A little-known non-governmental organisation brought the Kohinoor back to the headlines by asking for its return to India. The Central government floundered in its response, as it first tried to continue India’s long standing policy of not engaging in repatriation demands, only to make a smart about-turn as it realised the tide of public opinion was against it.

At a moment when many of the ruling party’s supporters and members are conducting a census of desh-drohis and desh-premis among the citizenry, the government seemed to realise just a few days late that it was essential to take a hyper-nationalist position on the issue and to act as though it would indeed be able to prise the jewel from the Crown.

It’s always interesting to see when and where demands for repatriation arise, in respect to which objects, and whose ideological imprimatur they carry. The issue of repatriation is surprisingly elastic and has been mobilised by the left and the right. If today the BJP is asserting that it will pursue the Kohinoor, then decades ago it was the left-leaning journalist and public figure Kuldip Nayar who had raised the demand for the diamond.

What does it mean to ask for the return of a treasure taken in colonial times? The ethics of the issue are slippery. But, tellingly, so is the law – international conventions under which one might ask for repatriation of artefacts reflect biases and power-plays at work in the world, and international precedents for repatriation show the markedly uneven terrain of the cultural field.

Laws, conventions and agreements

On Tuesday, the ministry of culture put out a press release averring that the government would try to bring back the Kohinoor "amicably" just as Prime Minster Narendra Modi's efforts had already "led to three significant pieces of India’s history coming back home”.

The ministry is confused about the law. The recently-returned artefacts came back to India through international cooperation framed under the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation convention on the Prohibition and Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. More than 130 nations have accepted or ratified this convention, in which they pledge to recognise each state’s laws and rules about the movement of cultural property.

What purpose is served by this Convention? Consider this: Even though India has a law against exporting its antiquities that it enacted in 1972, if a newly-smuggled icon turned up in a Zurich dealer’s gallery, Swiss authorities would not have been obliged to return it to India – until 2003, that is, when Switzerland finally ratified the Convention and agreed to play by its rules.

The three artefacts that have "[come] back home" happened to be recently-smuggled objects that came under the purview of this Convention.

But the Convention itself has been carefully framed: it is not retrospective, and the line it lays down seems to have been designed to exempt earlier, colonial-era transfers of cultural property. It would thus not apply to the return of the Kohinoor, or the Amaravati sculptures, or the throne of Ranjit Singh, or the Sultanganj Buddha or any of the dozens of other artefacts that have been mentioned in recent articles in the press.

In the arena of cultural law, 1970 constitutes a “bright line” on either side of which legality and illegality get flipped around. Taking a painted manuscript out of India in 1969 would have been the owner’s business, but in 1973 the state could have something to say about it.

Of course, there is nothing to stop a party from wanting to go beyond the Convention, to a realm that is governed by ethical concerns rather than the provisions of the law.

A new paradigm

In the 1990s a number of countries established a new paradigm in the history of repatriation when they made special laws to enable the return of artefacts they had earlier taken away by force. Through these laws and policies, these countries implicitly or explicitly apologised for their maltreatment of formerly subjugated peoples, and their public museums ceded rights over artefacts that had been taken from them. In some cases, the artefacts were returned to the communities of origin – in other cases, while they continued to be held in the museums, the source communities now had a say in how the objects were handled and explained and indeed whether or not they could be displayed.

These are initiatives that have been taken by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – countries that are slowly making amends for the horrendous internal colonisation to which they had subjected their own indigenous populations. As the surviving indigenes have come to gain political rights and full citizenship in these countries, reparative gestures have begun to be made in the cultural field.

But it is worth noting that this new-found justice is extended by these countries only to the marginalised peoples who are their own citizens; and while a US museum returns artefacts to representatives of Native American tribes, the pleas of an African nation for the return of sacred objects that were taken away in colonial times and that have found their way to American museums will likely remain unheard.

Another important international initiative for the return of art taken away under difficult historic circumstances relates to art that was looted or acquired through forced sales in the Nazi era. Since the late 1990s a number of Western countries have acknowledged the need to confront the Nazis’ huge traffic in art and to try to restore artworks to the descendants of the dispossessed former owners. Mandated by law in some countries, and voluntarily adopted by professional museum associations in others, this initiative asks museums and dealers to account for the circumstances under which art changed hands in the Nazi era. Many valuable artworks have been willingly given up by museums as a result.

Colonial-era collections

In all these laws, conventions and agreements, there is no place for the return of artefacts taken away by former colonisers from the formerly colonised. One could go so far as to say that even as powerful Western nations agree to repatriations, they still look after interests that are, in one sense or another, their own. They attend to the cultural and property rights of their own citizenry.

Has India ever raised its own voice against this situation? Interestingly, it never has. Today, in international fora the most energetic voices asking for the return of colonial-era collections belong to the Nigerians and the Greeks.

