It’s unclear who, exactly, was the first person to refer to India as the “jewel in the crown of the British Empire.” The phrase has been commonly attributed — perhaps apocryphally — to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who proclaimed Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1877. It was popularized by British novelist Paul Scott, who in 1966 used it as the title of the first book in his Raj Quartet, about the final days of colonial rule in India. But regardless of who coined the term, it’s not difficult to understand why they did — with a strategic location at the heart of Asia’s trade networks, a vast population that served as both a captive consumer market and a source of cheap labor, and a dazzling wealth of natural resources ranging from precious gems and metals to spices worth their weight in gold, India was by far the most valuable of Britain’s colonial possessions.
Apart from its metaphorical significance, the phrase also has another, more literal dimension. It refers to the Koh-i-noor — the 105.6-carat diamond surrendered by Maharaja Duleep Singh of Lahore to Queen Victoria in 1849. Though the diamond’s early history is poorly documented, it is believed to have been unearthed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries at the famed Kollur Mine, in what is now the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Over the next several hundred years, it moved among an ever-changing succession of rulers, and in 1843 the diamond came into the hands of the newly crowned Duleep Singh, who was just five years old when he ascended to the throne of the Sikh Empire that year. In March of 1849, following his kingdom’s defeat in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the eleven-year-old maharaja signed the Last Treaty of Lahore — which, among other provisions, demanded the surrender of the Koh-i-noor to the British. Today, the diamond resides in the Tower of London, where it is set in the queen mother’s crown. Until recently, it was expected to make its next public appearance at the May 6 coronation, where Camilla, the queen consort, initially planned to wear it.
Since the fall of the British Empire, the Koh-i-noor has been a subject of ongoing dispute between the United Kingdom and a number of South Asian countries. Pakistan made its first official demand for the diamond in 1976, and in 2000 Afghanistan’s Taliban government staked its own claim to the jewel. But India has ventured the loudest and most sustained bids, the first dating back to shortly after the country won independence in 1947. The Indian government has unsuccessfully sought the Koh-i-noor’s return on several occasions since, and the diamond has become something of a cause célèbre for many Indian citizens: following Queen Elizabeth II’s death in September, Indian social media saw a resurgence of calls for repatriation. Within just a few hours of Buckingham Palace’s announcement, “Kohinoor” was trending on Twitter.
For many South Asians, the Koh-i-noor is perhaps the single most potent symbol of the nearly immeasurable wealth that was looted from the subcontinent during the colonial era. But much of the rhetoric surrounding the diamond presupposes that it is the rightful property of “the Indian people” — a claim which elides the reality that at no point in the Koh-i-noor’s storied history did it belong to anyone other than an exclusive handful of royal families and powerful elites. Though the means by which it fell into the hands of the British Empire were undeniably coercive and unjust, the Koh-i-noor’s acquisition by Queen Victoria simply marked its transfer, not for the first time, from one ruling class to another.
The periodic resurgence of righteous indignation over the jewel illustrates the persistence of anticolonialism in the political rhetoric, and even the political identity, of many South Asians, decades after the end of British rule. This is especially true in the diaspora, where separation from the homeland means that for many, cultural and political symbols — from the Koh-i-noor diamond to the ubiquitous mango — take on an additional significance. But the power of symbols to capture and represent larger realities also carries the risk of flattening those realities, papering over their internal complexities and reducing them to mere facades. The nominally anticolonial politics underpinning much of the outrage over the Koh-i-noor is a far cry from the revolutionary ethos that motivated the likes of Bhagat Singh or Chandra Shekhar Azad — two of the founders of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association — who gave their lives in service of a radically transformative political project. Nor, for that matter, does it resemble in any meaningful way the more moderate position held by figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi, who shared the primary goal of securing the liberation and affirming the humanity of those who had been subjugated and dispossessed by colonial rule.
