The Guardian • Issue #2055

US$45 trillion looted

India demands compensation from Britain

Replica of the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light).

Replica of the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light). Photo: aiva – (CC BY 2.0).

The meeting of the Quad leaders, on 20th May 2023, has given special political influence to Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi of India, and his demands for the return of thousands of looted temple objects and art treasures, presently held in the world’s famous museums.

More importantly, during the British colonial period, an estimated US$45 trillion was looted from India, turning it from one of the world’s richest countries into one of the poorest. PM Modi was in Australia last week meeting Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for talks on immigration, regional security, and the rising military tensions in Asia.

In 2021 the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) returned stolen artefacts to India, in Australia’s largest repatriation of stolen art. It included six sculptures, six photographs, a painted scroll and a processional standard. This was the fourth time the NGA has handed back antiquities to the Indian government, for which the NGA had spent $10.7 million on acquiring. PM Modi thanked Australia for their return, during a summit in March 2022.

Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is campaigning for the repatriation of billions of dollars worth of looted objects now held in Britain, as a “reckoning with the past.” Since Modi became prime minster in 2014, more than 300 objects have been returned to India, many of them depictions of Hindu deities.

A key policy, and his personal commitment, is the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. The 105-carat diamond once topped the Mughal emperors’ Peacock Throne. It was worn by the Sikh dynasty of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, before it was surrendered in a treaty with the East India Company, and given to Queen Victoria after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. Queen Victoria took on the imperial role of Empress of India in 1877. The Punjab had great wealth, with one of the world’s earliest great civilisations, around 3000 BC.

The Koh-i-Noor adorned Queen Mary’s Crown during the 1911 coronation of King George V, but it was not displayed at the Coronation of King Charles III on 6th May, to avoid provoking India. India’s Vice President, Jagdeep Dhankhar, was in attendance.

Govind Mohan, secretary for the Indian ministry of culture, said the return of the stolen art treasures “is of huge importance to the government.” The Archaeological Survey of India has approached Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum for the return of a bronze statue taken from a temple in southern India. The repatriation of stolen artefacts requires a royal permission or parliamentary legislative change for it to proceed, which places political pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, leader of the Conservative Party, and is the first Hindu Prime Minister in British history.

The British Museum will face claims for its collection of Hindu statues and the Amaravati Marbles, which were taken from a Buddhist stupa by Sir Walter Elliot. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Indian collection houses the famous mechanical tiger biting a mechanical British soldier and the throne of Rajit Singh, a Sikh emperor. These also face reparation claims.

One problem is that such museums are bound by law to keep their collections intact, potentially putting India at odds with Westminster, which has refused to countenance changing legislation to facilitate other claims, such as the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. The National Trust is responsible for the Indian artefacts stolen by Robert Clive, the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency. Amongst these are the treasures of Tipu Sultan, a Muslim foe of the East India Company, who was killed and his palace looted in 1799.

In 2019, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, addressed the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, asserting that under British colonial rule India suffered “humiliation” for two centuries and US$45 trillion was looted from the country. The recent growth of the Indian economy and its importance in the emerging multi-polarity of global politics, the G-20 and the Quad, means that “the West needs India.” Modi is playing a multifaceted political game, with the end game being the return of India’s looted treasures and India being an international player.

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