Was the priceless Kohinoor diamond a gift from India to Britain, or an imperial theft?

It’s said to be cursed.
It’s said to be cursed.
Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images
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After one of India’s top government lawyers appeared to side with the British in a long-running dispute over the Kohinoor diamond—a colonial-era acquisition that is one of the most famous gems in Britain’s crown jewels—the Indian government scrambled to backtrack, saying it still wants the priceless rock back from the UK.

“The Government of India remains hopeful for an amicable outcome whereby India gets back a valued piece of art with strong roots in our nation’s history,” a government statement released today (April 19) said.

The latest scuffle in this long-running dispute came when an NGO filed a petition in India’s supreme court calling for the Kohinoor’s retrieval, along with other treasures. Asked to weigh in with the government’s stance, solicitor general Ranjit Kumar upset many Indians and historians with his statement.

“Kohinoor cannot be said to be forcibly taken or stolen as it was given by the successors of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to East India Company in 1849 as compensation for helping them in the Sikh wars,” Kumar told the court, citing a similar view expressed by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1956.

Nafis Ahmad Siddique, a lawyer for the group bringing suit, told the Wall Street Journal that Kumar’s statements set a “dangerous precedent” regarding other Indian treasures held abroad. “Historians will not forgive you,” he said of Kumar.

The Kohinoor has long been a controversial symbol of British imperialism. The 105-carat, oval-shaped gem currently sits front-and-center at the Tower of London in a fur-trimmed crown (along with about 2,800 other diamonds) that last rested on the head of the late Queen Mother, and then on her coffin in 2002.

One of the oldest and largest known diamonds in the world, it’s hard to assess the Kohinoor’s value, but it’s often estimated to be around $200 million. The Kohinoor’s origin story is blurry, with one Smithsonian account dating its discovery as far back as 3000 B.C. Historians do agree that it was dug out of the Golconda mine, the source of some of the world’s most stunning and desired diamonds, in what is today the Indian state of Hyderabad. The diamond passed between Mughal emperors and Maharajas until 1849, when it was handed over to Great Britain following the Anglo-Sikh wars. (It is also said to carry a curse that will befall any man—but not a woman or a god—who wears it.)

In his statement, Kumar said that the British returning the gem to India would be “returnism”—oddly echoing a controversial statement David Cameron made about the diamond three years earlier, when the British premier said returning it could set a precedent that would leave the British Museum empty of its colonial-era spoils.

Likewise, Kumar said this week, “If we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us. There will be nothing left in our museums.”

Disputes over this diamond are far from over. India’s supreme court has asked the government to file a more detailed response to the petition within six weeks.