"We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness"
On September 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth’s death sent shockwaves throughout the world, especially in the countries of the Commonwealth.
India and Britain have had a longstanding history that’s been filled with colonialism and bloodshed but also prosperity and unity.
It’s unfair to say that the alliance has been smooth-sailing. It’s been crowded with controversy for over 300 years.
But, how was Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with India? Her status made her the head of the nation that ruled India for many years, something that many cannot forget.
However, other Indians saw her as a figure of positivity and progress.
We discuss the talking points of Her Majesty’s link with India and what her presence and death signify for the country and its people.
Her Majesty & India: A New Road Ahead?
1947 marked the end of the British Raj and Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, was the last Emperor of India.
Although, King George VI abandoned this title within the same year and instead served as ‘King of India’.
Three years later in 1950, India became a republic and its ties with the British monarchy were cut. Whilst the partition allowed independence for India, the trauma of its past remained.
In 1953, a fresh-faced Queen Elizabeth became the Queen of England and the Commonwealth nations after the death of her father, George VI.
It was only six years prior that the Queen announced her engagement with Philip.
Through this period of jubilation and mourning, the nation embraced Queen Elizabeth’s timid yet prosperous and peaceful attitude.
It was this kind of positivity that Her Majesty wanted to instil in the UK’s relations with India. After all, India was still reeling from the constraints of British rule that lasted 89 years.
It was not just the social and political aspects of India that were repressed by the British, but also the economy took a huge hit.
It is reported by sources such as VICE and Jason Hickel for Al Jazeera that $45 trillion, approximately £38.4 trillion, was drained from India by Britain between 1765 – 1938.
However, in order to rebuild the relationship between the two nations, Queen Elizabeth’s visits to India were vital.
The first visit was especially important because it emphasised Her Majesty’s plea to continue a thriving rapport with the country where both could blossom.
After her first visit, The Times emphasised how Queen Elizabeth was much more than the monarchy before her, stating:
“Elizabeth came not as a patronising ruler on a tour of an empire, but an equal.”
It was no secret that the Queen adored India, despite the past tensions. She made a total of three state visits and in one address, she said:
“The warmth and hospitality of the Indian people and the richness and diversity of India itself have been an inspiration to all of us.”
This was the start of Her Majesty’s ambition to build a forward-thinking link between Britain and India. And it was the visits that really honed in on this intention.
Decade’s Worth of Visits
Queen Elizabeth’s visits to India were filled with publicity, historical sites and crowd-pleasing speeches.
In 1961, she took her first visit with her late husband, Prince Phillip.
Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh toured numerous cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay.
In Kolkata, the Queen even visited a monument built in memory of Queen Victoria.
During this time, they also went to the grand Taj Mahal as well as paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi.
The then President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, invited the pair as Guests of Honour at the Republic Day Parade.
This set the tone for Queen Elizabeth’s perception in India as she spoke to several thousand people who were all cheering and waving flags of both countries.
Donning a fur coat and hat, she spoke to the hearts of all those packed into the Ramlila Grounds.
On this visit, Her Majesty formally opened the buildings of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences ceremony.
A plaque commemorating the event still remains on a pillar inside the JL Nehru Auditorium building.
Although the partition was only 13 years prior to The Queen’s first visit, many saw her in a light that shimmered differently from the British Raj.
She had a warm ambience about her and given her young age, Indians felt she cared for the country.
Watch Exclusive Footage of Queen Elizabeth’s 1961 Visit:
In 1983, Queen Elizabeth’s second visit to India was to meet with Commonwealth leaders.
Here, Her Majesty was pictured with then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, which had a profound impact on young Indian women.
In a column for The Financial Times, Indian journalist and author, Nilanjana Roy, highlighted this:
“What stayed with me was the image of our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and Elizabeth Regina in conversation.
“Two powerful women, one the head of the world’s most populous democracy, one the dignified and similarly steely head of a constitutional monarchy.
“I believed, naively in retrospect, that this was how it would always be – women would rule the world with iron competence and would occupy more and more positions of power.”
However, this appearance in the country is famously known due to Queen Elizabeth gifting Mother Theresa with an honorary Order of the Merit.
This illustrated her appreciation of humanitarian work and welcoming nature towards other important figures.
