Reactions to the death of the queen

On September 8, Queen Elizabeth II, the U.K.’s longest-reigning monarch, died at the age of 96. Social media was filled with tribute videos commemorating the sovereign’s life and legacy. Thousands gathered at the gates of Buckingham Palace in London to mourn her. Yet amid the out-pour of grief, social media users, many of them from communities devastated by British colonization, responded with jokes, memes, and sharp criticisms of the monarchy.

Shortly before the Queen’s death, Uju Anya, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, called the monarch “the chief monarch of a thieving, raping, genocidal empire” on Twitter and wished her an “excruciating” death.

“Queen Elizabeth coming back from death just to take the Kohinoor with her,” wrote another user.

“Give us our diamonds back and I’ll pretend to be sad!” wrote Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for Buzzfeed.

Conflicted citizens of the Commonwealth

The memes, while seemingly funny, highlighted a deeper conflict within the South Asian community. It exposed the trauma faced by generations of South Asians whose ancestors had witnessed colonialism. “I was in London when the news broke. I saw people around me who were very sad,” said Jaspreet Singh Pruthi, an Indian-origin Kiwi who is an MBA student at London Business School. “But, for me, it was just another day.”

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, just five years after the independence of India and Pakistan. She was a nominal figure with little power over the politics of the U.K., and she was expected to be politically neutral. But, in March 2022, she broke from tradition and made a private donation to the Ukraine humanitarian appeal of Disasters Emergency Committee, a UK charity.

Pruthi explained that Elizabeth’s silence on many Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi issues made him conflicted about her death.

Social media users of Indian origin were also sentimental about the Kohinoor diamond, set in a crown that Queen Elizabeth II would often wear. Queen Consort Camilla, the wife of King Charles III, Elizabeth’s son, is now expected to wear the diamond.

Anger at the British monarchy

Maria Martins, 71, a Canadian of Indian descent, believes that the outrage on social media over the Kohinoor reflects people’s anger toward the monarchy, including the Queen. “For many people, they don’t feel right about Camilla inheriting it. People are outraged because in this world of so much disparity, the British monarchy represents extreme lavishness, wealth, and holding onto symbols of a past that had a pretty dark side to it.”

“Elizabeth inherited a bucket load of atrocities, and she didn’t do anything about it for 70 years. There are families that suffered because of the Bengal famine. India suffered so greatly from British rule. Did she not understand the trauma we experienced because of colonialism?” says Nandita Godbole, author of the forthcoming cookbook, Masaleydaar (2022, Turmeric Press).

Jallianwala Bagh (Image credit: MikeLynch, CC BY-SA 3.0)

During her seven decades of reign, Elizabeth visited India thrice and Pakistan and Bangladesh twice. In her last visit to India in 1997, she acknowledged the “difficult episodes” in the past and cited the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre as an example. She also visited Jallianwala Bagh and placed a wreath at the memorial.

However, her move at Jallianwala Bagh was criticized by several scholars, including Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. “We do know that much of colonialism’s horrors over the centuries were perpetrated in the name of the Royal Family. But when she and her consort visited Jallianwala Bagh, she could only bring herself to leave her name in the visitors’ book, without even an expression of regret, let alone of contrition or apology, for that vile British act of deliberate mass murder,” Tharoor said in a debate at Oxford in 2015.

The Queen’s visit to Pakistan in 1997 was also mired in controversy. In her official speech in Pakistan, she told India and Pakistan to “stop squabbling” and end their historic disagreements. This is especially jarring because many of these disagreements were started by the British Empire.

Continuing the legacy of colonialism

Elizabeth inherited decades of abuse and a history of colonialism, and instead of discarding that legacy, she continued it, through the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of countries that were once part of the British empire. They are held together by shared traditions, institutions and experiences as well as economic self-interest. However, there are some benefits for the wealthier Commonwealth nations.

The Commonwealth, however, largely benefited the Queen. It gave her ceremonial power over sovereign nations. “One can only speculate as to the nature of the Queen’s fondness (for the Commonwealth), but it allowed her to exercise soft power and her numerous tours of these nations further attest to this fondness,” said Sehrish Javid, MA (SOAS), MSc (Oxon) and British of Pakistani origin.

“By and large in Canada, people did not mind her being the titular head of state, but the feeling is different especially among Indigenous Canadians,” said Martins. “Among South Asians too, the feelings are mixed. People respected her as a person but there is always that feeling that the British Raj and Partition created so much trauma for many South Asian families.”

Is the Commonwealth still relevant?

In 2018, British politician Jeremy Corbyn had suggested rotating the leadership of the Commonwealth among all the countries, but the Queen’s “sincere wish” was that her son, King Charles III succeed her. While the role of the Commonwealth head is just ceremonial, rotating the leadership among nations could have given other countries a chance to stand on an equal ground with the U.K.

Under Elizabeth II, the Commonwealth was also criticized for favoring wealthier, “white” nations. British politicians fervently criticized immigration to the U.K. from the “New Commonwealth” referring to formerly decolonized nations that were non-white and developing. While Elizabeth II continued her dedication towards the ceremonies of the Commonwealth, she never addressed the rampant discrimination being meted out to citizens of poorer Commonwealth nations.

The Queen’s reign has ended, but her legacy continues to be controversial for the South Asian diaspora across the world. It also raises questions about the need for a monarchy or the Commonwealth. While she may have left a legacy of pride and honor for the British in the UK, many across the world continue to feel the pain of her empire’s legacy of colonialism.

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