‘Inevitable’ India’s jewels taken by British empire will be returned

The queen mother's coffin and coronation crown, which includes the Koh-i-noor diamond. Photograph: Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images
The queen mother's coffin and coronation crown, which includes the Koh-i-noor diamond. Photograph: Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images

A leading writer on the British empire has said it is inevitable that Indian jewels and historical artefacts looted under colonial rule will be returned, amid reports that the country will begin a campaign to get them repatriated.

Sathnam Sanghera, who authored Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain and fronted documentaries on the subject for Channel 4, said the latest demands are part of a series by former colonies reassessing their own time under empire.

Countries such as India are already changing historical legacies from colonial rule, which ended in 1947, and a royal tour by the Prince and Princess of Wales to the Caribbean in 2022 was marked by calls for slavery reparations from the days of empire.

Sanghera’s claim followed a report in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and diplomats are shaping up for a campaign to reclaim items in British museums and held by the royal family later this year.

It includes the controversial Koh-i-noor diamond, which is held by the royal family and has featured in discussions about its potential use in the coronation; the treasures of Tipu Sultan, which are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and Powis Castle; and the Amaravati Marbles.

Sanghera said: “Our museums and the royal family are in possession of billions of pounds worth of Indian loot. It was a systematic part of colonial rule. The royal family was given the king’s share of that loot. When we annexed parts of India and Burma [now Myanmar], there were representatives of our museums there to take things, soldiers took loot and sold it, too.

“It’s not just the financial value of these items, there is also the emotional and religious value.

“These countries are future superpowers or superpowers already, they are not going to shut up about it.”

The moves by India are part of a wider reconsideration of its role as a former colony. Modi has encouraged school classes to be taught in Hindi and other languages rather than English, India’s parliament is being rebuilt with its MPs due to move out of the Edwin Lutyens-designed colonial era building, and roads named after former British monarchs have been changed.

The Telegraph reported Govind Mohan, the secretary for the Indian ministry of culture, saying returning antiquities is going to be a key part of future policy. “It is of huge importance to the government,” he said. “The thrust of this effort to repatriate India’s artefacts comes from the personal commitment of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has made it a major priority.”

The issue has previously received attention alongside disputes that include the potential return of the Elgin marbles to Greece.

Previous Conservative prime ministers and culture secretaries have rejected calls for artefacts to be returned. During a visit to India in 2013, David Cameron said he did not think the return of the Koh-i-noor was the “right approach”.

The Koh-i-noor is controversial in its own right, with multiple claims on its ownership. Sanghera agrees: “I think it is impossible. There will be anger by the Sikhs if the Hindu nationals get it. It is unsolvable.”

Museums are constrained by law to keep their collections intact. However, charities such as the National Trust who are not subject to the same legal restrictions may be approached first.

Sanghera said: “In the next 10 years, it will totally change. Young people in Britain feel the same way about loot in museums as we felt about animals in zoos. They can’t quite believe it is allowed. I think it is inevitable.

“How Britain is talking about empire and colonialism is exactly the opposite way to other countries. This is nothing new, and it’s not been brought on by the coronation, where we saw talk about jewels being used. This has been being discussed by other countries for years. In 2013, Caribbean countries were talking about reparations, it might feel this is suddenly happening but this has been going on for a long time.”

“The royal family tried to dodge the conversation at the coronation by not using the Koh-i-noor, but instead they used the crown and sceptre that uses diamonds from South Africa, which they are now asking to be returned. This sort of approach is not going to work any more. We are going to keep facing these issues of decolonisation.”