THOUGH David Cameron may have been keen to promote trade ties on his recent visit to India, the British prime minister turned down a long-standing demand to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Mr Cameron felt returning the dazzling gem would not be “sensible”. Questions over the Koh-i-Noor’s rightful ownership stem from the legacy of Britain’s colonial past. Originally mined in southern India centuries ago, the fabled stone changed hands several times, passing through the treasuries of the subcontinent’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh kings before being presented to Queen Victoria by the colonial government of India. Considered a trophy from perhaps the most prized of Britain’s realms, the diamond is today part of the crown jewels firmly ensconced in the Tower of London. But Britain was not the only European colonial power to have appropriated the cultural property of others. More recently, there was widespread looting of Iraq’s historical treasures following the 2003 United States invasion; the Americans did little as gangs of looters made off with priceless treasures in the anarchy following Saddam Hussein’s fall.
It is valid to ask if historical artefacts whisked away from former colonies and now sitting in Western museums will receive proper care if returned to their countries of origin. We in Pakistan, for example, have allowed our heritage to crumble. Also, it is true that ancient collections in the Louvre or the British Museum have become part of world heritage. But how many of the world’s people can simply hop on a plane to enjoy the treasures taken from their countries? Ethically, there is weight in the argument that treasures looted in the age of empire be returned to their countries of origin to right historical wrongs and allow the people of former colonies to better appreciate their own heritage, while placing responsibility on those countries to preserve the artefacts.