Yasmeen M Khan
It was an inevitability waiting to happen. Actually, I'm surprised it took so long. After Kashmir, India and Pakistan are now set for a legal clash over the ownership of the Koh-i-Noor which India has been battling for decades to wrest the from Britain.
The Lahore High Court will today (Thursday) start hearing a petition claiming that the 105-carat diamond, which once sat on Queen Victoria’s crown and is now on public display at Tower Of London actually belongs to Pakistan, on the ground that the region of Punjab from where it was “stolen” by Britain’s colonial rulers 167 years ago is now part of Pakistan.
The petition filed by a lawyer, Jawaid Iqbal Jaafry, names the Queen of United Kingdom and the British High Commission in Islamabad as respondents and is aimed at “forcing” the Pakistan government to press Britain to “return” the diamond to Pakistan.
The alacrity with which the court has acted –taking up the petition barely three days after admitting it—has caused some surprise as Pakistani judiciary—like its Indian counterpart—is not known for its efficiency. Although Mr Jaffry is being portrayed as an independent lawyer, sceptics have their own conspiracy theories. But we will come to that in a bit.
“The Koh-e-Noor rightly belonged to Punjab province and was forcibly taken by the British from the local ruler Duleep Siingh (grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh) when he was only 14 should be returned to Pakistan,’’ said the 76-year-old petitioner described by Pakistan’s Express Tribune as an “Anglo-Pakistani lawyer and abstract painter”.
In his petition, arguing that Pakistan was Koh-i-Noor’s “legitimate” owner and should therefore be returned to it, he says, “"Koh-i-Noor was not legitimately acquired. Grabbing and snatching it was a private, illegal act which is justified by no law or ethics. A wrong is a wrong. It does not become righteous or right by passage of time or even acquiescence."
The case has caused a buzz in Pakistan catapulting the once-obscure Mr Jaffry into fame overnight. The Pakistani media has gone to town with it. And why not? After all, in a country where the news agenda is dictated by terrorists such juicy stories don't come everyday.
But Mr Jaffry is also grabbing headlines in the foreign media, especially in Britain where any story about its colonial past is guaranteed special treatment.
“Three-way Claim Between UK, India and Pakistan Set Over the Koh-i-Noor”, ran a headline in The Daily Telegraph over a long story which noted how “Indians have long demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor which was owned by several Mughal emperors and Maharajas before being seized by the British” .
With a readymade script that he has been dishing out to journalists, Mr Jaffry told the paper, “The Koh-i-Noor was snatched illegally from the 14-year-old ruler of Punjab, from Lahore, by the East India British Company. It was gifted to Queen Victoria, but she never used it in her crown. The East India Company ruled Punjab, but the question is how can a company be the ruler of any country so how can you legislate for its actions.”
Adopting the injured tone of a victim, he said he was forced to move the court because nobody seemed to be listening to him.
“I have written more than 786 letters and epistolary requests reg.arding the return of the diamond. In the writ, I want to establish the Koh-i-Noor’s status as a cultural object of Pakistan. I also request the court to order government of Pakistan to raise the issue with the British government.”
Despite generous media coverage, even in Pakistan there is some amusement over Mr Jaffry’s stunt. And a stunt is what it is-- an attempt to muddy the waters for India. I mean if you genuinely believe that someone has stolen your most precious possession you don't wait for an eternity before you decide to cry foul. It is like filing an FIR for a theft decades after the crime.
So, who is Mr Jaffry ? Is he really his own man acting independently to gain some free publicity ? Or has he been put up to it by someone in the Pakistani establishment to embarrass India?
A Pakistani colleague said that “nothing in my great country is what it seems on the surface”.
“It could be something very innocent. Maybe he is genuinely acting on his own. He does sound like a maverick. But in Pakistan there are wheels within wheels and I am not too sure that he is not a proxy for someone somewhere in the establishment whatever be the motive. Let’s enjoy the fun!”
If Mr Jaffry’s aim was simply to gain attention then he has achieved his goal. But if he or his backers believe that the case will change the status quo relating to the Koh—i-Noor they are kidding themselves. Even if the court rules in his favour and the Pakistan government sets out to claim the diamond for itself, nothing is going to happen. The British government has made it clear that the Koh-i-Noor is not going anywhere and “stays put” in Britain.
During his visit to India in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron left no one in doubt that his country had no intention of parting with it.
“I think I’m afraid to say, to disappoint all your viewers, it’s going to have to stay put (in Britain) What tends to happen with these questions is that if you say yes to one, then you would suddenly find the British museum empty,” he told NDTV alluding to the fact that the museum is full of such valuable goodies looted from the erstwhile colonies.
But India intends to keep the issue alive. In fact, it has stepped up its efforts, and after years of unsuccessful lobbying it has joined a UN-backed international campaign for the return of historic treasures to several countries, including Mexico, Greece, Turkey and Egypt.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s UK visit last November, the issue was raised by the Indian-origin Labour MP Keith Vaz while a group of Indian businessmen and Bollywood stars announced that they planned to move the International Court of Justice if Britain continued to drag its feet.
Now with Pakistan too joining the fray, the Koh-i-Noor saga is set to get more interesting. Who cares if nothing comes out of it? As my Pakistani colleague said, “let’s have fun”.