UK-India relations, before 1947
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In 1885 a leaflet began circulating in Indian metropolises. Signed by the leading associations of the era, including the British Indian Association in Calcutta, the Sarvajanik Sabha in Poona, and the Mahajan Sabha of Madras, it bore an eye-catching title: Why Do Indians Prefer British to Russian Rule? The leaflet was a response to a dramatic event. Since the early 19th century, Britain and Russia had been engaged in the ‘Great Game’, a contest over who would dominate Central Asia. Over the decades, the Russians had subdued the khanates or principalities scattered over modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. In 1885, they reached Pandjeh, an Afghan border town on the route to Herat and Kabul. With the Russians now only a few hundred miles from British India, rumours of an impending invasion swirled in bazaars. The question of “what sort of treatment” Indians would receive from the Russians began “severely exercising” the minds of “all classes”. It was in the midst of this general panic that the aforementioned leaflet appeared, making its case in twelve crisp bullet points. “It is the deepest and the firmest conviction of every educated Indian”, it declared, that in spite of “the serious defects of its rule”, England was “the champion of liberty”. Since Indians appreciated liberty, and believed that Britain would eventually grant them more of it, they had no desire to “exchange” Pax Britannica for “the Russian system of military aggression abroad and official repression at home”. In the end, the anticipated invasion did not materialise as the Russians directed their energies toward Japan. With the passage of time, the so-called ‘Pandjeh incident’, and the leaflet it inspired, receded from public consciousness. But consider what followed. Less than two decades later, the much-vaunted “bond” between India’s Englisheducated metropolitan elites and their British patrons lay in tatters. Contrary to what the authors of the leaflet had anticipated, practically every important figure in the generation that followed came away from their English education disaffected with the British. Perhaps no person symbolised the divorce more vividly than Aurobindo Ghosh, who went from studying Latin and Greek in Cambridge to writing paeans to a rising Japan.
This disenchantment is typically attributed to Indian unhappiness with British policies in India, but it also stemmed from Britain’s conduct overseas. Educated In- dians saw clearly the chasm between Britain’s wholesome words and unwholesome deeds. The British praised equality but condoned racism in South Africa; they declared themselves enlightened but forced opium on China; they advocated free trade but imposed unfair tariffs on India; they spoke of justice but gunned down Zulus. Little wonder then that by the end of World War I, the leading ideological movements in India were not only anti-colonial, they were also deeply skeptical of the West. There is a lesson to be drawn from this history. When we share values, we become aware of each other’s deviations from these values. What makes these deviations especially painful is hypocrisy — or the pretense that the flaws are on one side only. It was one thing for the British to describe Indians as “uncivilised”, it was quite another to do so while Britain was dismembering China and overpowering Egypt. Consider what Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar, one of the first Indians to receive a modern English education, had to say in the Bombay Gazette in 1841, when news of the First Opium War reached India: “Where is your integrity and good sense which you so much boast of — ugh! Self-interest is all in all to you, and to secure it you would do anything”. The British response was to send the editor of the Bombay Gazette packing, bringing Tarkhadkar’s stinging editorials to an end.
1953: Nehru attends Queen Elizabeth’s coronation
The last coronation of an English sovereign took place in 1953, just a few years after India gained independence from the British. Amongst the many dignitaries that attended the function was India's Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who expressed his awe of the proceedings in a televised interview with the BBC. However, Nehru's attendance elicited criticism at home, with many Indians questioning why he would legitimise the occasion.
From bottles of gin and tins of biscuits to street and garden parties; and from pork pies and quiches to souvenirs and memorabilia — the UK is ready to celebrate King Charles III’s coronation.
A landmark affair, Charles’ coronation will be attended by several world leaders, diplomats, humanitarians, and members of the Royal family. Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar will represent India at the ceremonial event.
Almost 70 years ago — on June 2, 1953 — it was former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who represented India, when the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place. Nehru not only attended the festivities but also marked the occasion with his first televised interview, conducted with the UK’s national broadcaster, the BBC. Speaking about the event, Nehru, much impressed by the “spectacle”, praised the “orderly London crowds and the way they behaved.”