That the diamond has come to serve as an anticolonial rallying point reflects a broader trend in South Asian political discourse — the reduction of anticolonial politics to a simplified and sanitized aesthetic, in which symbolic gestures are given priority over substantive questions of power and oppression. Unlike its revolutionary predecessors, this new anticolonialism is predicated on the assumption that the project of decolonization can be meaningfully served by the elevation of brown faces to high places and the shuffling around of disputed artifacts from one national museum to another. And as the alarming rise in recent years of Hindu supremacists in India has revealed, this brand of anticolonialism is uniquely susceptible to co-option by the far right.
When news broke on October 24 that former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak would succeed the beleaguered Liz Truss to become the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of Indian origin, Indian social media feeds and news outlets overflowed with messages of adulation, many of which made renewed appeals for the Koh-i-noor to be sent home, with varying degrees of seriousness. Much of the effusive coverage of Sunak highlighted the irony of an Indian becoming P.M. and presented his ascension as a long-overdue form of postcolonial justice. “History comes full circle in Britain,” read the chyron on one NDTV broadcast, as an “Indian son rises over the empire.” The Times of India ran the front-page headline “From Age of Empire to Rishi Raj.” This triumphalist chorus, which consisted in large part of variations on the theme of “reverse colonization,” featured some of India’s most vocal critics of the British Empire — including Shashi Tharoor, the Indian parliamentarian who went viral in 2015 for a speech at the Oxford Union in which he made the impassioned case that Britain owed reparations to its former colonies. Since then, Tharoor seems to have become willing to settle for considerably less. In October he cited Sunak’s political rise as evidence that “Britain has outgrown their racism,” and in a tweet he compared Sunak to the protagonist of the 2001 Bollywood film Lagaan, which fiercely critiqued colonial rule.
These fawning responses tend not to mention the hard-right politics that enabled Sunak’s rise in the first place — particularly when it comes to immigration. Since 2012, Britain’s Conservative government has pursued what is known as a “hostile environment policy,” with the explicit goal of making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they will leave the country voluntarily. Throughout his career in Parliament, Sunak has consistently voted in favor of measures that would contribute to this “hostile environment.” During his campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, Sunak sought to burnish his anti-immigrant bona fides with a host of policy promises that included pledges to place a cap on refugees entering the United Kingdom and double the deportations of “foreigners who commit crime in our country.” He also came out as a fervent backer of Boris Johnson’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was roundly criticized by human-rights advocates as “shamefully cruel.”
It should come as no surprise that these policies have a disproportionate impact on immigrants from former British colonies. As of 2020, of the 25 largest immigrant populations in the United Kingdom by country of birth, thirteen are from countries that were previously controlled by the British Empire. (Sunak’s own mother and father immigrated in the 1960s from former British colonies in East Africa.) As legal scholar Nadine El-Enany has argued, Britain’s immigration laws have been deliberately written to exclude former colonial subjects, sending the message “that colonial wealth belongs behind Britain’s borders, only to be accessed with permission.”
Sunak is just one of several Conservative politicians of Indian descent who have risen to prominence in recent years. Other claimants to this dubious distinction include Priti Patel, who was home secretary under Boris Johnson, and Suella Braverman, who currently serves as Sunak’s home secretary. Like Sunak, both Patel and Braverman are the children of immigrants, and both have built their careers on fighting to deny others the ability to do what their own families did — move to Britain in hopes of sharing to some small extent in the wealth that was stolen from their homelands. Despite being the most prominent Indians in British politics, all three have expressed strikingly little disapproval of the empire. Sunak has remained largely silent on Britain’s imperial past, while Patel has celebrated Winston Churchill as “a truly great Briton” and “a great British hero” — ignoring his role in engineering a famine that killed more than three million Indians in Bengal. “I am not going to apologise for the empire, for our history,” Braverman recently asserted. “I am proud of the British Empire.”
