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Wednesday, Apr 10, 2002

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The royal connection

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

As the last Empress of India, the 101-year-old queen mother, who passed away recently, stood at the apex of a system that is still the subject of animated dispute.

THE funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was a reminder of the long British connection which, in Nirad C. Chaudhuri's immortal words, "conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: Civis Britannicus sum because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule." As the last Empress of India, witness the Kohinoor diamond that glittered in the crown atop the coffin, the 101-year-old queen mother stood at the apex of a system that is still the subject of animated dispute.

For all that he poured vitriol on the British ruling class in India, Karl Marx recognised it as the agent of change. The British experience brought modernity to India. And it was symbolised by an empire that lasted from 1876 when Victoria was proclaimed empress (Kaiser-i-Hind actually) to 1947 when Lord Listowel, the last secretary of state for India, delivered up his seal of office to George VI, the last emperor, at a sad little ceremony at Balmoral Castle. He had to drop the I — Imperator — from his signature that devastated his mother.

"When I die India will be found written on my heart," Queen Mary wrote. She and her husband, George V, had worn imperial crowns at a Grand Durbar in Delhi. Surveying a plantation of trees in Windsor Great Park, each representing a colony, George VI remarked wistfully that like India, they would all go.

The British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, tried in vain to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru to make him President of India or to console him with some title from "India's heroic age." When George VI died on 1952, Krishna Menon wrote: "He was a really good man, and a greater man than usually believed. He was very thoughtful of us and understood and respected us. An occasion may well not arise again for me to say this, but it is part of history that in the last few years he did far more than is known or need be said to help. I feel sad and distressed perhaps strangely so." Reputedly, the queen mother, who blamed Lord Mountbatten for "giving away the empire," did not share his virtues. "She is not fond of black folk," Paul Callan wrote in the International Express. According to another royal biographer, Kitty Kelly, her notoriously indiscreet vocabulary included words like `nig-nog' and `blackamoor'. If so, she must have been very different from Victoria whose partiality for her munshi, Abdul Karim, angered her son and heir, and who reproved Lord Salisbury for referring to Dadabhoy Naoroji as a black man. The queen mother must also have been very different from her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, whose strong feeling for the Commonwealth has helped it through many crises. With more than a million subjects from the subcontinent, Her Majesty might be said to preside over the empire's revenge.

India was glamour for Britain's royals — maharajahs, tigers, elephants and durbars. Even Wallis Warfield, the twice-divorced American commoner who cost Edward VIII his throne, drawled: "But can't you remain Emperor of India even if you are no longer King of England?" when he told her he was abdicating. When the Kaiser complained that a visiting German prince was not allowed to ride an elephant though the viceroy and assorted maharajahs did, the British ambassador explained that in India elephants denoted rulership. If George VI and his consort lost out on the glamour, it was not for want of trying. But Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah were so tense when he entertained them to lunch at Buckingham Palace that he dared not broach a visit.

"Poor George VI didn't get his durbar!" an Englishman told me once as if I was personally responsible for the deprivation. Yet, the king and queen were familiar figures in my childhood. Large framed photographs, signed with a flourish George R.I. and Elizabeth R.I., appeared in the assembly hall of my school in Calcutta, La Martiniere, on the eve of Independence. I wondered whether this was the last defiant fling of a colonial institution that survives today only in its name (even the hall has gone!) or of the unreconciled royal family. Understandably, Nehru would not let Queen Elizabeth host a reception at the Red Fort's Diwan-i-Khas in 1961. Twenty-two years later Indira Gandhi, herself often referred to as empress of India, refused to let her pin a decoration on Mother Teresa in Rashtrapati Bhavan's Durbar Hall. The investiture was held in the lawn.

Caution makes sense in a hierarchical society whose monarchical traditions die-hard. Lest some ambitious Indian get ideas, the crown that was made for George V's durbar at the Indian taxpayer's expense was promptly whisked off to the Tower of London. I remember our cook asking in 1947 whether Nehru or Gandhiji would be the next raja. Legislative elections have merely changed the process of anointing political monarchs. Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur nicely blended royalty with populism so that the Guinness Book of World Records could cite her for being elected with the highest majority ever.

But royal birth is no longer necessary. As Karni Singh of Bikaner declaimed in the Lok Sabha during the debate on abolishing privy purses, today's real maharajahs sit on the Treasury Benches. Democracy creates its own royals. Victoria, the first empress, would not have been amused.

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