She didn’t seem to come across as a person who demanded others to bow down to her, just because of her title.
Instead, she took an interest in how other elites conducted themselves and how that could play a part in her relationship with other nations.
In contrast, Queen Elizabeth’s final visit to India was at a time of national and international tragedy. Her journey was set against the backdrop of Princess Diana’s death.
Additionally, the trip was also brushed with controversy.
The Queen was due to visit Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial park where hundreds of Indians were shot by British troops in 1919. It was one of the gruesomest massacres in British history.
However, Queen Elizabeth spoke at a banquet reception in Delhi and expressed:
“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in the past – Jalianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example.
“But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.”
“It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
The speech seemed to downplay the past violent and troubled history between the two nations. It was especially unsatisfying for Indians who were calling for The Queen to apologise.
Prince Philip was also at the centre of some scrutiny after stating that the numbers of those killed had been “exaggerated”.
However, Her Majesty did appreciate how pivotal India was to Britain:
“Nearly 2 million of our own citizens are tied by descent and enduring family links to India.
“They represent one of the United Kingdom’s most dynamic and successful communities…
“…relations between our two countries are built on strong and deep foundations, and are set fair for the 21st century.”
Another interesting aspect of Queen Elizabeth’s last visit was her royal dress. It was fascinating to the Indian media.
One instance was when she visited Amritsar and was allowed to enter the temple wearing socks after taking off her shoes.
Many thought she was respectful, at one point she walked barefoot across a war memorial site.
But the media didn’t see the consistency and thought that was more concerning for someone of such stature.
Whilst each of The Queen’s visits was booming with cultural history, there were glimmers of the pain that Indians still felt towards the monarchy.
Although, Queen Elizabeth made sure in her testimonies in and about India was fuelled with acknowledgement and understanding.
The Kohinoor Controversy
The Kohinoor diamond is one of the world’s largest diamonds.
The 105-carat gemstone means “Mountain of Light” in Persian and is set in the crown of the Queen Mother, displayed in the Tower of London.
As news of Queen Elizabeth’s death rang out, thousands called upon Britain to return the jewel.
The Kohinoor’s journey to India went through the Mughal empire, then Afghanistan with the Persian invader, Nadir Shah.
Shah supposedly named the diamond which travelled through different dynasties. In 1809, it was eventually in the possession of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Maharaja of Punjab.
He was the one who solidified the grand nature of the gem.
Historians Anita Anand and William Dalrymple affirmed this in their book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (2017):
“It was not just that Ranjit Singh liked diamonds and respected the stone’s vast monetary value; the gem seems to have held a far greater symbolism for him.
“The transition is startling when the diamond becomes a symbol of potency rather than beauty.”
However, it was here where things began to get tricky. One of the controversial topics is that many Indians believe the diamond was stolen during British colonialism.
This stems from the dispute between Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
In 1849, aged only 10, Singh was ‘forced’ to amend and sign the Treaty of Lahore which required him to give away the Kohinoor.
From there, it was in the possession of Queen Victoria.
However, on its public display in 1851, many Britains couldn’t bring themselves to believe such a brilliant and vast diamond was anything more than a common piece of glass.
Therefore, it was recut and eventually placed in the Crown Jewels.
The Queen Mother was the eventual owner of the crown which she wore in public at the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.
The crown itself made its last public appearance in 2002 when it was placed upon the Queen Mother’s coffin.
During her reign, The Queen made no attempt to respond to or publicly address the controversy around it.
However, in her passing, many have used social media to call for a return. Geopolitical fanatic, Anushree tweeted:
“It should come back to its origin, [it’s] the least UK can do towards the centuries of exploitation, oppression, racism, slavery inflicted on people of the Indian subcontinent.”
Fellow Indian, Vivek Singh, also stated on Twitter:
“Queen Elizabeth has died today…Can we get our Kohinoor Diamond back, which was stolen by the British from India.
“They created wealth on others death, famine, torchers & looting.”
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reign, India has regained some historical artefacts, including a 900-year-old ‘Parrot Lady’ sculpture from Canada.
But, numerous Indians questioned why the Kohinoor still remained in the hands of the British. Why couldn’t it be returned?
