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I Mourn A Different Mourning

The unease that trails the celebration in black

Our personal identities - at times fragile, other times stubborn abstractions--are given, taken, passed on, adopted, snatched, or even shunned. They come to shape our view of ourselves and our place in the world. Often our sense of identity ebbs and flows in rather invisible ways. But sometimes parts of how we understand who we are manifest in ways surprising even to ourselves. Sometimes parts of our identities we believe to be silent come screaming forth without warning.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, I did not expect to feel much. On the rather rainy Thursday she died, news of her death felt more and more imminent as the day progressed. The BBC’s star cast changed into black. Not that I was hooked to the BBC; it was the input of several who had adorned investigative hats and were quipping about these intricacies on my Twitter feed.

Throughout the day, I kept a close eye on the news, mostly because it had bearings on my work and schedule the next day. But as to the event itself, I was not expecting myself to react. And for the most part, I didn’t. When news of the Queen’s death was announced, the only thing that bothered me was that news programming was massively altered. It quickly became clear that the subject of queen’s outfits over the years and queen’s love of horses would take precedence over deadly floods in Pakistan, or even the UK’s own cost of living crisis. Not for a day, or even a few days, but for weeks to come. The spectacle-ity of the media now had a justification for its compromised news coverage and values.

It quickly became clear that the subject of queen’s outfits over the years and queen’s love of horses would take precedence over deadly floods in Pakistan, or even the UK’s own cost of living crisis.

Pretty soon, commentary about the Queen’s life and legacy was splattered everywhere: TV, radio, newspapers, social media and messaging apps; in text, voice and video. It was an evening of collective grief as the nation celebrated a woman who symbolised the stability and greatness of Britain - or so the commentators claimed. Terms like continuity and unity were ubiquitous. Many mourned the recent political fragility in Britain (referring to the shambolic politics of the Tories), and believed the Queen’s passing signalled a change in era, now that Britain had lost its last symbol of stability.

Many wrote they were critical of Britain’s imperial past and monarchy as an institution, but they still mourned the Queen for the person she was. There were some for whom she was of personal symbolic significance. The Queen was a grandmotherly figure; they mourned her, remembering their own lost relatives. There were also children so tiny they would not have known her, creating beautiful drawings and cards in dedication to her. A friend told me she saw one such card where a kid had scribbled, ‘thanks for ruleing us’ (yes with an ‘e’!). And another who had adorably crayoned a Peppa Pig version of the Queen. Despite the greyness in the air, weirdly it also seemed like a day of shared warmth and love.

And yet, many like me [who saw no reason to bask in British pride, either because we aren’t British or had complicated pasts with the British Crown or just weren’t very nationalistic], felt unwelcome to these celebrations. They came as beautifully wrapped boxes, when in fact they should have been carelessly bundled, torn and rough around the edges. The legacy of the Queen and the monarchy hasn’t been shiny and seamless. The forced sweetness of the response to her death was slowly making me bitter. But at this point it was still very much contained in my own mind, barely spoken out loud. I could respect people wanting to grieve and mourn someone significant to them. But I personally could not participate. And I felt I should be allowed that.

It was only the next day, when a close friend of mine (who happens to be British), made a rather crude remark about Britain’s colonial past that the cascade truly began. And it gave me much to think about. What is Britain’s legacy really? Where am I placed in it? As an Indian now living in Britain, how do I deal with my complicated feelings about all this? What is it to be an Indian today? Was I fighting one form of nationalism (colonialism) by giving into another (a certain clinging to Indian-ness)? Do people here really understand me and where I come from? Is there a place for me in a country that washes over the history of my ancestors and that of others so carelessly? How should I feel about dear friends who do not understand this side of me, or feel it excessive that I choose to criticise the Queen for the larger colonial past? Is this a fight I should actually fight? Or does the fact my criticism would be shut down as leftist liberal woke-ism (whatever that is) mean I should remain quiet?

