Inside India #13: The Queen in India… Gaffes, pageantry, and political intrigue

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Imagine that you once presided over an empire that encircled the globe, an empire that brought you untold riches and influence, empowering your little island nation to global dominance.

And the jewel in that colonial crown, a land that couldn’t be more different to your own, a place where the people, the culture, the food, the very air is beyond the pale… India. Or, more correctly, the subcontinent, an estate now divided, in the messy death throes of your reign, into disparate nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (once East Pakistan), and Sri Lanka (once Ceylon).

It can’t be easy going back.

I expect it’s a bit like going to a high school reunion, a school where you were once class prefect, and you’re not sure what your peers really thought of you. They were too afraid you’d pull their pants down and give them a jolly good thrashing.

(Picture accreditation: Young Queen by Lee Hayward Creative Commons )

Unlike her immediate predecessors, Queen Elizabeth II has never reigned as Empress of India. That title was self-bestowed by Queen Victoria, who had an eye for an Indian, inviting many to her court to regale her with tales of the ‘wonders of the Orient’. (She never visited India. Victoria never made it further east than Tuscany.) 

Following her death in 1901, King Albert VII became Emperor of India until his death in 1910. The title then passed to George V, who held it until 1936. 

George visited India in 1911, to attend the Delhi Durbar where he was proclaimed Emperor before every nabob, nizam, maharajah, and princeling in the land. Fed up of the endless kowtowing and formalities, George followed up his coronation by setting off on a 10-day big game hunt in Nepal, where, by all accounts, he managed to slaughter half the local wildlife. (Bombay’s Gateway of India monument was built to commemorate his visit, so that’s some consolation.)

George was succeeded by Edward VIII, who barely warmed the throne before running off with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. After Edward, came the last of the King-Emperors, George VI, Elizabeth’s father.

George Mark 5 presided over the dissolution of the Raj, officially relinquishing the title of Emperor of India in June 1948 to become the Head of the Commonwealth.

And it was under these auspices that Queen Elizabeth II first visited the subcontinent in 1961.

That first visit took place at a time when India was still establishing her presence on the global stage. Following Independence, Nehru’s Congress Party – the party of Gandhi – had helmed the nation, Nehru himself in the fourteenth year of what would eventually prove to be a seventeen-year term (ended only by his death in 1964). 

This was an India in transition, burdened by something of a colonial hangover, manifested in a deference towards the royal couple that harked back to the Raj. In Jaipur, for instance, the Queen entered the City Palace mounted on the back of an elephant, swaying cosily inside a gold-studded howdah with the Maharajah of Jaipur, thousands cheering in the streets, nobles waiting to pay court in the durbar hall. 

Later, the royal party visited the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, a sobering and poignant moment. Standing before a memorial to the man who led the fight for independence from British rule must have been jarring. 

In 1983, the Queen returned to the subcontinent. This time the visit was billed as the ‘meeting of two Queens’, the other being Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru, India’s first female Prime Minister, and instigator of the 1975-77 Indian constitutional crisis known as the Emergency.

With Indira setting out to impress, the trip generated razzamatazz on an unprecedented scale. The Queen and Prince Philip were initially barracked at Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly Viceroys House, in New Delhi. For six months, a crack team of four, led by future Indian PM and Indira’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, refurbished a series of suites, lavishing the sort of fortune usually pocketed by corrupt state officials in cattle fodder scams. Not to be outdone, in Hyderabad,an inter-city flyover that hadn’t seen a brick added in over two years, was finished in three months flat. 

As the Queen set off on a series of carefully curated visits – a solar energy factory, a crop research institute – royal outfit-watching reached fever pitch, with national speculation about which hat the Queen would wear on any given day. An army of cameramen and headline hunters trailed behind the royal entourage like lovesick boyband groupies. A visit to a village for a spot of local colour generated plenty of photo opportunities and not a small degree of bemusement. The village had been given a Bollywood makeover, inciting India Today journalist Sunil Sethi to observe that it had been “dressed to look like no village in India’s past, present or future.”

Fourteen years later, in 1997, the Queen made her way back for a third (and, possibly, final) time, to commemorate the fiftieth year of Independence. This time there would be no love-in with the Indian press. 

The trip, made in the shadow of Diana’s death, was plagued from the outset. 

A chance comment by Robin Cook, Secretary of State, at a formal dinner in Islamabad in neighbouring Pakistan, where he told the Pakistani Prime Minister that he would be happy to step in, Solomon-like, to mediate the Kashmir issue, incited eye-popping fury across the border. 

The diplomatic gaffe refused to lie down, pursuing the Queen around the subcontinent like a bailiff, as more skeletons came tap-dancing out of the closet.

In the Punjab, the Queen visited Jallianwallah Bagh, a gesture of atonement for the massacre that took place there in 1919. A thousand Indians – including women and children – gathered for a peaceful protest, were gunned down inside a walled garden, without warning, on the orders of Brigadier-General R.E. Dyer. As the Queen laid a wreath, and murmured comforting words, Prince Philip remarked that he thought the Indians had their facts incorrect. His eye had been drawn to a placard stating that two thousand had died that fateful day. Philip confidently declared that the total was “vastly exaggerated”. How did he know? His old chum, the son of the man who had led the massacre, and with whom he had served in the Royal Navy, had told him so. 

Cue furore. Teeth gnashing. Accusations of insensitivity and a callous disregard for the sensibilities of a nation. 

In Amritsar, the Queen visited the Golden Temple (against the initial wishes of the Indian government), the holiest place of the Sikhs, entering the site wearing a pair of wonderful white bobby socks. But the gesture was hijacked by those who had long called for an independent Sikh state, and led to yet more unsavoury headlines. 

By now the Indian government’s nose had been put out of joint so many times it resembled a boxer who’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

Unsurprising then that the visit ended on a sour note, with the Indian government suggesting that the Queen refrain from making a farewell speech at a banquet in Madras, as ‘protocol’ forbade two speeches from the monarch. (The Queen didn’t bother to point out that she already had two birthdays, so there should be no earthly reason why she shouldn’t have two speeches.) Some newspapers called this a snub, though the Queen herself seemed unperturbed. 

In truth, Britain and India continue to share a close bond. 

English culture is embedded in the Indian psyche: language, political and judicial systems, the very infrastructure. Having lived there for a decade, I witnessed, first-hand, the deference with which Brits are still greeted. Bad memories of colonialism have been relegated to textbooks and the occasional agitation for the return of looted treasures such as the Kohinoor diamond.

Conversely, England still remembers (sometimes a little too fondly) its time in India. Witness the success of documentaries featuring English ex-politicos in brightly-coloured trousers chugging around the country on nostalgia-inducing trains, marvelling at the glories of Empire, whilst occasionally stopping to make a sad face at the worst excesses of the Raj. Many of the horrors of that time are airbrushed out of this cosy picture of modern Anglo-Indian détente. In the words of Independent journalist, Peter Popham: ‘….the pompous ritual of a royal tour, so redolent of the old relationship and the old enactments of domination, makes it all worse.’

Straddling both countries as I do, I tend to disagree. 

I don’t think royal visits to India are a bad thing. Modern Indians are wildly enamoured of the British royal family. (The first thing many do when they visit London is set off for Buckingham Palace hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen.) India is now the world’s largest republic, but for millennia she was a land of kings, emperors, nizams, and maharajahs. A healthy respect for the institutions and trappings of royalty continues to flow through the country’s veins. 

And the Queen, as the head of the world’s most visible monarchy, will always be an alluring beacon harking back to that regal past.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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