This view of the past remains widespread in British society. In a 2020 YouGov poll, nearly a third of respondents agreed that the empire is something to be proud of, and more than a quarter reported wishing that Britain was still an imperial power. Among Conservative Party voters who naturally make up the core of Sunak, Patel, and Braverman’s supporters, the figures rise to 53 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Patel and Braverman’s statements may well reflect efforts to remain palatable to a right-wing base. Even so, the failure of the most prominent Indians in British political life to disavow the colonial past speaks to a disturbing willful amnesia about the brutal impact of colonization on the Indian subcontinent.
First, there is the staggering death toll — about 100 million Indians died prematurely between 1880 and 1920, when the British Empire was at the height of its power. Second, there is the plunder. Between 1765 and 1938, it is estimated that Britain looted the equivalent of $45 trillion from India through taxation and exploitative trade policies. The total wealth expropriated from the subcontinent is more than fourteen times the United Kingdom’s current GDP — a nearly immeasurable debt, and a far cry from the Koh-i-noor’s highest valuation of $591 million.
Painful colonial legacies continue to assert themselves in the form of intergenerational trauma, disproportionate rates of diabetes among South Asian populations, the exacerbation of the climate crisis, and the violent afterlives of Partition, which was Britain’s final gift to a subcontinent that had already been torn apart and bled dry over the course of two centuries. Neocolonial political and economic relations continue to play a decisive role in shaping injustice and inequality in contemporary South Asia as well, from the violent displacement by foreign mining companies of the subcontinent’s already-marginalized indigenous peoples to the abuses of international financial institutions and multinational agribusiness giants. Time and again, policies carried out by these actors in the name of “development” have had catastrophic human and ecological costs for the region’s poorest communities.
Perhaps all these legitimate grievances can help explain why the ultranationalist right wing in India has taken up the mantle of anticolonialism. In their quest to transform India from a secular, pluralist democracy into a majoritarian Hindu ethnostate, far-right actors have sought to position themselves as the natural successors to the freedom fighters of the pre-independence past — conveniently neglecting that Hindu nationalist organizations largely stayed on the sidelines of the freedom struggle, and even opposed anticolonial campaigns such as the Quit India movement.
In particular, India’s hard-right prime minister Narendra Modi has presented himself as the leader of the crusade to erase the last vestiges of colonial rule. On many occasions throughout his political career, he has railed against the so-called “colonial mindset” that he claims afflicts India even 75 years after independence, and in 2015 he crossed party lines to endorse Tharoor’s appeal for reparations. In September, after Modi announced the renaming of a major boulevard in Delhi from “Rajpath” (a reference to the king of England) to “Kartavya Path” (or “Path of Duty”), the government issued a press release outlining the steps it had taken to “firmly mark the identity of New India, truly freeing it from its colonial past” by renaming public sites and constructing memorials. Similarly, the government moved in October to repeal more than 1,500 laws enacted during the era of British rule, governing everything from kite-flying to the oral hygiene of public officials.
Of these various attempts to shed India’s colonial baggage, the vast majority are essentially superficial — renaming roads and erecting statues of freedom fighters — and have little to no impact on the lives of ordinary Indians. Meanwhile, the instruments of state violence and repression that formed the backbone of British colonial rule remain in place as key pillars of the modern authoritarian apparatus of Modi’s India. Even the legislative housecleaning — ostensibly the most substantive of the new gestures — did not include the repeal of India’s draconian colonial-era sedition law, which has seen a 28 percent rise in use against journalists, academics, and dissidents since Modi came to power in 2014. Nor did it touch the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, the descendant of a 1942 ordinance enacted by the British colonial government that grants the military nearly unlimited authority and legal impunity in “disturbed areas.” The AFSPA has been used to catastrophic effect in tumultuous regions such as Kashmir, which has itself become the target of the Indian state’s own colonial designs.