Is there a place for me in a country that washes over the history of my ancestors and that of others so carelessly? How should I feel about dear friends who do not understand this side of me, or feel it excessive that I choose to criticise the Queen for the larger colonial past?

I’m still trying to answer many of these questions, and I will continue to try to find coherent responses. But to the last question, I already have an answer, which is why this piece was written. Not only did I decide it’s not fair to remain quiet, but the news coverage (or lack thereof) of what I call colonial criticism has in fact forced me to write this.

While India had already gotten Independence and was an infant democracy when the Queen was crowned in 1952, at the time Britain still held control over several colonies which continued to fight against oppression during the Queen’s reign. And while Queen Elizabeth II’s reign may not have overlapped with the peak of colonisation, it nonetheless was not removed from it. But the Queen’s personal popularity and the larger diplomatic framing that came to be given around ‘relations’ with Commonwealth countries has not allowed this reckoning to take place. When I speak of reckoning, I am less concerned with the official word. I do not speak here of apologies from British leaders for past sins (which never came), rather of the acknowledgement and understanding of this cruel history by the British public.

The day after the Queen’s death, my British friend was furious. He was mad at some of the social media commentary against the Queen, posts that were calling her names and saying she should “rot in hell”. It was certainly not a nice thing to say--about anyone. But did my friend not understand why there was a fringe group that might have an issue with the Queen and the pomp around her death? He knew of the larger arguments to do with colonialism, but what did it have to do with the Queen herself? Was she personally responsible? And wasn’t this all so far back in the past? And what about inequality? Was being born into wealth her mistake? It was these arguments that set me off. As I responded to him, I found myself quite distressed and eventually in tears.

Was the Queen personally responsible? Well, does she have to be? The Queen still benefited from the plunders of the Empire, and made sure the monarchy was preserved and that it continued. While traditionalists might see this to be her duty, I see tradition in itself to be no great defence for any practice, let alone one of a luxurious and exorbitant lifestyle lived at the expense of great societal inequality and poverty. Historically, we have abandoned practices as time progressed and our values as a society came to evolve. Now, more than ever, there needs to be space to criticise the existence of the monarchy in Britain, and to be able to discuss its impact on larger society. And we need to note the Queen enjoyed great privileges, exempt from “more than 160 laws” that otherwise apply to any other British citizen.

But this aside, it should also be noted that atrocities were committed by the Empire under this Queen’s reign too. Take the case of Kenya. In reaction to the Mau Mau rebellion, a movement against colonialism, the British put much of the local population (including a large proportion of the civilian population that was not even involved in the actual fighting) in detention centres:

“About 20,000 Mau Mau guerrillas or fighters fought the British military in the forest, and it’s kind of a jungle war. But a disproportionate amount of the time was spent detaining the entire Kikuyu population who had taken this oath, about 1.5 million people, in detention without trial… And it’s in these systems of detention where draconian, systematized violence and brutality and torture were instrumented in horrific ways. There was also forced labor and starvation policies. And these were done in order to force this rebellious population to submit to British colonial rule…”

Now let’s zoom out a bit and look at the Empire more widely. If we only just talk about India, in the period between 1765 to 1938, the British Empire drained the region of an estimated $45 trillion. Because of the way the system of trade and taxation was designed by the British, trade did not benefit locals. It made London richer, with no rise in per capita income in India during the two-century rule. This is just a small glimpse of the economic costs and the cost in terms of lives lost, whether from sheer oppressive brutality (like what happened during the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre when a British general opened fire on peaceful protestors without any warning), or deaths due to famines that resulted from policy failures of the British Raj (the Bengal famine killed an estimated 3 million people). The picture is tragic, to say the least. And yet, what we find mentioned is the “good things” that came out of colonisation.

