Now that the brouhaha over the Kohinoor diamond has subsided, I think it would be apposite to reflect on the broader issue i.e. do we have a right to insist on reparations for historical injustices which may have a bearing on our collective psyche ; and if we believe that we do , to what extent should we involve ourselves in a protest campaign.
At the outset , it would be important for me to divulge my own personal position vis a vis this issue. I believe the Kohinoor diamond is a part of Indian history and shall continue to do so irrespective of its location. I vividly recall the sense of deep hurt I experienced when I fist set my eyes on it nearly four decades ago at the Tower of London during my first visit to the United Kingdom.
Having stated that , do I support the campaign to get it back on the Indian soil! To that , I would simply state that while I would be delighted if it were to land on the Indian shores, I am somewhat ambivalent about viewing this as central to the delicate process of undoing a historical wrong for which the present generation should not be expected to carry any personal or collective guilt.
There is a general consensus that the colonial era was a phase of relentless exploitation which would not satisfy even the most denominational standards of the accepted norms of contemporary human decency. But again the question remains -is it really fair to apply these standards in the process of seeking reparation of a historical wrong!
There were different colonizers colonizing different parts of the globe and nearly all followed the same principles. And despite what the recently released book by an author called Lalwani has to state, the colonization never took place in pursuance of any altruistic motive.Some benefits naturally percolated down to those who were colonized but these were only incidental and never out of any primary intent.The process of accumulating loot from the colonies persisted-and in India’s case lasted nearly 200 years.
There is a historical parallel when we look at some of the other incidents. The Greek actress turned Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri made a very strong plea for the return of the Elgin Marbles in the London Museum; they were apparently stolen by Lord Elgin when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and brought over to London. The British government resisted that demand but it was notable what my Greek friends had to say . Many of them were of the opinion that the Elgin Marbles were better off in London than they would have been in Greece where the Acropolis is in a sad state.
I must add that I personally did not subscribe to this view. More notable was the reaction of otherwise a very pungent British politician called Enoch Powell also a former professor of Greek classics. He was of the view that the marbles should only be sent back if the Greek government were to give an undertaking that they were going to re-construct the structure that existed at the time when Lord Elgin stole the marbles.
To summarize ,while it would be nice to have the diamond brought back to India, we have to recognize the legal and logistical difficulties involved .There are competing claims for Pakistan and Afghanistan which in my view are not as strong as that of India. But there are other issues relating to our colonial equation with the British that are far more hurtful to our collective psyche .
Jallianwalbagh massacre is an instance of monstrosity which bedeviled the Indian relationship with the British for generations. There were other incidentals that did not help; projection of Dyer as a saviour of the Empire and a hero continued to weigh heavily on many consciences. Insensitive utterances by many including the Duke of Edinburgh did not help; he ,while on a visit to the site contested the casualty figures as he had served with Dyer’s son who had told him otherwise.
I could not help agreeing with a columnist who described his comments as those of a semi-literate Greek sailor! However years later it was left to David Cameron who described the incident as the darkest chapter in the history of the British Empire.As far as I am concerned ,an acknowledgement of this should go a long way in assuaging the hurt feelings. An apology would be probably unreasonable as the sins of that generation cannot be visited upon the present.
But I would still like the offensive House of Lords resolution supporting Dyer which still stands to be corrected. And if there is an apology that should be forthcoming, it should be from the Daily Telegraph ,the successor of the Morning Post newspaper that organized a collection for Dyer to make sure that he died a rich man. I believe an augumentation of these would be far more soothing to the Indian psyche than the return of Kohinoor.
I would also like another vestige of the colonial era to be corrected i.e. historical perversion. Two of its most blatant examples are the most unjust manner in which Maharaja Nandcoomar was hanged by Warren Hastings and the depiction of the Black Hole tragedy. It is generally accepted that Hastings killed Nandcoomar on trumped up charges but the books I read in school always projected him as a villain. Only much later I came to know of the sham trial in which he was sentenced that lasted just 5 minutes and was presided over by his schoolfriend Elijah Impey who used to project himself as the First Chief Justice of India!
And I recall the sense of shame when we were taught about the Black Hole tragedy in which women and children were killed by Sirajuddaulah. Much later, I conducted some research and could not find a single piece of evidence that it took place. It was a confabulatory exercise by the British to project the colonized Indians as feral subhumans. And it still finds place in history books!
If it is the hurt to our collective psyche that needs to be addressed, rectification of historical misrepresentations that scar the history textbooks would be a more meaningful exercise.
By Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad