Anger over past, indifference meet queen’s death in India

Krutika Pathi
I'm a correspondent looking at South Asia from New Delhi
KrutikaPathikpathi@ap.org
September 13, 2022 GMT

NEW DELHI (AP) — Just hours before news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death spread, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a fiery speech urging India to shed its colonial ties in a ceremony to rename a boulevard that once honored King George V.

Rajpath, formerly called Kingsway, was a “symbol of slavery” under the British Raj, he said. Instead, under the newly named Kartavya Path that leads to the iconic India Gate, “a new history has been created,” Modi beamed.

His speech last Thursday was the latest in a concerted drive 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, has moved on.

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The renovated avenue now boasts a black granite statue of Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, in the place where a mold of King George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather, once stood.

The queen’s death provoked sympathies to a deeply respected figure from some while for a few others, it jogged memories of a bloody history under the British crown. But among most regular Indians, the news was met with an indifferent shrug.

The British monarchy “holds precisely zero relevance to Indians today — they are of no importance,” said Kapil Komireddi, author of “Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.”

British rule shaped the country in significant ways, but India has since overtaken the British economy in size.

“The country has come into its own ... As a rising power, India can gain a lot from the U.K. but the U.K. can gain a whole lot more from India,” Komireddi added.

On Thursday, Modi penned a heartfelt note, calling the queen “a stalwart of our times,” while 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 with 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 do not think we have any place for kings and queens in today’s world, because we are the world’s largest democratic country,” he said.

Elizabeth visited India three times during her reign and was the first monarch to tour the newly freed country, cementing the start of fresh ties with Britain. After her coronation in 1953, she arrived in the capital New Delhi in 1961, where she addressed a massive crowd and nearly a million people lined up along streets to catch a glimpse of her and her husband, Prince Philip.

Darshan Paul was 10 or 11 years old when she stood along a road in New Delhi and waved an Indian flag at the queen. “I remember her gloved hand waving back at me and was so impressed,” Paul, now 71, said.

There was abundant excitement and curiosity around her visit, Paul recalled, as she and her friends poured over newspaper photos of the queen and were dazzled by the gowns she wore.

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But it was a different time then, Paul said, as she acknowledged that the traditional bond some Indians once held with the royal family has morphed dramatically since.

“To young Indians today, they seem like any other high-profile celebrity family - you might follow news of them because you want to know what is happening behind closed doors. But beyond the glamor and celebrity allure, they don’t hold any significance any more.”

If her son, who was formally proclaimed King Charles III over the weekend, were to make an official visit to India, “it will certainly not matter as much,” Paul added.

The queen’s last visit in 1997 was tinged with controversy when she traveled to a memorial dedicated to hundreds of unarmed Indians who were killed by British colonial forces in 1919, amid calls for an apology over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

For many, the royal family remains a hallmark of a deeply painful history. Colonial rule is still remembered for the extraordinary violence and suffering it spawned, from numerous famines and economic exploitation to ultimately an unprecedented level of bloodshed in the partition of India and Pakistan.

Scrolling through social media after the news, 25-year-old Sumedha Chatterjee said the tweets in support of the queen felt almost like people had forgotten about all the “loot and plunder” the British monarchy oversaw. “They built their empire on the backs of the so-called third world,” she added.

Just hours after her death, Indian social media lit up with renewed calls for the return of the famous Koh-i-Noor, the 106-carat diamond discovered in India that is part of the British crown jewels.

“If the king is not going to wear (the) Koh-i-Noor, give it back,” quipped one user.

Ever since gaining independence, India has moved to shed its colonial ties, including changing back the names of a clutch of cities that were renamed during British rule. In the 1960s, officials removed figures of British officials and royalty from public view — the statue of King George V, which stood tall under the canopy of India Gate, was moved to Coronation Park, a graveyard 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 scrub away colonial-era street names, some laws and even flag symbols.

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Such gestures “represent a new India” which has nothing to do with the monarchy, said Archana Ojha, a professor of history at Delhi University. She added, though, that the country’s imperial history can’t be hidden away.

“We may not need to cherish some of the legacies, but we need to preserve them to teach our future generations. We cannot just erase it completely,” she said.

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Associated Press journalist Rishi Lekhi contributed to this report.

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