When Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II first visited India in 1961, huge crowds lined up to catch a glimpse of her as her royal carriage moved through the streets of New Delhi. News reports spoke about affection among Indians for the monarch, who had ascended the throne five years after the country gained independence from Britain.
But on her third and last visit on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence in 1997, the headlines were very different – they were dominated by calls for an apology from the Queen for a bloody massacre in which hundreds of Indians were shot in April 1919, when a British general ordered his troops to fire on them while attending a public meeting.
The Queen, who visited a memorial park at the site of the massacre in Amritsar, did address the issue but stopped short of an apology. Calling the Jallianwala Bagh massacre a distressing example of some “difficult episodes” in the past, she said, “But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.”
Those two trips symbolize the ambivalence many feel toward Queen Elizabeth in India, the largest of Britain’s former colonies. Historians say she means different things to different people.
“To the man on the street, the Queen was simply irrelevant. Among the middle classes, there are mixed views, but many have a benign image of her and did not see her as an emblem of imperialism,” said Anirudh Deshpande, professor of history at Delhi University.
“To a section of academics however, the British monarchy remains a symbol of a colonial power that was oppressive and whose rule was marked by violence,” he adds.
In a young country where most people have been born several decades after the end of British rule, the legacy of two centuries of colonialism has been largely forgotten and there is no sense of connection to the royal family. As India carves its own niche in the world, its growing economy matches that of Britain and its professionals flourish in cities like London, many in India have simply moved on.
“To me, the Queen was just a royal figure from another part of the world. My generation is not dwelling in the past and we have no connection to any sort of colonial emotion. Frankly, I am indifferent. The royalty does not matter to me,” says 37-year-old Garima Verma, a professional working in New Delhi, who has not been watching the extensive coverage about the Queen since her passing more than a week ago.
However, the British monarchy’s possession of one of the world’s most famous gems, the Koh-i-noor diamond, does rouse some emotion and on social media. Queen Elizabeth’s death prompted renewed calls for the famed gem to be returned to India.
The 106-carat stone is on display at the Tower of London and was, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, “surrendered” by an Indian prince. It’s a gem which many Indian tourists make a point to look at when they go to see the crown jewels.
“If there is one reproach that can still be addressed against Queen Elizabeth, it is that she never once acknowledged, let alone apologized for, those centuries of colonial plunder and cruelty that made her position and her wealth possible,” member of parliament and author Shashi Tharoor wrote after her death on the website Mathrubhumi.com.
But noting that she was treated in India with respect, he said that Indians have by and large learned to forgive and forget “the exactions and cruelties of colonialism.”
Among an older generation, especially among those who grew up hearing many stories of the British rule from their parents, there is still some sense of connection to the British monarchy.
“The Queen led her life with a lot of grace and dignity and that, I think, is very commendable,” says 70-year-old Renuka Taimni, a New Delhi resident. “Yes, as an Indian we cannot forget all the things they robbed us of and we can go on criticizing them, but it is too long back for me to hold any rancor.”
Officially, India is going all the way to honor the Queen. President Droupadi Murmu will be among the scores of world dignitaries who plan to attend her state funeral on Monday. The country observed a day of mourning on Sunday, lowering flags on government buildings to half-staff.
Paying tribute to the Queen after her death, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called her “a stalwart of our times” and said “she provided inspiring leadership to her nation and people. She personified dignity and decency in public life.”
But many in India found it ironic that those tributes were paid just hours after the prime minister presided over a ceremony seen as a bid by his Hindu nationalist government to bury all vestiges of colonial rule.
Modi renamed an avenue in the heart of the Indian capital called Rajpath — the Hindi translation of its original name, Kingsway, that honored the Queen’s grandfather, King George V.
“Kingsway, or Rajpath, the symbol of slavery, has become a matter of history from today and has been erased forever,” he said as he rechristened it “Kartavya Path” or “Path of Duty.”
A 28-foot-tall statue of an icon of the Indian freedom struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose, was unveiled near India Gate, where, until the 1960s, a statue of King George V had stood.
Now, as the Queen is mourned, the overriding sentiment in India, says historian Deshpande, would be, “The past is past. Let’s move on.”