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India to Britain: sorry, but we actually DO want our diamond back

The "Mountain of Light" diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown made for Britain's late Queen Mother Elizabeth, is seen on her coffin. (Alastair Grant/AP)
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A lawyer for the Indian government provoked a firestorm of controversy on Monday when he said in court that a spectacular diamond adorning a British royal crown had actually made its way to London years ago fair and square — as a gift.

As part of a public interest filing seeking the gem’s return to Indian hands, India's solicitor general, Ranjit Kumar, told the country's Supreme Court that the coveted jewel was not stolen or forcibly taken away, as many in India have long argued.

But after Kumar's remarks gained international attention,  the Indian government issued a press release clarifying their position,  saying they still want the diamond back.

"The Government of India further reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor Diamond in an amicable manner,"  the statement said. The government said that Kumar was merely giving an oral history of controversial gem's ownership,  and that the government itself had yet to give its final opinion.

The stone, called Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light, was believed by some to have been mined near or in what is the present-day Indian state of Andhra Pradesh centuries ago. The diamond is now part of the glittering purple-velvet Queen Mother’s Crown in the Tower of London. Visitors partial to India have been known to hiss at it when they walk by.

It passed through the hands of various sultans, warlords and Mughal emperors before ending up in the possession of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a Sikh warrior of Punjab. He had wanted it to go to a Hindu temple upon his death, historians say, but the British secured it in the Treaty of Lahore and his heir presented it to Queen Victoria in 1850.

"It was given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in the Sikh Wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen object," Kumar argued before the court on Monday. The court had earlier asked for the government to file an affidavit giving its opinion on the matter.

Various politicians and interest groups from India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have tried to lay claim to the diamond over the years, but the British have said that they will not return it. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he does not believe in “returnism,” and that if Britain started down that road, well, then the British Museum would be empty.

“It’s a moral issue,” Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of the revered Indian freedom leader Mohandas Gandhi, told the television channel NewsX on Monday. “This was our heritage which was stolen, which was taken away forcefully. Every country, every culture has aspirations to regain what they have lost in history. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have these kinds of emotions.”

According to a history of the diamond on an official website, it is said to be unlucky for men to wear this diamond because of its “long and bloody history.” The gem was once the largest diamond in the world and is twice the size of the Hope Diamond, which also is believed to be cursed and sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The solicitor general’s surprising statement came after a week-long visit to India by William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The British royal couple toured slums in Mumbai, played cricket and posed in front of the Taj Mahal — on a marble bench that had been specially cooled for their comfort.

One night in New Delhi, the Times of India noted, the couple had “a more discreet evening tete a tete with a handful of erstwhile Indian maharajas in the drawing room of the British High Commissioner's residence.” No word on whether the Koh-i-Noor or other alleged ill-gotten booty was part of the discussion.

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