Expectedly, the passing away of Queen Elizabeth II was received by most Indians with a heavy heart and a feeling of loss… loss that comes when an era ends. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t as though the entire nation erupted into a symphony of collective mourning. There were the expected bitter comments on social media about the “evil British empire” that the Queen represented… one which had enslaved and colonised India for long decades, looted our treasures, particularly the Kohinoor diamond, and inflicted untold tyranny and misery on Indian “subjects”.
And yet the British monarch’s soft power… her elegance, grace, unmatched dignity and charisma, and above all, that infectious smile, which never waned with her advancing years, gained her global respect, including in India.
Her long reign of 70 years had its share of jeers and criticism, catcalls, anger and fury, more in the United Kingdom than elsewhere, with thousands of British citizens often asking why the exchequer was spending so much on the British monarchy, whose members they accused of doing little other than prancing around ceremoniously, wrapped in the luxuries provided by the taxpayers’ money.
That dislike and resentment for the monarchy, represented for seven decades by Elizabeth, came to a crescendo in 1997 when Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. Never known to be on the best of terms with Diana, the Queen, who was in her Balmoral Castle in Scotland at that time, gave no signal she’d return to London for the funeral. After all, Diana was no longer a royalty, after a divorce with Charles, then Prince of Wales. But the outpouring of grief at the princess’s death not only in Britain but across the world, left the British royalty stunned.
This turned out to be the worst crisis of her long reign; the tornado of public grief only sharpened the recrimination against the royal family, particularly the Queen, as she did not rush back to London. Ultimately, perhaps due to pressure from the media, which painted her as an uncaring and cold-hearted human being, with headlines such as Where is the Queen, Do they care, etc, or the mountains of bouquets that piled up outside Buckingham Palace, the Queen decided to act.
As debates raged on whether the Queen would even attend her former daughter-in-law’s funeral, Elizabeth’s trademarks… astute sense of duty and how to do the right thing at the right time, came to the fore. Perhaps Diana being the mother of a future British king ultimately helped the decision of the woman who had been tutored so assiduously in her duties as a British monarch.
The Queen did return to London a day before the funeral, and her masterstroke was a live broadcast to her subjects, which went a long way to mollify the angry British citizens. In that heartwarming, spontaneous speech, she talked about dealing with grief and loss and how everybody tries “in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings — disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.” A warm tribute to Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being” followed. Significantly, she added, that “lessons would be learnt” from the whole tragedy. This was damage control at its best and saved the day for the royal family. It made her appear far from cold-hearted. She was human after all, proclaimed that speech.
Queen Elizabeth was the 42nd in a line of kings and queens of first England, then Britain, then the United Kingdom. She was also the queen and head of state of 15 other countries, from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand to the Bahamas and Canada, which were all once part of the former British empire. Heading the Commonwealth for seven decades meant being a leader of 54 countries with a population of 2.1 billion people, comprising a third of the global population. The numbers speak for themselves. She wielded no political power over these people, and yet she was looked upon as a charismatic leader with a magic persona that attracted hordes of people wherever she went.
In her own country too, she had neither political or decision-making power in the real sense of the word. But she held the right to be consulted, and is believed to have warned or cautioned and even ticked off an odd PM in her own royal, restrained style. During her reign she saw and “advised” 15 British prime ministers, the latest being Liz Truss.
She is said to have shared a “special relationship” with her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, who is not exactly popular in India, having made such acerbic comments against India, particularly Mahatma Gandhi in pre-independence India. Remember his infamous quip when he was briefed about the Bengal famine of 1943 killing nearly 3 million Indians from hunger and malnutrition related diseases? He said petulantly: “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Her marriage to Prince Philip of Greece, the impoverished nephew of the deposed king of Greece, is an interesting story, and shows the young Elizabeth had her own mind and was no royal pushover. A commentary in The Guardian says: “Five years older than Elizabeth, handsome and of royal birth, Philip was not in the list of the top dozen eligible suitors and there were attempts by her parents to put her off him. Even palace servants sneered at him when he turned up to stay at weekends because of the holes in his shoes, his lack of spare clothes and unsavoury relatives.” But she stood her ground, accepted his proposal, and the rest is history.
Interestingly Elizabeth’s reign straddled the presidency of 14 US presidents — from Truman to Joe Biden, and she met them all, except Lyndon Johnson. When she passed away at the age of 96, flags at US government buildings flew at half-mast in recognition of the “indefinable yet undeniable” soft power she wielded in all parts of the world. It’s a tribute to her unmatched dignity, grace and elegance that the Democrats and Republicans, who are ready to jump at each other’s throats in a jiffy in the US, were both fond of the British Queen.
