Will Camilla wear the diamond that India – and others – want back?

The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II lies in state inside Westminster Hall. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin

LONDON – The jewel in the British crown – literally – is coming under new scrutiny with the upcoming coronation of King Charles III and growing questions over what Camilla, Queen Consort, will wear on her head.

The most famous jewel worn by British royalty on stately occasions, the spectacular 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond, is one that several countries, including India, say they would like back.

The British government on Thursday, responding to front-page stories claiming that Camilla may not wear the crown so as not to upset India, said that it was up to the palace to decide how the queen consort’s crown should be decorated. Buckingham Palace declined to comment.

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The diamond, which is the size of a small egg, rests in the front cross on a crown that is normally on display at the Tower of London. It was last brought out in public for the 2002 funeral of the queen mother, the last person to wear it, and it rested on a purple velvet pillow atop her coffin.

Many thought that Camilla would, like previous consorts, wear the crown during the coronation next May when the new king and queen consort will be anointed with holy oil and presented with a crown.

The diamond, however, is intimately tied up with Britain’s history and one of many contested treasures it acquired as ruler of a vast worldwide empire – a legacy that came under new scrutiny with the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

India – with which Britain would very much like to conclude a trade agreement – has repeatedly demanded the return of the diamond, especially following Elizabeth’s funeral.

Rakesh Sinha, a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, told The Washington Post that the Koh-i-Noor symbolized the monarchy’s “unapologetic” link to a past that was “barbaric and exploitative,” adding that the jewel must be returned to India by way of recompense.

If Camilla wears the Koh-i-Noor in her crown, it “shows the British people and government are carrying the legacy of their colonialism,” he said. “It exhibits the loot plunder and exploitation of India by them. The most regretful is they are not ready to correct their past and showing off the stolen jewel as the part of their sovereign seat.”

Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have also laid claim to gem, which was the possession of many rulers, including India’s Mughal emperors, before coming into the hands of the British monarchy.

“Every person in India has heard of this stone and wants it back. Clearly this is massive importance to India, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan,” said William Dalrymple, co-author of “Kohinoor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.”

Most British people, however, are barely aware of it, in part because teaching about the British Empire doesn’t feature prominently in school curriculums, said the author, who splits his time between Britain and India.

“They learn about the Roman empire, all sorts of empires, but not the British Empire,” Dalrymple said. “For them, the Koh-i-Noor is usually a local Indian restaurant or a brand of pencils or occasionally a trip to the Tower of London.”

The gem was believed to have been mined somewhere in India and ended up in the possession of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a Sikh ruler of Punjab, whose heir “gave” it to Queen Victoria in 1850 after the Sikh empire was defeated by the British.

The diamond was eventually placed in the crowns worn by the wives of Britain’s kings, including Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, and Queen Mary, the wife of George V, and finally Queen Elizabeth II’s mother during the coronation of her husband, King George VI.

During a 2010 visit to India, then-Prime Minister David Cameron was asked about returning the stone. “If you say ‘yes’ to one request, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty,” he said.

Reassessments of colonialism, however, have inspired the return of human remains and artifacts from museums across Europe and North America to their countries of origin. Britain has been lagging behind in that reckoning.

Arguably, one of history’s most famous cultural controversies is that of the Elgin marbles, also called Parthenon marbles, a collection of 5th-century B.C. marble sculptures that have been on display in the British Museum since 1817, despite ongoing calls from Greece for their return.

On Thursday, the House of Lords was debating legislation that prevents some nationally funded museums, such as the British Museum that houses the Elgin marbles, from returning objects to their countries of origin.

Liz Truss, the prime minister, has made it clear that this isn’t in the cards. Asked earlier this month about whether there was a “deal to be done” on returning the marbles to Greece, Truss said, “I don’t support that.”

As for the diamond, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News on Thursday that it is up to Buckingham Palace to decide whether it is used in the coronation. “The palace is really very good at assessing the public, and indeed the international, mood,” he added.

The crown controversy comes at a time when Britain and India are engaged in trade talks, which are of great interest to post-Brexit Britain. Both sides in April said they wanted to conclude talks by the Indian holiday of Diwali on Oct. 24. But there have been reports that the talks have run into problems after British Home Secretary Suella Braverman – herself a child of immigrants – expressed concerns about what the deal would mean for migration, considering that “the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”

Dalrymple, the author, said that “the British, post-Brexit, are keen to make friends with India, at the same time India is getting more and more hyper sensitive about its colonial past.”

He said it would be a “very well-received gesture not to wear” the diamond at the coronation and an “even better-received gesture to give it back.”

But given the number of countries laying claim to it, there is another problem: “If Britain decides to give it back, who gets it?”

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