Nehru courted criticism at home for his decision to attend the coronation soon after India had freed itself from British rule. When asked during the BBC interview if there would be no criticism in India about him coming to the coronation, Nehru said there would be, but that it would not amount to anything.
The Delhi Durbars
By 1953, when Queen Elizabeth was crowned, India was no stranger to the coronation celebrations and had hosted three Delhi durbars — in 1877, 1903, and 1911 — each marked by a grand political spectacle.
These durbars were held at Coronation Park, located nearly 17 kilometres away from Connaught Place, in New Delhi. In 1858, the blame for the mutiny that had occurred just one year previously fell sorely at the feet of the East India Company. In response to the growing discontent, authority over India was passed from the Company to the Crown following the passage of the Government of India Act by the British Parliament.
Although the Crown took control of India in 1858, it wouldn’t be until 1876 that the Queen of England was officially introduced to her Indian subjects. Upon urging from her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria added the moniker, Empress of India, to her many lauded titles. To mark the occasion, the English Civil Servant Thomas Henry Thornton organised a mass celebration that would signify the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown.
Although Queen Victoria did not attend the celebrations, her proclamation as India’s new sovereign was read aloud to a muted gathering of Indian subjects. In it, she promised Indians that under her rule, the principles of liberty, equity and justice would prevail, adding that she wished sincerely for the health and happiness of her new subjects.
According to a report by the US Library of Congress, Queen Victoria’s proclamation resonated deeply with Indians, that many Indian rulers got up and cheered, praying for her long life and enduring prosperity.
Despite her popularity at the time, Queen Victoria’s durbar was devoid of much of the grandeur displayed at the coronation of her successor, King Edward VII in 1902. According to a report in The Times of India, King Edward’s coronation was celebrated across India, masterminded by the Viceroy of India at the time, Lord Curzon.
Under Curzon’s meticulous guidance, the durbar was a “dazzling display of pomp, power and split-second timing,” according to Stephen Bottomore, a filmmaker who captured the event. Amongst the many celebrations issued in his honour, the coronation of King Edward transformed Delhi into a tent city, featuring not only a temporary railway for the masses of crowds, but also a variety of specially designed stores, post offices, hospitals, and police stations.
By contrast, the 1911 coronation of King George V was considerably less splendid, despite the fact that the King and his Queen consort were the first British monarchs to set foot in India for the occasion. In anticipation of their arrival, Bombay constructed the now magnificent Gateway of India (although at the time, due to delay in construction, a temporary structure was forced to suffice), and the royal visit was marked by celebrations spanning several cities and adoring crowds. However, the most historically relevant feature of this durbar was not the monumental celebrations themselves but the lone act of defiance by one Indian Prince that would serve as the precursor to the Indian Independence movement.
During the 1911 durbar, each Indian prince was expected to perform a ceremonial act of loyalty towards the King by bowing three times in front of him before backing away without turning. As documented by the biographer Jessica Douglas-Home, whose grandmother, Lilah Wingfield, attended the event, the Gaekwar of Baroda, in a noteworthy display of disobedience, bowed improperly and then turned his back towards the King.
Nearly half a century later, this act was personified by a myriad of Indians, who, under the stewardship of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, would successfully agitate for independence from British rule. However, only six years after Independence, Nehru would invite criticism by attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Nehru, Queen’s coronation, and the BBC interview
By the time Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1953, India was not only an independent republic, but one that had shed the shackles of British rule by joining the Commonwealth of Nations only upon the condition that she would be free from swearing allegiance to the Crown.
Nehru, a prominent architect of these developments, therefore shocked many when he decided to attend the coronation of the new reigning monarch of India’s former colonisers. Much of the blame and accusations levied upon Nehru were due to his association with the anglicised Indian elite, as documented by the Indian historian B R Nanda in the Journal of Modern Asian Studies.
Coming from “one of the most anglicised families in India,” Nanda writes, Nehru was born into a life devoid of nationalist orthodoxy, featuring instead, English “table manners, customs, and systems of education.” Nehru was tutored by an English governess and was sent to boarding school and later, university in England. However, even in his depths of anglicised life, Nehru felt the “stirrings of an ardent patriotism,” according to Nanda.