Americans having “respect” for a monarch seems to be a ridiculous idea, but if ever they did respect a monarch, then that was Queen Elizabeth. Several accounts from the memoirs of celebrities and highly respected public figures such as Michelle Obama, show that despite all the protocol that her position demanded, the Queen was not a stiff and stuffy figure. In her memoir, Michelle recalls that while visiting the Queen, she made a blunder by putting her hand on the Queen’s back; protocol demands one should not touch the Queen. Only later she discovered she had committed “an epic faux pas” but the Queen “appeared okay with it, too, because when I touched her, she only pulled closer, pressing a gloved hand lightly on the small of my back.”
Bill Clinton astutely observed: “Her majesty impressed me as someone who, but for the circumstance of her birth, might have become a successful politician or diplomat. As it was, she had to be both, without quite seeming to be either.” She was one of the most widely travelled people, with her duties making her criss-cross across the Commonwealth and several other countries. But she never played politics, show exasperation in public or make any controversial remarks. Her statements were balanced and her words well measured.
Nelson Mandela enjoyed a very close relationship with the Queen in the years after his release from prison, and was on first name basis with her. They also talked on the phone frequently, had mutual respect and affection and he had a special name for her — Motlalepula — which means ‘to come with rain’, which referred to the torrential rain she brought on her visit to South Africa after a long dry spell.
Coming to India and the Queen, the question begging an answer is that if Indians had suffered for such long years under British rule and the country was impoverished by its rulers who took away such immense wealth out of India, why was Queen Elizabeth not a hated figure here? It’s a complex question with multiple answers. For one, Elizabeth acceded to the throne only in 1952 when her father King George VI died and her coronation took place only in 1953. India was already an independent country when she became Queen.
Also, by the time the colonisation, and exploitation of India took place, the English monarchy was well on its way to becoming a mere figurehead power. It was the powerful East India company, and a huge network of politicians and powerful officials, who set about the task of monetising the British colonies around the world, India being one of its more treasured “conquests”.
Nelson Mandela enjoyed a very close relationship with the Queen, was on first name basis with her and they talked on the phone frequently.
Popular writer Robin Artisson expressed it well in a post after the demise of the Queen, when he wrote: “I write for my friends outside of the UK… a lot of people seem intent on pinning the last 400 years of colonial evil on Queen Elizabeth, or on her son (now king) Charles. I don’t think this is coherent or historically supportable. Your enemy — the thing that actually colonized or murdered people, or exploited people — is Capitalism. And Capital is not one family, or even a collection of families; it is a terrible evil that disperses itself into every corner of life. Perhaps being blamed for centuries of evil that there’s no way a person could have done anything about (or reversed) is one of the risks that comes with becoming a head of state or a figurehead. In the United States, we ignore the actual power brokers of capital and blame everything on the President, who is actually quite limited in his own power to affect much systemic change. Perhaps this is just human; we want a face and a name to hate and blame.” Uncannily familiar, isn’t it?
Such interesting historic perspectives remind us that it was not Elizabeth who colonised any nation or declared war on any country. It was her country’s prime ministers and politicians who did so. She only played the role she had inherited, that of a symbolic and ceremonial figurehead… with matchless grace, dignity and elegance. She showed no trace of arrogance or was hoity-toity as could have been expected from such a powerful royal.
And all this bang in the midst of the scandals and upheavals the royal family that she presided over faced over the years of her reign. She had to deal with a number of failed marriages — that of Charles, Anne, Andrew — with a furious Diana spilling all the royal secrets to the media in candid interviews, and making the British monarchy hated more than ever. The royal soap opera continued in the last few years with Andrew, widely regarded as her favourite son, being forced to relinquish royal duties thanks to his friendship with an American paedophile, and last, but not the least, Prince Harry’s estrangement from the royal family following his marriage to the American actress Meghan Markle.
But the stoic Elizabeth laboured on, even as her advancing years forced her to take a break from her regular public engagements. During her platinum jubilee celebrations, she could make only two brief appearances on the Buckingham Palace balcony.
It is a miracle that when she passed on, she managed to retain the affection and respect of most of the British people, who had jeered at and mocked the royal family mercilessly. The outpouring of public emotion as the Queen’s funeral, the first State one since Churchill’s in 1965, was under way, the 400-odd world leaders who attended it, was astounding. Even though her death rekindled conversation about Britain’s dark colonial past, it was mourned as the passing of an era. The overwhelming sense of loss the UK and the world felt, was a huge tribute to the Queen’s sense of diligence and duty, her grace and charm, and her “soft power”, that comes from a special smile, a particular brand of elegance and charisma. As the UN General Secretary Antonio Gueterres said in his tribute, “Queen Elizabeth was a pillar without peer on the world stage. A reassuring and inspiring presence, she was an anchor of stability across decades of often turbulent history.”
It was Elizabeth’s mystique and magic that made the bulk of Indians forget, temporarily at least, horrific memories of the British Raj and spontaneously join Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he called her a “stalwart of our times” in his tribute, adding “she personified dignity and decency in public life.”
And no eyebrows were raised when the Indian government announced a day of mourning for the Queen.