Rajlakshmi Barman ([email protected]
com) Britain has been in news for the last few months because we Indians were excitedly, albeit silently, harbouring hopes to historically witness an Indian-origin Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street. It did not happen and supposedly General Dyer, Lord Lytton, Winston Churchill and other imperial office-holders before 1947 would have to wait further to roll in their graves in agony and shock! However, the origin of Mr Sunak not being a hindrance to being elected to the UK's highest electoral office seems like a tenable transition from the racial superiority promulgated by Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" that oversaw the throwing out of the Father of our Nation from a first-class train compartment, a gruesome massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 along with the incredible atrocities meted out to nationalists in the isolated "Kalapani Jail".
When Gandhiji wanted to extend support for the Allied powers in the Second World War as he staunchly stood against fascist ideologies in the Congress Working Committee's Wardha Session, it was leaders like Nehru, Bose and other socialists who pointed out that both sides in the war were torchbearers of dominance and enslavement of people and markets and were fighting to protect each other's colonies. The only difference is that we learnt about anti-Semitism and concentration camps with clarity rather than our unequivocally brutal tale of subordination, hunger, poverty, and apathy, as famously put into words by the American historian and philosopher, Will Durant in 1930 that Britain's "conscious and deliberate bleeding of India was the greatest crime in all history". In such a morass backdrop, and that too with insurmountable baggage of the past, a 25-year-old accidental queen who would not have even ruled Great Britain for 70 long and eventful years if her uncle, the late king Edward VIII had not abandoned the throne to marry the American socialite and divorcee, Wallis Simpson in 1936; an incident that shook the very constitutional foundations of the country and centuries-old English monarchy.
The queen was indubitably a public figure who charmingly smiled and gracefully waved for onlookers and cameras alike; a constant presence and yet she was an enigma. Her life was a far cry from being normal and being under the perpetual public glare was a harrowing task. It was not until the broadcast of the infamous Netflix series, "The Crown," however fictional one may think it to be, gave us a rough if not a plenary idea of the royal's life.
With her father's sudden death, her husband's role with the newly acquainted queen, her tryst with her initial Prime Ministers of elite English pedigree, the Suez Canal crisis and family scandals, she did make headlines in the past for many right and wrong reasons, the first one being the famous "The Dance" with the then Ghana President Nkrumah in 1961 during the early years of her reign. This dance was said to have altered the course of racial history because it was the time when the USA was embroiled in the precipice of Civil Rights movements against racial segregation and the queen showed her dedication to serving the Commonwealth nations when the seeds of Cold War were meticulously sowed. She, by the virtue of being a royal, shouldered the responsibility to maintain Britain's legitimacy in a post-colonial period.
She was the first, and so far the only, female member of the royal family to serve in the armed forces, though other royal women have been given honorary ranks. She was frequently ridiculed in the press for her lack of emotions in perilous times. One may tag it as stoicism and even argue to the point that the British royal family was meant to distance itself from active politics because this isolation and annual retirement to the rustic and gothic Scottish palaces in the countryside ensured their survival for the ceremonial role they were meant to play.
However, a riot of emotions hit the royal family like torrential rains with the advent of Princess Diana, her popularity, and her untimely tragic death. Surprisingly, it was again the queen who despite her aloofness during the princess's funeral address drew the public opinion to her side. The movies and the Netflix series played the role of an enabler only to reinforce that image of swaying public opinion in her favour.
It will remain a matter of debate whether it was out of pity or respect for her. Shashi Tharoor, in his book, "An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India" says, "When we kill people, we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history".
Rightly so, because when the Queen and her husband Prince Phillip visited the "Jallianwala Bagh" everyone in India was expecting a long-impending apology. However, it was Prince Phillip's invidious comment of an "exaggerated number of dead" and that it must have included the wounded also on that fateful Baisakhi day in 1919 that changed the tide of public sentiments against a fairy tale queen and a prince which made them gain every Indian's justifiable ire. It was tried to be mitigated by the engaging queen who is known for walking barefoot in a saffron-coloured dress to the memorial.
But the apology for the global south never saw the day of the light for the "gifted" jewels and precious items under British possessions which are marred by the ghastly episodes of colonialism. Nonetheless, an interesting pattern of history is that raising and building empires never happened peacefully. The transitions between rulers were barely harmonious, let alone forthright and most empires, especially the largest ones, were built on bloody wars, slavery and gruesome carnage characterized by pillage and plunder.
The tendency of expansion is not a concept of medieval times and holds relevance even today. The only distinction now is that we had empires then and we have nation-states at present. Despite everything, the queen lived on physically and now sublimely representing a consistent, stable, and reassuring presence in the international arena by holding the title of the "most photographed woman in the course of history".
So, what made her rule for as long as she did and why will she always be so important and timeless? Was the rare and legendary "Koh-i-Noor" diamond responsible for her supposed longevity? Politics and monarchy are inherently and essentially male-dominated spectrums with a handful of women rising through ranks of power where they must consistently prove their worth and mark with aggression and hostility, something that is usually expected from men. Almost every book ever written on politics and statecraft apart from Plato's theory of the Philosopher king/queen is male-centric whereas even Machiavelli wanted a "Prince" and not a queen or princess. Although every thinker is a child of his times, Queen Elizabeth proved time and again of what is expected and needed from a female monarch and that, too, from a constitutional female monarch in the modern era.
She was soft-spoken and her undertone on delicate subjects objectively illustrated her resilience and reticence in a prudential light. The last few years of her life too saw personal scandals of her younger son and the sensational Meghan Markle interview exposed questions on racism and mental health in the public eye for the media to feast on. Hence, the question stirs itself again.
Was the "Koh-i-Noor" lucky for her and her predecessors who wore the crown of thorns? Leadership roles are never a cakewalk, with or without a 21. 2 gram diamond that was once kept as a paperweight or when strapped to Maharaja Ranjit Singh's arm and according to William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in their book "Koh-i-Noor", it left behind a bloody trail on its sojourn with its various masters. Even if she was a woman who had witnessed a fair share of ups and downs during her reign, the queen did it with utmost poise and grace, in fact much more elegantly than her male counterparts.
It is a matter of time and diplomacy which will determine whether the precious diamond, Timur ruby, antiques, and apology from England's "Chor Bazaar" museums (according to Mr Tharoor) will embark on its journey towards India, yet for better or for worse, the thorny crown of bloodshed had landed on Elizabeth Regina II, a woman, who emblazoned the purpose and validity of modern monarchy in the previous and present centuries. It won't be a surprise if the monarchies narrowed down to two sets of kings and queens, one from Britain and the other from the deck of cards. .