In a tone-deaf and completely outrageous segment, Tucker Carlson, the TV presenter on America’s Fox News, claims Britain gave its colonies “civilisation”. It’s as if centuries never went by. As with generations before me, I still have to hear the same racist commentary about the brutish and uncivilised people of the Orient who had the great privilege of receiving tutoring by the British on ‘how to act civilised’. No one told me oppression, plunder and slavery were such ideals. But oh well, if that is what it takes to be a great civilisation, so be it I suppose.

What’s even more ridiculous about such commentary trying to shut down today’s scant colonial criticism is the attempts to paint British oppression as a gift. It’s portrayed as something that those oppressed, who lost freedoms, lives and were stripped of dignity for centuries, need to be grateful for. Carlson goes on to say that India as a country “is now far more powerful than the country that ruled it”. I’m not sure how Britain can take credit for that. In the 75 years since independence, India has grown in spite of colonialism, not because of it. And while the colonisers may have left behind English (a language I do think of as my own), it should come as no surprise that the region is far more rich in terms of language than many places in the world. Today 121 languages (and if we broaden it to include dialects spoken by smaller sections of the population, then 19,500 languages) are spoken in the region.

In the 75 years since independence, India has grown in spite of colonialism, not because of it.

This is not to say that English is unimportant to our history, but that the richness of culture, language and “civilisation” predates the entry of the English. And as much as I am a personal fan of the British-built architecture in Bombay that Carlson praises, architecture from the Mughal period (like the Taj Mahal), or the spectacular temples built during the Vijayanagar empire are equally beautiful. And ironically, the architecture that Carlson makes reference to, while built by the British, was in fact Italian Gothic. So if anything, we should be paying our respects to the Italians.

The reason I choose to elaborate on this one segment by Carlson is because much of the commentary against colonial criticism follows the same line of argument. I hope it will encourage those who use these half-baked ideas as legitimate reasons for colonialism to give matters a second thought. Do railways (which were built by the British for their own use, and not out of benevolence for the local population) and pretty buildings really justify horrific crimes committed across centuries?

When I seek to speak to people in Britain today, I am not looking for apologies or any feelings of guilt. Most of us have ancestors who have done bad things. For me, these evil deeds rest on caste and religious ideologies. For others, it can be race or slavery. But I believe we all need to make an attempt to understand and not whitewash the repressive histories of generations before. If anything, histories and the legacies they bequeath us linger. And colonialism is not a thing of the past.

Much as I am not a nationalist, or a patriot, I still found my identity as an Indian to take such effect lately. So much so that when my friend tried to dismiss the colonial past (that is how I saw it, even if he did not intend any harm), I was in tears. Identities do work in mysterious ways. But I do not and should not blame my friend. These reflect larger failures of institutions, including educational systems. Why should he know all of this history in any detail when no one around him cared to mention it?

My love for India and my attachments to it are purely cultural. I take immense pleasure in introducing people to the food, languages and cultural practices. I like to talk about the history of people in the region. I love to give people a taste of Indian films. But again, I shy away from all forms of nationalism, including Indian nationalism. India today (as a political unit, a nation state) developed after the Indian nationalist movement against the British. Since Independence, India has had to deal with other complicated issues. The us versus them fights never stop. Only the camps keep changing. I acknowledge that colonialism has always been only one strand of the story of the region. But it is still a significant one. And it is one that Britain needs to mindfully deal with, not glossed over.

As we conclude this 17-day pomp and splendour, for those who valued the Queen, celebrate her. But let us also make space for those who wish to sit out and mourn a different history. And let us also make space for criticism. Against the Queen, the monarchy, the colonial past and present-day inequalities in Britain. And when we talk of preservation of tradition, let us also ask, what is it that we are really rallying to preserve?

The day after our argument, my friend called me. He wanted to explain his position, and what he saw as his ignorance. I gave him my hand, and apologised for my lack of patience too. And we spoke freely, openly and with our hearts. Some hope after all, if only the whole of Britain could do it: have conversations.


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