As part of the Hindu right’s efforts to present itself as the torchbearer of contemporary anticolonialism, it has also weaponized anticolonial rhetoric against its political opponents. Indians who speak out on social media against Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, are routinely attacked by right-wing trolls who accuse them of betraying their heritage and prostituting themselves for the white man. Epithets like “sepoy” and “Gunga Din” are hurled with abandon. (The latter term invokes a Rudyard Kipling poem in which the titular Indian servant lays down his own life to save his British master; the former refers to Indian soldiers who served in the armies of the colonial administration.) Likewise, those who protest the caste system, including people who have themselves experienced its violence, are routinely accused of spreading defamatory colonial myths about Hinduism. According to the specious revisionist history advanced by right-wing Hindus, the caste system — perhaps the oldest and most brutal system of oppression in human history — was itself a colonial imposition by the British, who supposedly transformed it from an innocuous and relatively unimportant social division of labor into the oppressive hierarchy that we know today.
How did we get here? In part, the blame lies with what we might call the postcolonial myth — the misguided but widely held belief that the attainment of political independence by colonized countries throughout the latter half of the twentieth century marked the end of colonialism in all its forms.
Many South Asians perpetuate this myth in the way we talk about our own history. Most of us — both in the motherland and in the diaspora — are taught from a young age a highly simplified narrative in which the people of the subcontinent, led by messianic figures such as Nehru and Gandhi, managed against all odds to shake off the British. Though this narrative is both clean and convenient, it leaves little room for the uncomfortable truth that colonial legacies and power relations did not simply vanish in August of 1947. To maintain that colonialism ended with the hoisting of new flags and the swearing-in of new political leaders is to reduce anticolonialism from a forward-looking struggle for liberation to a narrowly focused effort to wipe out the symbols of past wrongs. That project has been embraced in the South Asian diaspora, particularly among younger generations who have taken up a form of liberal politics mockingly referred to as “chai-tea liberalism,” a close relative of the “boba liberalism” that features prominently in many East Asian diasporic communities. Both privilege issues such as media representation and cultural appropriation over more substantive ones such as economic inequality, caste discrimination, anti-blackness, and immigration justice.
This tendency is of a piece with the broader liberal propensity to repackage symbolic gestures as meaningful progress. The election of a black president masks the expansion of American militarism and imperialism; the renaming of a university building diverts attention away from the institution’s investments in the engines of apartheid and ecological collapse. Liberal symbol worship turns crumbs into loaves, scraps into feasts, in an astounding feat of political shadow puppetry. Ultimately, searching for empire in the rearview mirror only serves the interests of those who still reap its ill-gotten gains — the defense contractors, Bretton Woods technocrats, and multinational corporate executives who build their careers on preserving Western hegemony and line their pockets with the blood-soaked billions that they mercilessly extract from the colonized world. To confront the Hydra that is modern-day empire, we must address everything from global vaccine apartheid to the predatory lending practices of the IMF and World Bank, all of which constantly reinforce the exploitative relationship between the Global North and the Global South. Doing so effectively will require the resurrection of a radical, liberatory politics that rejects liberal symbol worship and recognizes that empire did not die when formal sovereignty was extended to the colonies. Such a politics should move beyond the smokescreen of chauvinistic nationalism and reach across artificially imposed borders to restore solidarity between formerly colonized peoples.
When all is said and done, it makes no difference that Camilla will not wear the Koh-i-noor at the coronation, and it doesn’t matter whether Rishi Sunak even pays lip service to the idea of repatriating the diamond. Without the widespread revival of genuine anticolonialism — both in South Asia and in the diaspora — the British state will continue to enforce deadly brutality at its borders, the Indian far right will continue to misappropriate the rhetoric of liberation movements, and the violence of neocolonial exploitation across the Global South will continue unabated. The major problem facing the anticolonial cause is not that the jewel is set in a crown in Britain rather than housed in a museum display in India. The problem is that we care so much about a jewel in the first place.
Pranay Somayajula is a London-based fiction writer and essayist. He runs the blog “no more mangoes,” where he explores themes of migration, human rights, and South Asian diasporic identity from a critical left perspective.