Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Mystery of Maharaja Hari Singh jewels and treasures

Mystery of Maharaja Hari Singh jewels and treasures
Published:5/10/2011 12:00:00 PMUpdated: 5/10/2011 10:37:39 AMBy: BY BASHIR ASSAF

Over the last couple of years, a serious public debate has started raging in Jammu and Kashmir about the whereabouts of the highly priced valuables: crowns, necklaces, bracelets, rings, bangles, robes, golden swords, watches, toys, etc left by the last ruler of J&K State the late Maharaja Hari Singh. The current market value of the jewellery, crowns and family palace articles is calculated at around Rs. 100 crore.

The treasure is reported to be in the custody of the Srinagar administration till 1981 in six huge steel boxes under the direct control of the then treasurer Dewan Iqbal Nath. The treasure items, reports said, consisted of 200 blue diamonds, two diamond necklaces, diamond studded rings, hundreds of Sri Lankan and Burmese ruby pieces, 20, 000 Iraqi pearls, crowns, swords, bracelets, bangles, robes, daggers, watches, toys, etc worth Rs. 200 crore in today's market value. Two treasure boxes having 67, 000 tola gold was given as donation to the Indian National Defence Fund set up by Pandit Nehru in 1963 following India's defeat at NEFA at the hands of Chinese.

In 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh left the valley but before leaving, he deposited eight steel trunks full of priceless treasures, conservatively worth Rs 1400 crores today, in Toshkhana (treasury) in Jammu, under the trusteeship of his officer Iqbal Nath. Treasure was then shifted to Srinagar in 1951 and kept in Toshkhana at Residency Road. Iqbal Nath was responsible for the treasures for 36 years, till in 1983 he expressed his concern that who would be its custodian after his death. Throughout this period (from1947 to 1983), he ensured the safety of the treasure in the dilapidated Toshkhana. Call it the inconsiderateness of successive chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir or their inefficiency that they could not make use of this huge public property for the welfare and development of the state. By all accounts mystery still shrouds this tragedy of treasury. For historians keen to unveil the truth about the political life of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's intervention was the main reason behind not making use of treasure for the public good.

Hard to believe it may be, in 1963, two boxes - box number 5 and 3 - containing nearly 717 kg of gold (worth today Rs 60 crore) were "donated" from the treasure for the Defence Fund started by the Government of India to fight the Chinese. And Nehru accepted it delightedly. Pertinently certain items of the treasure, under certain conditions, were granted on loan by the government of Jammu and Kashmir to a charitable trust run by Dr. Karan Singh.

However, when Sheikh wanted to auction off the treasure for development projects of the state, Nehru vetoed the scheme. D.D. Thakur, who was the finance minister of Kashmir from 1975 to 1982, has revealed that Abdullah - the Chief Minister- discussed the matter of the treasure with the Cabinet twice. The six to eight trunks containing precious jewels and other artefacts were inspected twice in the Cabinet room at Srinagar. Iqbal Nath accompanied the treasure on both the occasions as the custodian.

Thakur, however, is silent, as what prompted Sheikh to give up the idea of auctioning the treasure. After 32 years, Taj Mohiuddin, whose father Brigadier Khuda Bakhsh was chief of the Maharaja's army and was the first man who was informed by the Maharaja about the treasure, raised the issue of treasure many a times in the Omar Abdullah led cabinet but to no avail because of the cold shoulder response. It certainly raises questions about the safety and security of the treasure.

On July 20, 1983, when Iqbal Nath was away from Kashmir, the J&K Government decided to make an evaluation of the vast hoard. An expert French auctioneer firm Sotheby's Reyner had been brought by the J&K Government to evaluate the jewels and he worked for four days and put the cost of the treasure at around Rs 500 crores.

The important treasures listed included a glittering ring studded with traditional nine gems arranged around a 10-carat diamond, worth approximately Rs 15 lakh. Scores of large uncut diamonds and emeralds. Two diamond necklaces, containing 200 blue diamonds, estimated at Rs 50 lakh. Hundreds of rubies from Sri Lanka and Burma, all of the same colour. Normally, it is difficult to get even two rubies of exactly the same colour. Twenty thousand pearls-the largest known collection-mostly imported from Basra in Iraq which was as well known for its priceless pearls as Golcunda was for its diamonds. Most of the pearls were sewn into dresses made of blue velvet, meant for the princes of Kashmir. The costliest item in the hoard was a pearl and diamond necklace, dating back to 1802 and worth Rs 1.02 lakh then, ceremonial horse harnesses, the diamond encrusted toys of the junior princes-miniature horses and elephants, a two-foot-long diamond and emerald necklace, the cost of which was put at around Rs 4 million. There were thousands of diamonds. The largest single diamond weighed 34 carats. There were some 100 diamonds between 15 and 20 carats, and 100 between 10 and 14 carats. There were 30 emerald belts. The loose emeralds in the treasure were at least 200 fifty carats each. The only precious stones that were missing were the famous Kashmir blue sapphires. Pearls were plenty in thousands".
In 1983, Dr. Karan Singh staked his claim for this treasure. According to him, the J&K Government had no right to these treasure boxes. It was a transaction between the "depositor (Karan Singh's father) and the custodian (the J&K Bank)". In 1989, the J&K High Court declared Dr Karan Singh as the rightful owner of 42 of the (worth 42 million rupees) 993 items that were in the six boxes. The remaining items were to be held, as disputed property, by the state treasury. Dr Karan Singh lost these when the matter went to the Supreme Court of India for its verdict.

The million dollar question, however, remains as where are these priceless treasures now?. Why the government of the day is hesitant to discuss the matter in the cabinet? Who is the custodian after the death of Iqbal Nath who had kept faith for 36 long years-guarding from the outside world this treasure worth millions of rupees.

In 2004, a double bench, comprising Justice Y. K. Sabharwal and Justice A.R. Lakshmanan, said: "There has never been any declaration that the articles in question are private properties of the appellant or his father." The Bench agreed with an order of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court holding that Dr. Singh "has not put forward any claim much less such claim having recognised by the Union of India for 30 years and all those years the appellant did not raise his little finger in respect of these movables." Now the question arises as when the Supreme Court in its land mark decision turned down the claim of Dr. Karan Singh on treasures, why the state government did not go for the auctioning of the treasures for the public good.

Minister for Irrigation and Flood Control Taj Mohiuddin's plea before the cabinet, according to him, was very simple; auction off the valuables and invest in the development. However, as the saying goes, history repeats itself, Taj's plea was turned down the same way as was the case with late Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah's plea with the only difference that at that point of time Pandit Nehru vetoed the scheme and this time around it is Sheikh's own grand son. However, Taj is very confident about the safety and security of the treasures saying that valuables were put in blocks and each block was supported by inventory when last examined and evaluated by the French expert.

But, for all practical purposes, mystery continues to shroud and that too when the government-the real custodian- fails to come around a conclusion in regard to the auctioning of the valuables at a time when the state is reeling under financial crises.

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