‘There hasn’t been closure’: India mourns Queen but awaits apology | India

Over the course of her seven-decade reign, Queen Elizabeth II made three visits to India, a country she would herald for its “richness and diversity”. But it was her third and final trip in 1997 that is often considered the most significant.

India was celebrating 50 years of independence and on the Queen’s itinerary was a visit to Jallianwala Bagh, the site in the city of Amritsar where in 1919 a British general ordered thousands of peaceful protesters to be shot, a massacre that was one of the bloodiest episodes of British colonial rule over India. The hope among many was that the Queen’s visit would finally bring about a long-awaited apology for colonial atrocities. But in the end, the apology never came.

“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past,” said the Queen in her address the night before her visit. “Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.”

When Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926, her grandfather was still the Emperor of India, which was under British rule for 200 years, but by the time she ascended to the throne in 1952, India had been independent for five years. At her wedding to Philip Mountbatten in 1947, the Queen was given a handkerchief by India’s best known freedom campaigner, Mahatma Gandhi, and it was said to remain one of her most treasured possessions.

The somewhat muted response to the Queen’s death in India reflects her complex position in a nation where the British monarchy is still seen as a lasting symbol of colonial rule that pillaged its lands for 200 years. India’s last viceroy before independence was the Queen’s distant cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten – also Prince Philip’s uncle – who oversaw the bloody partitioning of the country into the separate nations of India and Pakistan.

India remains the largest country in the Commonwealth, which is largely made up of former British territories and is still formally headed by the British monarch. After news of the Queen’s death broke, a national day of mourning was declared and all flags were lowered to half-mast.

The Indian national flag flies at half-mast on the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi.
The Indian national flag flies at half-mast on the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered as a stalwart of our times,” tweeted India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. “She provided inspiring leadership to her nation and people. She personified dignity and decency in public life. Pained by her demise.”

But though multiple Bollywood stars sent effusive condolences over the Queen’s death on social media, there was otherwise little public outpouring of grief.

Jyoti Atwal, a professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said that in India, the institution of the monarchy was still lambasted as a symbol of British rule. Hours before the death of the Queen was announced, Modi oversaw the renaming of Rajpath, a central avenue in Delhi that during the colonial period had been named in honour of King George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. Modi said Rajpath was a “symbol of slavery”, which would now be erased.

However, Atwal said that on a personal level, the Queen’s visits to India, particularly her first in 1961, had earned her much affection and admiration – many people can still recall watching her riding through the streets of Delhi in her royal coach buggy.

“The Queen represented the oppression of British rule and colonialism, but she was also viewed separately as a person, not just as a monarch, and people in India were very charmed by her visits, by that buggy culture,” said Atwal. “My mother still remembers the Queen’s visit in 1961; she was a child sitting in the front row when the Queen was travelling in the buggy. So it captured the public imagination even though it was clearly a remnant of the British Raj.”

Nonetheless, Atwal said, as the furore around the Queen’s visit to Jallianwala Bagh had demonstrated, in India there was a lasting expectation that the British monarchy should apologise for the injustices of colonial rule, which some view as an essential part of the process of decolonisation.

The Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar.
The Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar. Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

“There are large sections in India who still wanted an apology from the Queen and who still think there hasn’t been closure for the oppression of the Raj,” said Atwal. “The burden of giving that apology falls on the monarchy, not the prime minister or another member of the British government. So now that Charles is King, people in India will be expecting the apology from him.”

Since the the Queen’s death, there have also been calls for the return of the Koh-I-Noor diamond, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, which sits in the crown of the Queen Mother and is on display at the Tower of London. The diamond, which was mined in India, has been the source of a decades-long dispute between India and the UK, with India saying it was taken illegally.

Over the weekend, the Indian MP and author Shashi Tharoor called its display in London a “powerful reminder of the injustices perpetrated by the former imperial power”. It is thought the crown bearing the Koh-i-Noor diamond will now be worn by King Charles’s wife, Camilla, the Queen Consort.

“Until it is returned at least as a symbolic gesture of expiation it will remain evidence of the loot, plunder and misappropriation that colonialism was really all about,” said Tharoor.

Nonetheless, in India’s financial hub of Mumbai, one community made a heartfelt tribute to the Queen. Years ago, the city’s famed dabbawalas, who deliver hot food from homes to workplaces in tiffin boxes, caught the attention of the royal family, and two dabbawalas were invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla in 2005, where they breakfasted twice with the Queen.

“We share the grief of the family of King Charles,” said the Mumbai Dabbawala Association in a statement. “We are very sad to hear about the death of Queen Elizabeth II and all dabbawalas pray that her soul rests in peace.”

Leave a Comment