Diamonds, Discourse, and the Indian Diaspora

Every spring, the Hollywood elite gets dressed for the Met Gala—an exclusive fundraising and fashion event dating back to the late 1940s. Their stylists carefully craft looks to push them outside the box of conventional attire. For the 2022 Met Gala, Emma Chamberlain’s stylists found what they thought was the perfect accessory: an eight-pendant heavyset choker extravagantly studded with white and yellow diamonds.

Although Chamberlain credited her necklace to Cartier, a luxury goods provider, some fans recognized these jewels as part of the Maharaja of Patiala’s diamond necklace, which was stolen by the British under their Crown Rule of India (1858 to 1947). While this may just be a necklace to some, for many South Asians like myself, it is a bitter reminder of how colonization continues to influence popular culture and prolongs a cycle of division to this day. India may be independent from British rule, but we will never be free as long as institutions and media rewrite history to fit a Eurocentric narrative. 

Colonizing Cultures Over Land

The Maharaja of Patiala commissioned Cartier to create the infamous necklace in the late 1920s. Back then, it was more than a choker, with five separate platinum chains and thousands of diamonds and rubies. Most notably, the necklace featured the De Beers yellow diamond, pushing its value upwards of thirty million dollars by today’s standards. With the necklace, people regarded Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja at the time, as one of the richest rulers in the world. 

Yet, by the end of the twentieth century, unidentified bandits had looted the necklace and scattered it in fragments across the United Kingdom. One century later, bits and pieces found their way to the Met Gala, where rising American micro-celebrities adorn jewels once worn by kings. As time goes on, the artifact disconnects further from Punjab, its origin.

The necklace’s theft is only one instance of the British draining South Asian civilizations of their riches. The Queen Mother of England brandished the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond on her crown during the late twentieth century, and many still advocate for its return after the death of Queen Elizabeth. According to Utsa Pattnaik, an Indian economist, Britain deprived India’s economy of  around forty-five trillion dollars of wealth in under two centuries, which is fourteen times greater than each of India and Britain’s current GDP.

Most of my own family immigrated from Punjab, yet I had never heard of this necklace or its original owner prior to the headlines following the 2022 Met Gala. Neither my parents nor most Indian people in my life are worried about the choker being returned to India. Some may argue that because of how little it currently impacts desi people—a term used to refer to all people of South Asian descent—the history of the necklace is less meaningful than other examples of stolen South Asian goods.

Although most Punjabi people do not widely recognize the choker as culturally significant, it is reminiscent of a time when India possessed a sliver of its original wealth and prosperity. It was only one king who placed the order, and his ability to do so represents the forgotten history of many.

Colonization extends further than the acquisition of land. The British Raj officially ended in 1947, but its influence lingers. The British robbed India of its self-sufficiency and harshly stunted its growth, and even as an independent nation, India struggles to recover from the theft of their affluence. The case of the diamond choker may not single-handedly distress the desi community, but it represents a more pressing concern. 

The Power of Intent (Or Lack Thereof)

Emma Chamberlain received backlash for her Met Gala look from many South Asians, particularly younger Indian-Americans. At first glance, I also blamed her, upset that she could flaunt goods that Punjabi people themselves could not retrieve. However, this uproar traces past Chamberlain to her stylists, and past her stylists to Cartier. The Maharaja may have commissioned Cartier for the piece, but they obtained the necklace’s stolen remains and exploited it for more profit, a series of actions that neither Chamberlain or her team would have tracked. Beyond Cartier, the original thieves have not been identified and likely never will be.

This story features several layers of cultural appropriation. The “Emma Chamberlains” of appropriation are often blamed for their ignorance, while the “Cartiers” escape scot-free; the thieves carry on with their lives and the “Maharajas” become obsolete. But in search of someone to blame, we tend to stop the flow of progress. We should hold individuals accountable for their actions, but blind criticism of their ignorance fails to address the flawed narrative of history that led them astray.

Colonization perpetuates these cycles. Europeans and Americans time and time again wield tokens of desi history, but colonization already erased much of their primary significance and cultural meaning. Rarely do people intentionally tread over South Asian history; it was already rewritten in a way that they don’t understand.

Systemic Colonialism in the Modern Age

Institutions uphold the legacies of colonization. The British education system leads students to believe that colonization was an act of goodwill instead of greed, despite several historians asserting otherwise. The government repeatedly ignores the true severity of British imperialism to promote nationalism. As a direct consequence, generations of British citizens will continue underestimating colonization’s trail of destruction on the world. 

The way officials and institutions around the world reacted to Queen Elizabeth’s death exemplifies this phenomenon. Although she was a prominent cultural icon for years, she is not guilt-free. She was alive and well during colonization, and wore the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond emblematic of her racist ancestors until the day she died. Many Indians became enamored with her royal status and fame, even mourning her death in large, public settings. My own parents were upset about her death, disregarding past traumas to accept a common Eurocentric narrative.

Colonization also set the stage for the precedent that the UK is “developed” and South Asian countries are still “developing.” This power dynamic leads us to excuse colonizers’ bad acts, believing that we should be grateful for their support and attention at all. British officials travel to former colonies and expect praise and excitement, and the worst part is, they ultimately receive it.

They lecture us on economic development, ignoring their role in our economic decline. They criticize economic development in the Global South because of its environmental impact, despite creating much of the damage themselves. They talk about building bridges and infrastructure for India, as though the British Raj helped more than it hurt. The Global North looks down from a pedestal that they forced the Global South to build, perpetuating a colonizer mindset that plagues us today. 

The people we know and trust will inevitably carry on these ideologies, even without meaning to. Even at Northeastern, one of my classmates insisted that the British created chicken tikka masala, citing only a Wikipedia page, despite it being developed by South Asian chefs and originating from South Asian cuisine. In middle school, a teacher told me that I pronounced “namaste” incorrectly because of her yoga class. Neither of these people intended to do any harm, but still perpetuated falsehoods—no matter how insignificant they may seem—based on popular and pervasive narratives outside of their or my control. By doing so, however, they insist upon the legitimacy of their experiences over mine, continuing a cycle of misunderstanding. 

For every existing trace of colonization, we can pass the blame around over and over again. The manner in which entities like Cartier ignore and therefore trivialize South Asian issues can cause an uproar among our community. But, by giving credit where credit is due and moving forward, we can provide some form of justice to those who imperialism wronged. 

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