Nehru was a member of an association of Indian students at Cambridge that clamoured for independence, rejected British Dominion status as a member of the Indian National Congress, and called for the withdrawal of all British forces from India. According to the private secretary of the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, who met Nehru in 1931, the future Prime Minister of India was “intractable, uncompromising and determined to work for complete independence.”
However, as Nanda goes on to narrate, Nehru would soon compromise his stance towards the British, justifying his acceptance of the modified Commonwealth as a way of preventing “further disruption”. Nehru reportedly told noted American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, “You realise, Galbraith, that I am the last Englishman to rule in India.”
In 1953, when Queen Elizabeth was crowned, an approximate 30 million people watched the event on TV with over 11 million more following it on the radio. The coronation of King Charles III is expected to draw in around 300 million people, many of whom reside outside of the United Kingdom. Despite that, Charles has opted for a much smaller affair, inviting only 2,000 guests as opposed to roughly 8,000 guests who were invited to attend the Queen’s coronation ceremony.
Amongst the attendees, Nehru was joined by the prime ministers of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Pakistan, along with former US Secretary of State, George Marshall, and Colonel Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua. However, none of their presence stirred up the kind of controversy that Nehru’s visit generated.
Nehru, however, remained unfazed by it all. When asked in the BBC interview if there would be no criticism in India about him coming to the coronation, Nehru said: “There was when I came and there will be no doubt when I go back, but I don’t think it’ll amount to much.”
On being asked why he, and by extension the Indian people, were so quick to forgive the British, Nehru said: “Well, partly we don’t, I suppose, hate for long or intensively.” This, he noted, was the legacy left behind in India by Mahatma Gandhi.
The India connection
Queen Victoria, who was the Empress of India during the Raj, was the first British monarch to include an Indian escort at all her major royal ceremonies and 200 years on at King Charles III’s Coronation this weekend that history would be reflected in the Commonwealth symbolism, according to a British Indian historian and author.
Shrabani Basu, the London-based author of ‘Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant’ – adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Dame Judi Dench as Victoria, believes the trappings around the ceremony at Westminster Abbey on Saturday will hark back to much of Queen Victoria’s love for India.
As the first monarch to make Buckingham Palace her home, the gilded carriage of King Charles and Queen Camilla will leave those very gates when it makes its way to the Abbey.
“It is with Victoria that we have such a link with India, because of her connection with Abdul Karim from whom she learnt Urdu; she was so fond of India, though she never visited due to old age,” said Basu, in an interview at the Victoria Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace in London days before the Coronation.
“She yearned to visit India and in every ceremony that she had, she would make sure there was an Indian escort that led the procession out of Buckingham Palace towards Westminster Abbey. It was the first time that people on the streets saw Indian soldiers escorting the Queen because they were her special escorts. This time round things have changed, it’s the Commonwealth. But the link is very strong with 200 years of history behind us,” she said.
While the pomp and pageantry of the day and the concert and street parties planned over the long celebratory weekend are getting their final touches ahead of the big day on May 6, the future of the institution itself is also very much under the scanner.
“We can see the stands are going up, the palace is getting ready, the throne is being done up. Britain knows how to put up a show, they love the pomp and the pageantry, the drum rolls and the costumes, the carriages that are being given the polish for weeks,” notes Basu, also the author of ‘Kind and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18’.
“Even as we witness all this mounting excitement, a recent poll showed that while the over-60s are very enthusiastic about the monarchy, there is a decline in interest in the monarchy for the 18-25 year olds. So, it begs the question, what is the future of the monarchy; how long would it continue on this scale? Will Prince George (second in line to the throne after Prince William) have a much reduced ceremony in the years to come,” she pondered.
Prince George, 9, is lined up to play a starring role at the Coronation ceremony of his 74-year-old grandfather King Charles III along with his father William, 40, heir to the British throne as the Prince of Wales.
Meanwhile, Graham Smith, CEO of Republic – Britain’s largest anti-monarchist group, has already revealed plans for a series of #NotMyKing protests at Trafalgar Square and along the route of the Coronation procession in central London. The group campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy to make way for an elected Head of State.
“India made the right choice a long time ago to get rid of the monarchy, to separate from the Crown and be a Republic, and that is a strong reminder that the Commonwealth is not linked to the Crown in that way,” he said recently.
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