Anger at the past, indifference meets the death of the queen in India
Just hours before news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death spread, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a fiery speech urging India to sever colonial ties at a ceremony to rename a boulevard that honored formerly King George V.
Rajpath, formerly called Kingsway, was a “symbol of slavery” under the British Raj, he said. Instead, under the new name of Kartavya Path which leads to the iconic India Gate, “a new story has been created”, beamed Modi.
His speech last Thursday was the latest in a concerted campaign to purge India of its colonial relics. It was also a clear sign that the country, once the largest of Britain’s colonies that endured two centuries of imperial rule, was moving on.
The revamped avenue now houses a black granite statue of Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, where a cast of King George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather once stood.
The Queen’s death has sparked sympathy in some for a deeply respected figure while for a few others it has rekindled memories of a bloody history under the British crown. But among most ordinary Indians, the news was met with an indifferent shrug.
The British monarchy “has precisely no relevance to Indians today – they don’t matter,” said Kapil Komireddi, author of “Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India”.
British rule shaped the country significantly, but India has since surpassed the British economy in size.
“The country has come into its own…As a rising power, India can gain a lot from the UK, but the UK can gain a lot more from India,” Komireddi added.
On Thursday, Modi penned a heartfelt note, calling the Queen a “pillar of our times”, as the government declared a day of mourning. But for most Indians born a generation after independence from the British in 1947, there is little attachment to the queen or the royal family.
Sankul Sonawane, 20, was at home when he heard the news, which had “no impact” on him. “We have no sense of emotional connection to the Queen. She was a monarch and I don’t believe in the idea of a monarchy.
Dhiren Singh, a 57-year-old entrepreneur in New Delhi, felt the same way. “I don’t think we have any room for kings and queens in today’s world because we are the biggest democratic country in the world,” he said.
Elizabeth visited India three times during her reign and was the first monarch to visit the newly liberated country, cementing the start of new ties with Britain. After her coronation in 1953, she arrived in the capital New Delhi in 1961, where she addressed a huge crowd and almost a million people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of her and her husband , Prince Philip.
Darshan Paul was 10 or 11 when she stood along a road in New Delhi and waved an Indian flag at the Queen. “I remember his gloved hand waving at me and I was so impressed,” said Paul, now 71.
There was a lot of excitement and curiosity surrounding her visit, Paul recalls, as she and her friends pored over newspaper photos of the Queen and were dazzled by the dresses she wore.
But those were different times, Paul said, as she recognized that the traditional connection some Indians once had with the royal family has since changed dramatically.
“To young Indians today, they look like any other high profile celebrity family – you might follow their news because you want to know what’s going on behind closed doors. But beyond the glamor and celebrity, they no longer have any meaning.
If his son, who was officially proclaimed King Charles III over the weekend, were to make an official visit to India, “it certainly won’t matter as much,” Paul added.
The Queen’s last visit in 1997 was tinged with controversy when she visited a memorial to hundreds of unarmed Indians who were killed by British colonial forces in 1919, amid calls for an apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
For many, the royal family remains the mark of a deeply painful history. Colonial rule is still remembered for the extraordinary violence and suffering it brought, from numerous famines and economic exploitation to an unprecedented level of bloodshed during the partition of India and Pakistan. .
Scouring social media after the news, Sumedha Chatterjee, 25, said the tweets supporting the Queen almost made it seem like people had forgotten about all the “looting and looting” overseen by the British monarchy. “They built their empire on the backs of the so-called Third World,” she added.
Just hours after his death, Indian social media lit up with renewed calls for the return of the famous Koh-i-Noor, the 106-carat discovered in India that is among Britain’s crown jewels.
“If the king is not going to wear (the) Koh-i-Noor, give it back,” one user joked.
Since its independence, India has decided to shed its colonial ties, including changing the names of a group of cities that were renamed during British rule. In the 1960s, authorities removed figures of British civil servants and royalty from public view – the statue of King George V, which stood under the canopy of India Gate, was moved to Coronation Park, a cemetery or final resting place for Imperial symbols in the Capital.
And under Modi there has been renewed vigor to reclaim India’s past, which has seen the government erase colonial-era street names, some laws and even flag symbols.
Such gestures “represent a new India” that has nothing to do with the monarchy, said Archana Ojha, a history professor at Delhi University. She added, however, that the country’s imperial history cannot be hidden.
“We may not need to cherish some of the legacies, but we need to preserve them to teach our future generations. We can’t just completely erase it,” she said.
Associated Press reporter Rishi Lekhi contributed to this report.
This story was originally published September 13, 2022 12:36 a.m.