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India reacts to Queen Elizabeth II's death with grief, anger — but mainly indifference

Queen Elizabeth II rides on an elephant during one of her three official visits to India. This photo is from February 1961.
AFP via Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II rides on an elephant during one of her three official visits to India. This photo is from February 1961.

MUMBAI, India — As world leaders gather in London today for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – head of the Commonwealth's most populous country – is absent.

Seventy-five years after it cast off British colonial rule, India sent its ceremonial president – a woman from one of the country's indigenous tribes – to its former monarch's funeral. As head of state, Indian President Droupadi Murmu's presence adheres to protocol, even though a mix of other prime ministers (heads of government) and presidents and royals (heads of state) are in attendance. Murmu also paid her respects to King Charles III at Buckingham Palace separately, before the service.

Modi's absence could be seen as a sign of his political priorities. Last week, he attended a security summit in Uzbekistan with Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. But he's skipping a chance to meet President Biden and others at the queen's funeral, as well as the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

A mixed reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II

It's also a sign of the mixed reaction to the queen's death in India. There was some mourning, some anti-colonial anger – but mostly indifference.

There are no major public screenings of the funeral footage. It's barely on local TV. "I did not think anything, actually!" Richa Mahapatra, a 26-year-old chartered accountant, told NPR when asked what she thought about the queen's death. "I did not have a lot of respect for her. So it didn't make any change for me, frankly speaking."

Mahapatra says she never thought much about the queen while she was alive either, and isn't grieving.

It's a sign of just how much relations have changed between Britain's royals and their former colonies. India removed the U.K. monarch as its head of state shortly after it became independent in 1947. The Caribbean country of Barbados recently did the same. Several other Commonwealth countries say they'll follow suit.

For many of the queen's former colonial subjects, her life and death are a reminder of a painful history of exploitation and racism. Some bitterness certainly persists.

"She benefited from the wealth and enslavement of colonized people and never did anything to rectify that," says Priya Atwal, a historian of empire and monarchy at Oxford University.

Since India won its freedom from the British 75 years ago, it has been changing Anglicized or European place names to indigenous ones. (Bombay became Mumbai; Madras became Chennai.)

On Sept. 8, before word of the queen's death spread, Modi was renaming a street in New Delhi that's long been known as Rajpath, or "King's Way" – originally meant to honor Queen Elizabeth's grandfather King George V. Its new name is "Kartavya Path," using the Hindi word for duty.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the country to shed its colonial ties in a ceremony to rename Rajpath, a boulevard once called Kingsway after King George V. Modi made the speech on Sept. 8 before news of Queen Elizabeth II's death was announced.
Manish Swarup / AP
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AP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the country to shed its colonial ties in a ceremony to rename Rajpath, a boulevard once called Kingsway after King George V. Modi made the speech on Sept. 8 before news of Queen Elizabeth II's death was announced.

"King's Way, or Rajpath, the symbol of slavery, has become a matter of history from today and has been erased forever," Modi told a cheering crowd that day. "A new history has been created."

On her trips to India, Queen Elizabeth II was met mostly with flag-waving – but also some riots

The queen visited India three times while on the throne: in 1961, 1983 and 1997. She rode many elephants, posed in front of a dead tiger shot by her husband and waved at Indians from countless convertible cars.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip stand with their hosts Maharajah and Maharanee of Jaipur, in the forests of Rajasthan, India, on Jan. 24, 1961. Prince Philip shot the tiger in the foreground.
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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip stand with their hosts Maharajah and Maharanee of Jaipur, in the forests of Rajasthan, India, on Jan. 24, 1961. Prince Philip shot the tiger in the foreground.

But on her final visit, in 1997, a royal stop in Amritsar triggered some riots.

Protesters wanted the queen to apologize for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre – one of the worst atrocities of the British Empire. On April 13, 1919, a British general ordered troops to open fire on thousands of Indian civilians in a public park. Hundreds were killed.

On her 1997 visit, the queen laid a wreath at the massacre site, but stopped short of apologizing. Instead, she told attendees at a banquet in Delhi the night before that she found Jallianwala Bagh's history "distressing."

"People kept straining their ears, but she never apologized – not for Jallianwala Bagh nor for any colonial crimes," says Aparna Vaidik, a historian at India's Ashoka University.

Vaidik says the queen was the product of a racist colonial regime and era.

"She grew up in an era where India was a colony. So those attitudes would persist. It's not like she's having her prejudices questioned," she says. "Her world remained the same."

But the rest of the world has changed.

For Britain and India, the tables have turned

One of Mumbai's most ornate landmarks is a train station that used to be named Victoria Terminus, after Queen Victoria – the so-called "Empress of India" and Elizabeth's great-great-grandmother. The station has since been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, after a 17thcentury Indian ruler. But its British-built flying buttresses and gargoyles remain.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, one of Mumbai's main train stations. It was formerly called Victoria Terminus, for Queen Victoria, the so-called "Empress of India" — great, great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.
/ Lauren Frayer
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Lauren Frayer
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, one of Mumbai's main train stations. It was formerly called Victoria Terminus, for Queen Victoria, the so-called "Empress of India" — great, great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.

At the station this past weekend, travelers told NPR they'd heard news of the queen's death. But they were more excited to discuss other news they'd heard recently: That this month, India's economy surpassed that of its colonial master. India's GDP is now the fifthh largest in the world, ahead of Britain's.

"They ruled us, but we'll never let that happen again," says Bipul Verma, 36, a member of the Indian Navy. "What happened in the past doesn't matter. We have to look forward."

Atwal, the Oxford historian, says the Indian economy would have surpassed Britain's much earlier if British colonial rulers hadn't extracted so much of India's wealth and resources.

Nevertheless, India is now arguably the more powerful entity in British-Indian relations — especially since Britain voted to leave the European Union, Atwal says.

"Now Britain is going through a period of a major flux. Since the Brexit referendum, Britain is the one looking for trading partners," she says. "Britain is looking to India for deals and assistance and a future economic partnership."

There is one thing some Indians would like to make a deal with Britain for: The Kohinoor diamond. It's a massive, 105-carat jewel that was mined in southern India centuries ago. Now valued at more than $500 million, it's part of the incalculable wealth extracted by the British in India, over time.

It's currently embedded in one of the British royal family's crowns.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Artist Manas Sahoo creates a sand art tribute to Queen Elizabeth on a beach in Puri, India, on Sept. 9.
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Artist Manas Sahoo creates a sand art tribute to Queen Elizabeth on a beach in Puri, India, on Sept. 9.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.