Nigeria asks for the return of exquisitely cast bronze sculptures that had once decorated the palace in Benin (which confusingly was in Nigeria, not in the neighbouring nation-state of today called Benin) and which were taken away by British soldiers after a barbaric and murderous invasion in 1897.

The Greeks ask for the return of the Elgin marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon that Lord Elgin carried off in around 1812 when Greece was a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. However morally indefensible the circumstances of collection may have been, in their own time these were legal acts and the petitions of the Nigerians and the Greeks appeal to morality, not the law. As the overlords of Greece, the Turks did have the right to give Elgin permission – which he claimed to have had – to cart away the marbles.

And even military looting was lawful in an earlier age: victorious armies set down rules for how long their soldiers could loot, and what proportion of the booty would be assigned to foot-soldiers, what would go to the higher officers, and what should be kept aside as gifts for their own sovereign at home. This kind of looting was made illegal only in 1954 in the wake of the cultural destruction wrought by the Second World War, under the Hague convention for The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The Indian experience

India was, of course, leached of huge amounts of cultural material in the colonial period. Much of the collecting was done in the name of archaeology and anthropology, two disciplines that are inextricably entangled with colonialism. Both “sciences” are based on the study and collection of the things of others. Colonial military, economic and political dominance provided the conditions in which the disciplines could come into being, and the disciplines themselves served purposes of the colonial state. Accounts of their “scientific” collecting expeditions make for disturbing reading today, as chance remarks and marginal notes in scholarly and self-assured texts make us aware of the violence of such collecting and the local distress that it sometimes caused.

A third means by which objects moved to Europe was military loot and a great deal of Indian objects in British museums went their as trophies of war. To consider just one institution: the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Indian galleries (which inherited much of the collection of the East India Company’s museum) is filled with the war booty. Among other things, it displays Ranjit Singh’s golden throne. Next to Tipu’s Tiger we see jewels, medals, daggers and swords that are reputed to have been picked off Tipu’s body on the battlefield. And the centre of the gallery enshrines several Mughal artefacts, including the beautiful “Shah Jahan wine cup” that were probably looted from the Red Fort in 1857. But these things are presented to us simply as beautiful art objects. We are not encouraged to remember how they reached the museum and little emotion attaches to their presence in London.

The Kohinoor is different. Our fascination with gems and jewels, with easily-understood monetary (rather than artistic) value, and the symbolic placing of “our” diamond in the Queen’s crown makes it one of the very few things to provoke repatriation debates among the public in India.

Even if it is of no great cultural value, and even if it is no longer the largest diamond in the world, it stands as a symbol of the stories we have been told about pre-colonial India having been a wealthy land that was despoiled by colonialism. The Kohinoor is not a work of art and cannot be presented as anything but a wresting away of India’s riches. And as a post-colonial nation we may be able to reconcile ourselves to the loss of objects taken away through archaeological and anthropological campaigns, but the objects lost as loot remain a reminder of military and political subjugation and arouse strong emotions.

Government policy

Yet these are debates that remain at the popular level. The Indian government has never made an official demand for the repatriation of colonial-era artefacts or treasures; even the statements made a few years ago by the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India about his determination to “bring back” Indian objects was an expression of his personal opinion, not an official policy. Indeed, as prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru studiously avoided getting involved in repatriation demands. Perhaps he was already aware of the impossibility of bringing back something in any meaningful way at a time of momentous historic change.

Were the Kohinoor to leave Britain today, it is hard to know where it would go, in light of the long list of those who have laid claim to it, a list that includes India; Pakistan (since the Kohinoor traveled to England from Lahore); Afghanistan (since it was in the possession of an Afghan ruler before Ranjit Singh exerted pressure on him to hand it over); the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (since the Sikh community claims it "belongs" to them, as it was owned by a Sikh ruler); Lord Jagannath of Puri (since Ranjit Singh reportedly offered to gift it to the temple); the state of Odisha (for the same reason as for Puri); and Beant Singh Sandhanwalia (since he is the self-proclaimed descendant and heir of Ranjit Singh).

But I like to think that Nehru’s reluctance to ask for the return of cultural property was based on principle, more than pragmatism. As he no doubt understood, it is far more productive to look forward, rather than to look back – to build a future, rather than to try to undo the past. And indeed when we embark on the project of “correcting” history by making a symbolic return to some prior state, we open the door to processes of real danger. What, after all, was the demolition of the Babri Masjid but an attempt to “return” a site to some who claimed to be its earlier and more rightful owners?

Returning to an originary past can become a game of infinite regress for before the British there were the Mughals; before the Mughals, the Sultanates; before the Sultanates, a Hindu dynasty; before the Hindus, the Buddhists; before the Buddhists….and on, and on, and on. If we accept the principle that it is right and just to turn the clock back, then we cannot choose which clocks will, and won’t be turned.

Kavita Singh is Professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently the Clark-Oakley Fellow at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA, USA.