Conundrum: A Counterargument
By Daniya Ahmed