Queen Elizabeth II first visited India in January 1961, the month and year I was born. Obviously, I have no memory of that visit. What I do have are remarkable three-part chronicles on YouTube by British Pathé News.
They are a fascinating account of a 35-year-old Elizabeth traveling to India, a country that her compatriots and forebears had plundered and pillaged for nearly two centuries almost until 1947. Incidentally, Elizabeth was the great-great grand daughter of Victoria, who declared herself the “Empress of India” in 1877 and under whose reign a cruelly devastating famine was allowed to ravage India. Millions died during the famine.
The welcome that India laid out for Queen Elizabeth in January 1961 was spectacular and in keeping with the country’s civilizational hospitality albeit a tad too effusive considering the British had retired barely 14 years prior to her visit. A special rostrum, for instance, meant for her public reception in Delhi took three months to build. A million-plus people attended the public reception where the queen said she felt like she was at home in India.
Among many things I was struck by was a gift that the Delhi Corporation presented to her. It was a two-foot-tall model of the 240-feet Qutub Minar, carved from an elephant tusk. Her husband, Philip was given a silver candelabra. One can reasonably wonder why a recently independent country would gift the visiting head of its former colonizer a model of a minaret built in the late 12th century by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and an invader.
The queen’s coronation took place on June 2, 1953, barely six years after India became independent. By the time she made her first visit to the former “Jewel in the Crown” of the British empire, India had begun the process of rebuilding itself from the ruins left behind by invaders and colonizers, the last being the British.
Notwithstanding, New Delhi extended a characteristically warm and overwhelming welcome to the British couple who among other places inevitably visited Agra and the Taj Mahal. Huge crowds lined up to greet Elizabeth traveling in an open car. Another thing I was struck by the sheer servility of two Indian men, who would have been called “servants” then, putting on velvet overshoes on the feet of Elizabeth and Philip as if the two could not do so themselves. Even their overshoes were made of velvet.
From Agra, the couple traveled to Udaipur as well as Bombay and from there they went to Karachi in Pakistan.
The queen visited twice after that in 1983 and 1997, the latter marking the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. During the 1997 visit she went to the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial at Amritsar, the site of the utterly inhumane demonstration of the naked power of the British empire when on April 13, 1919, Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer ordered troops to fire on peaceful protesters, mowing down hundreds and wounding hundreds. She was reported to have said, “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past. Jallianwala Bagh is a distressing example.” However, she did not formally apologize then and never did after that. Britain has never apologized for the massacre.
On a separate note, for decades it has been India’s hope that the famous centuries-old diamond Koh-i-Noor would be returned by Britain from the royal family’s Crown Jewels. It was last seen publicly in 2002 atop the coffin of the Queen Mother, the mother of Elizabeth, during her funeral. There are no indications that Elizabeth ever considered returning the diamond to India.
The queen’s passing comes to an end the vestigial link between the British empire and India, the latter, of course, having established itself as Britain’s equal since 1947.
[Video courtesy: Youtube: British Pathé]