Given its history and different periods of possession, other countries have also tried to take ownership of the jewel.
Although, it seems that the Kohinoor won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
As King Charles III was formally proclaimed King on September 10, 2022, his wife Camilla, Queen consort of the UK, will be the new owner of the crown.
Death and Reaction
As the largest country in the Commonwealth of Nations, Queen Elizabeth’s death had a muted reaction in vast parts of India.
Of course, world leaders including Prime Minister Modi, tweeted his sadness at the news:
“Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered as a stalwart of our times. She provided inspiring leadership to her nation and people.
“She personified dignity and decency in public life. Pained by her demise. My thoughts are with her family and people of the UK in this sad hour.”
The government set out a day of mourning on September 11, 2022, four days after Her Majesty’s passing.
Flags flew at half staff in honour but Sucheta Mahajan, a history professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University said:
“If you look at the social media, there is a lot of discussions but not much concern.
“They are not treating it like the death of an important world leader. After all, she did not call the shots.”
Professor of Medieval Indian History at Delhi University, Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri, added to this with his view:
“The monarchy cannot be detached from this history.
“The colonial rule has left India with legacies we are still struggling with. The British looted India for 200 years.”
However, there were mixed emotions within India. Others viewed The Queen as a person in her own right, not one attached to the monarchy.
Author and director, Aseem Chhabra, said the media had a big part to play in this. For example, The Crown on Netflix gave modern audiences a different perspective of Queen Elizabeth:
“I know many people who had no sense of the British royal family, but they watched The Crown.
“These people were young when Princess Diana died. But the Netflix show gave them a human perspective of the royal family, especially the late queen.”
Former Indian minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar expressed his feelings to The Independent:
“She had to preside over Britain’s retreat from global dominance, and she did so with resilience and restraint.
“She became the Queen a good six years after Indian independence.
“To confuse her with the empire is to make the historical mistake that this government stands accused of.”
Whilst most Indians now were born a generation after the British Raj, it’s clear that the scars are still poignant.
Even looking at the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, the legacy of colonialism is still a painful one to bear.
Western dress codes, street names, and laws enacted under the British Raj are still there.
A much forward-thinking and younger Indian generation is looking at their country’s past in a more different and stern way.
It explains one reason why there was so much muted sadness ringing around the country.
For example, Ravi Mishra for CNN said:
“If you don’t see people mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth in India, [it is] because she doesn’t have that connection with the new generation of Indians.
“She was in a position of power for 70 years when she could have done a lot.
“You know, all the bad that the British did to this country and to the other countries around the world. She did nothing.”
Political analyst, Sandeep Gandotra, proclaimed his view on Queen Elizabeth’s passing:
“Britishers took everything from India.
“As Queen of Britain, she might have left some legacy for Britons, not for India.”
Ironically, hours before The Queen’s death, Prime Minister Modi renamed an avenue in New Delhi to Rajpath.
It was originally named Kingsway after King George V, Her Majesty’s grandfather. In a statement during the name change, Modi declared:
“Kingsway, or Rajpath, the symbol of slavery, has become a matter of history from today and has been erased forever.”
Whilst this wasn’t a direct reaction to Queen Elizabeth’s passing, it is a power move to eradicate some of the harsh reminders of British rule.
Most importantly, the mixed emotions around India in relation to Her Majesty’s passing are not so much about her as an individual.
In an attempt to acknowledge the perception of The Queen and have respect for her passing, Modi came out to address the narrative.
He said “we should respect the dead” and although there have been “human rights violations” and a “horrible past”, Queen Elizabeth deserves “a dignified and final adieu”.
Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the longest-serving monarch will never be forgotten.
Although her relationship with India was often troubled, it was more because of the tense relationship between the two countries.
She was a very fond character of India and appreciated its culture, people and historical allegiance to the British.
Whilst many cannot look past the colonial rule that her stature represented, others saw the kind nature that Her Majesty gave on her visits and hosting of Indian officials/people.
Likewise, this has a profound effect on the British Asian communities. Again, many had mixed reactions to her passing but others valued her service.
It will be interesting to see how King Charles III builds upon the relationship with India but undoubtedly, Queen Elizabeth left a lasting impression on the country – good and bad.