With the sad passing of , the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries have entered a new era.
National challenges abound – inflation, falling incomes, slowing growth and a falling pound but amidst all this is the constant that is the Royal Family, and the Queen in particular, as an institution and symbol of British national identity. For British Indians too, royalty in Britain is a subject of reverence, controversies over Britain’s colonial past notwithstanding.
India reacted with diplomatic finesse to the state mourning. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not attend the funeral, however the newly elected , attended on behalf of the government. This was appropriate as she is the head of state under the Indian system, not the PM.
Through such senior representation, India showed the respect that it had for Queen Elizabeth II and a willingness to continue to engage with Britain going forward. In fact, India went further with a day of official mourning on September 11, with Indian flags flying at half-mast. Indeed, given the nearly 1 million people of Indian origin living in the UK, it was a rather global Indian gesture.
The issued a statement of mourning, as did cultural landmarks such as . The overarching sentiment among was one of mourning, reflecting the deep connect with their adopted country.
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The broader question, however, is around the view in some quarters that the Royal Family as a symbol of colonialism. What legacy does it leave for Indians and many others in the global south, many of whom were impoverished by British rule? These are not easy questions to answer.
For some people, the Royal Family remains a symbol of a heartless occupier. The Queen was coronated six years after Indian independence, at a time when many of the countries were also preparing for independence from British rule.
While it can be argued that Queen Elizabeth II and her son and heir, King Charles III, neither overtly condoned colonialism nor espoused racist views, the destructive impact of and racism exceeds overt gestures. India was reduced from being over 25 per cent of global GDP in the mid-1600s (and before that), to absolute poverty by 1947 with a majority of the population barely subsisting in poverty.
Millions of Indians also died in famines under British rule. Bear in mind this only describes the impact on India, not other colonial era crimes in the global South such as slavery in Africa. So the history of colonialism cannot entirely be delinked from the monarchy.
And, reflective of this uneasy legacy of a colonial past is the Koh-i-Noor. Some in India argue that the famous diamond, currently adorning the Queen Mother’s crown in the fabled Tower of London, should be returned to India as it found its way into the royal coffers unlawfully.
The possession of the diamond by the House of Windsor is another symbol of British dominion in the Indian subcontinent, at precisely the moment that the Modi government is actively decolonising India by .
It does not take a great leap of imagination to suggest that the Indian government could formally ask for the Koh-i-Noor some time in the future, although whether they will do so remains to be seen. It may come to be seen in India as a symbolic act of restitution, at a time when the UK is actively seeking to boost its economic growth via with India.
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The fate of the monarchy, meanwhile, remains fairly uncertain. It is debateable whether King Charles III, while a reasonably popular leader, will be able to generate the kind of warmth and goodwill his late mother managed to across the world.
While there is in the UK, with 62 per cent of people backing the continued monarchy in the latest polls, enthusiasm for the monarchy has been waning over time. A Royal Family that requires a budget of to sustain it is not likely to go down well with a British public that is reeling under high energy bills and surging general inflation, making the cost of living painful for many.
The monarchy may be pared back, certainly the new King has already indicated on charting a new course. It may well be that the funeral of the Queen signified the end of an era in more ways than one. That is, her funeral was the last of the prestigious ceremonies with great pomp and glamour for a Britain that has an increasingly diminished role in the world in economic terms.
The coronation of may be a rather less extravagant affair, as the country looks to cut back on expenditure in the face of mounting economic challenges.
The monarchy remains an important symbol of British identity, as evidenced by the thousands who travelled to London to pay their last respects to the departed Queen, however it may no longer enjoy the same level of patronage and glamour that it enjoyed previously. It may be that the future ushers in a more simplistic and less extravagant monarchy with a lower public profile in the era of King Charles.
The Commonwealth that the Royal Family heads may also be heading for big changes; many member nations no longer feel the need to maintain ties with what they perceive to be a neo-colonial organisation. There are growing pro-Republican movements across the world, in countries such as Jamaica, while Barbados removed the Queen as head of state almost a year ago.
It is certainly possible that India may choose to leave the , condemning the organisation to near irrelevance for the foreseeable future. Whether that happens may depend on negotiations between India and the UK over other pressing issues of the day related to trade, immigration and security.
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While the Queen’s funeral was a largely Anglican Christian affair, there were certain elements to the period of mourning that demonstrated the affection that the Queen was held in by all sections of the community, as well as the increased diversity of the United Kingdom. Multi-faith services to remember and honour the were held across the UK, including ceremonies at Hindu temples. The funeral itself had readings from other Christian denominations such as Catholic clergy, an important conciliatory moment given the history of the Catholic-Protestant schism in the UK, and indeed much of Europe.
King Charles also has strong respect for all faiths in his character, as evidenced by his learning Arabic in order to be able to read the Quran – showing his recognition of the need to achieve greater interfaith understanding. With respect to diversity and religious tolerance, it cannot be said that the British Royal Family is lagging – for the most part.
The Royal Family is and likely will continue to be a symbol of British national identity going forward. What may change is the level of financial support from the taxpayers, as the monarchy evolves. However, it is to be hoped that the Royal Family continues to reach out to Indians in the , in keeping with India’s stature on the world stage.
is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.