In India, Queen Elizabeth’s funeral is contested by colonial heritage

In India, Queen Elizabeth's funeral is contested by colonial heritage
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NEW DELHI – Jennifer Cooke was in middle school when her choir sang for Queen Elizabeth II during the monarch’s first visit to India in 1961.

“She came in a carriage. We had to stand in a straight line and couldn’t take our eyes off of it,” said Cooke, who was at St. Paul’s Cathedral in what was then Calcutta, the former capital of British India. “I can’t remember much more, but she got out of the read the Bible.”

The 70-year-old pensioner spent Monday in front of a TV at her retirement home in New Delhi, where she now lives, and watched with a touch of nostalgia as the Queen was transported one final time during a traditional funeral and procession.

In Mumbai, Sarvar Irani secretly watched the ceremony on her smartphone during her working day as an administrative officer in a shopping mall. At home she has dozens of rare books, stamps and other memorabilia collected over decades, particularly highlighting Elizabeth and Princess Diana.

“About [the queen’s] Her eyes and her smile told me she must be a kind and nice person,” said Irani, 61. “That sparkle is gone forever now.”

But most Indians, especially young people, felt a little nostalgia. The Queen’s death has sparked complicated conversation about colonial heritage here, and even as world leaders and heads of state gathered for services in London, there was no effusive expression of grief in the country that was once a crucial corner of the British kingdom. Unlike many of his counterparts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stayed at home.

Mumbai activist Yash Marwah, 27, did not call the funeral a “big deal” and did not attend. His first thought upon hearing of the Queen’s death on 8/9 was that it would overshadow more important events.

“I’ve been thinking about all the news that doesn’t make the news,” he said.

Former British colonies are haunted by ghosts of the past who mourn the loss of the queen

Although India gained independence before Elizabeth was crowned queen, many people feel she could at least have apologized for the violence and looting that characterized British rule in the subcontinent and led to the partition of India and Pakistan.

“There is need and need for an apology,” said historian Jyoti Atwal, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

The closest the Queen came to this was on her third and final trip to India in 1997. Before a visit to Jallianwala Bagha site in the north where British troops fired on a gathering of unarmed Indian demonstrators in 1919, killing hundreds, the Queen indirectly acknowledged the bloody past.

“It’s no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past,” she said. “Jallianwala Bagh, which I will visit tomorrow, is a terrifying example.”

But she didn’t go any further, saying, “History cannot be rewritten, no matter how much we sometimes wish it were otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, but also of happiness. We have to learn from the sadness and build on the happiness.”

A farewell toast to Her Majesty in Britain’s oldest overseas territory

Atwal said the queen has an important role in reaching out to former colonies and the new king must decide what to do next. “She laid the groundwork for this kind of renegotiation and recasting of the role between the Crown and the colonies,” she said. “That’s the altered scenario in which Charles has to function.”

Memes and posts on social media have been calling for the return of the Kohinoor, a 105.6-carat diamond native to India that adorns the Queen’s crown. “Reminder that Queen Elizabeth is not a holdover from the colonial days.” noted the tweet. “She was an active participant in colonialism.”

And just last week Modi renamed a stretch of road in the heart of Delhi called Kingsway or Rajpath. He described it as a “Symbol of Slavery”.

“Today we fill the picture of tomorrow with new colors and leave the past behind,” he said.

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