Featured Empires

The Koh-i-Noor belongs in Britain, not India

Replica of the Koh i Noor cropped
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

Who owns the world’s most famous diamond? India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran might could dispute Britain’s ownership—and each other’s. They should all be ignored. On permanent display at the Tower of London, the diamond is being enjoyed by the many millions who flock there, including far more Indian nationals than would ever get to see it in India’s capital.

Ever since my childhood in post-colonial Bombay, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, literally “Mountain of Light”, has conjured up visions of legendary treasure and ostentation. We were taught at school that it was a very generous gift from the child Maharaja of Punjab to Queen Victoria, and we never questioned its proud presence in the Queen Consort’s crown. But schoolchildren in India today are taught a very different tale of the diamond, as evidence of the alleged loot that the Raj took from India.

Its actual history is rather more complicated than either of these narratives. It was legally gifted to the Queen Empress, but this was by a boy prince who had no say in the matter. To whom can we say, a century and a half later, it legitimately belongs?

Its discovery dates back to the shadowy mists of the Middle Ages and the legendary diamond mines of Golconda in India’s Deccan plateau. It was extracted by slave labour, first for a local Hindu dynasty, then passing to the Muslim sultans who replaced them. Its first documentary mention was in 1526, in the possession of the first Mughal emperor Babur. The Koh-i-Noor remained in the Mughal treasury till 1739, when the Iranian invader Nadir Shah occupied Delhi and looted the equivalent of £20 billion today, including both the legendary Mughal peacock throne and the Koh-i-Noor.

Nadir Shah was later assassinated and the diamond passed to one of his generals, who founded a new dynasty in Afghanistan. And then, almost a century later, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, acquired the Koh-i-Noor, in return for helping an Afghan king to regain his throne.

What this chequered history suggests is that any legal claim to the diamond would be liable to dispute by several governments. Would Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan agree that India, based on the Mughal past that its present Hindu rulers reject, has the strongest claim? And should the diamond be returned to the central government at New Delhi, or to the state government of Punjab, or indeed to surviving descendants of the last Punjab king, Duleep Singh, who was comfortably settled in England under royal protection?

There is no simple answer. If the diamond returns to India, it might be triumphantly exhibited for a few months and then buried in government vaults. That was the fate of the equally spectacular jewels of the Nizam of Hyderabad that the Indian government acquired two decades ago.

I remember flocking, like millions of others, to gawp at the splendour of the Nizam’s jewels in Delhi’s wonderful National Museum. A few months later, they disappeared from view, never to be seen again. The official explanation was that the government could not afford the expense of insuring them for public display. That’s almost certain to be the fate of the Koh-i-Noor, if sent to Delhi. Located where it currently is, on permanent display at the Tower of London, the diamond is being enjoyed by the many millions who flock there, including far more Indian nationals than would ever get to see it in India’s capital.

As with so many art treasures acquired over millennia by the British Crown and various museums, their provenance can be disputed ad infinitum and their legal ownership is almost impossible to establish. But what seems to me decisive in the case of disputed items such as the Koh-i-Noor is the principle of making them as freely available as possible to the maximum number of public visitors from across the world. That criterion dictates that the diamond should remain where it is in the Tower, and also hopefully be available for us all to enjoy at the coronation next spring.

The alternative of presenting it to the Indian government would not only prompt rival claims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, but open a Pandora’s box of similar claims on most non-indigenous art in British and other Western collections. Great treasures have travelled the globe for several millennia, whether through gifts, trade or conquest. The idea of returning them to their place of geographical origin ignores both historical complexities and current political realities. It is narrowly nativist and diminishes us all.

Dr Zareer Masani is an author and historian.  His article was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2022. 

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).