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Royal Kohinoor: Why Pakistan should enter the debate but won’t

November 16, 2015

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The Kohinoor, or "mountain of light," diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown made for Britain's late Queen Mother Elizabeth. We've got it, we're keeping it. That was the essence of the British government's attitude in responding to Pakistan's request for the return of the fabled Koh-i-noor diamond 30 years ago, according to confidential papers released in Dec. 29, 2006. —AP Photo
The Kohinoor, or "mountain of light," diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown made for Britain's late Queen Mother Elizabeth. We've got it, we're keeping it. That was the essence of the British government's attitude in responding to Pakistan's request for the return of the fabled Koh-i-noor diamond 30 years ago, according to confidential papers released in Dec. 29, 2006. —AP Photo

Lying in the heart of modern Lahore, a city that became the center of colonial and post-colonial history, is the Gora Kabristan or the white graveyard. Gora here is a euphemism for Christian.

This is the largest Christian graveyard of Lahore and hints at the ethnic diversity that existed in the city since antiquity. This graveyard signifies Christian ethos in the middle of an overwhelmingly traditional Muslim city.

Angels stand guard over the graves. Some cling to the crosses as if waiting for the messiah. A few heads and some wings have fallen off somewhere during this eternal wait. It is here, in this graveyard that the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the sovereign of Lahore, the ruler of Punjab, is buried. She is Princess Bamba Sutherland, the eldest daughter of Maharaja Daleep Singh.

The grave of Princess Bamba Sutherland. —Photo by Alie Imran
The grave of Princess Bamba Sutherland. —Photo by Alie Imran

Further down, a regal, three-storey white structure with a magnificent dome on top — the samadh of Ranjit Singh — stands majestically. Next to it, the flag of the Khalsa flutters in the wind representing the Sikh community living there.

The samadh of Ranjit Singh is surrounded by those of his 11 wives who too were burnt on his funeral pyre — a now bygone practice known as Sati where a woman was burnt with the body of her husband.

Within the same complex is the splendid samadh of Guru Arjun, the martyred Guru of the Sikhs. Its gold-plated dome rises from a distance to welcome tourists as they head towards the Fort and the Badshahi Masjid in the same vicinity.

The entrance to the fort faces the samadh of Guru Arjun. This is the hathi darwaza or the Elephant Gate, from whence the King used to enter.

The samadh of Ranjit Singh with the minaret of the Badshahi Masjid visible in the background. —Photo by Bilal Ejaz
The samadh of Ranjit Singh with the minaret of the Badshahi Masjid visible in the background. —Photo by Bilal Ejaz

Moving further down we see the original boundary wall of the fort, decorated with the elaborate frescoes of elephants, kings, princes and princesses. Erected in between the Sikh samadh and the Mughal Fort is a relatively new divider that was constructed by the British.

The neat little structure serves its purpose, rather sternly, without the aesthetics of either Mughal or Sikh architecture. The wall serves as a symbolic divide between the Mughal history and the Sikh history.

It separates the history of Lahore into the Muslim era — that of the Mughals — and the Sikh era, beginning with Ranjit Singh and ending with Daleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler of Punjab. You’ve probably heard of the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. So have I.

Whenever Indians and Pakistanis feel nostalgic, exhausted by constant bickering over the Kashmir issue, Mumbai terror attacks, insurgency in Balochistan; there is one thing that is likely to end the debate — blaming it all on the British for their ‘divide and rule’ policy.

It is a valid argument, but one that is very misunderstood.

It is not the nefarious plans of the British that led the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs to cut each other’s throats, but rather the world view of the Raj. The colonials were obsessed with categorisation and generalisation – their modern day paradigm.

Communities, religions, history, culture, language, architecture were divided into three stacks; Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. It was the prototype of the thinking patterns we inherited and continue to possess.

Opposite the Lahore Fort and behind the samadh of Ranjit Singh is the Badshahi Masjid or the Royal Mosque, commissioned by the Mughal King Aurangzeb. Here in its museum is a copy of the Holy Quran written in gold. This copy was part of the Quran collection of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

On the other side of the road is the shrine of the patron saint of Lahore, Ali Hujwiri, popularly known as Data Darbar. During Ranjit Singh’s dominion, his wife Jind Kaur, the mother of Daleep Singh, ordered the construction of a Quran gallery, where eventually all copies of the holy book that were owned by the Maharaja, were displayed. Later, they became a part of Lahore Museum’s collections.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the sovereign of Punjab and ruler of all Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims living here. He became ruler only to the Sikhs, posthumously.

After Daleep Singh signed Punjab over to the British, its history was re-written by the new masters. According to this version, the Muslims — symbolised by the Mughals — killed the Sikh leader, Guru Arjun. The tears that Mian Meer shed on the death of his very close Sikh friend and confidante were erased from record, as it no longer suited the new framework. Ranjit Singh, a Sikh, was projected as the villain desecrating mosques, and the Quran gallery constructed by his wife was hidden under troves of modern history.

A similar situation faces us today. A group of Indians have sued Queen Elizabeth of England to return the Kohinoor diamond to India, which was taken away from Daleep Singh. This too, is another example of neat categorisation of history — a British present to us.

How does India today represent that India from where the Kohinoor was taken?

The Kohinoor belonged to Ranjit Singh whose capital was Lahore, and his empire was predominantly in the area that is now part of Pakistan. Ranjit Singh was born in the Pakistani city of Gujranwala. His last surviving granddaughter, Bamba Sutherland, died a Pakistani.

Then, how can India solely claim the legacy of Ranjit Singh and his Kohinoor? The India of today is as old as Pakistan; both are the offspring of British-India and both are inheritors of the 'Indian civilisation'.

Also read: Bhutto approached UK over Kohinoor: documents

This is not to state that the Kohinoor should come to Pakistan because of geographical connections to the diamond’s history.

Also, it is no secret that Pakistan has repudiated its multi-religious identity for its new national character. We discarded our history and cut off any pre-Islamic, pre-Pakistan ties we had with this land.

A quick glimpse around the country is enough to see the pitiful state of the gurdwaras and temples. India too can be accused of following a similar pattern. The recent renaming of Aurangzeb road in New Delhi is a clear example of the changing face of history — a trend that we Pakistanis are all too familiar with.

Also read: From Aurangzeb to Kalam — Is Delhi rewriting its history?

Another argument could be that Sikhs on both sides of the border truly represent the legacy of Ranjit Singh and hence the Kohinoor. This too is a futile attempt. Ranjit Singh was as much my ruler as he was that of the Sikhs. Muslims generals and ministers were all part of his government. He is a symbol of Punjabi nationalism. He was the first Punjabi king in a thousand years. His legacy is my legacy.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Neither Indians, nor Pakistanis have sole right to the Kohinoor just as Ranjit Singh was not only a Sikh ruler, but the Maharaja of the entire Punjab, and just as Mian Meer was not only a Muslim saint but also a spiritual leader to the Sikhs, for he had helped lay the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

There is no doubt that Pakistan, too, needs to be included in the debate on Kohinoor’s return, but how can it champion this cause when for years it has denied its own past?

Also read: What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks?

To be a part of this debate Pakistan would need to accept that its history is not just the history of Muslims in the sub-continent, but of all the people that coexisted here before and with the Muslims.

Pakistan needs to realise and argue that India is not the sole heir to the Indian heritage and should then enter the debate about the Kohinoor’s return, but perhaps, it won’t.