Consternation and shock have been expressed at India’s decision to mourn the Queen’s demise which indicates a baffling lack of understanding of how diplomacy does and ought to work
Historian Richard Gott writes in his book, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, ‘The rulers of the empire may one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity.’ The empire’s dark, brutal history is no secret, not at least to anyone in India. It naturally inspires anger, disgust and is the source of trauma for so many who continue to try and outlive its memory. Much then has been made of India’s two-fold stance, one of active decolonisation on the ground — from renaming streets to revamping colonial buildings — and the contrasting, performative respect being shown to the late Queen Elizabeth II on her demise. Most people ranting about this conflicted, somewhat awkward display of colonial re-commitment, believe that international diplomacy, like social media trends, runs on outrage and emotion, when it is a far more complex process of selective disengagement.
The history of the Empire is also the history of roughly 2/3rd of the inhabited world. It is also one full of blood, war and painful rebellion. The kind of history that most colonies latch onto for a sense of dogged self-identification in the face of unprecedented challenges. There have of course been calls and demands for former UK PMs to recognise the horrors of the Empire, of which the monarchy is possibly the greatest surviving symbol. But things are not as straightforward as many would want to believe they are. Rejecting the monarchy as an idea is one thing, but deleting a 400-year-old history, the effective transformations of which continue to live on around the world, is another. Not to mention we live in a post-empire world, where the UK is more than just the descendant of a once bloody kingdom.
For that matter, England has had its own problems with confronting a past that it can neither fully divorce nor convincingly outpace. From the controversial separation of Prince Harry from the monarchy, to the awkward acknowledgement of the royal family’s existence as a point of both obsession and functional confusion, the monarchy is the kind of sore spot that is impossible to both cure or wish away. A number of UK-born historians and intellectuals acknowledge the lack of education Britons have received about their colonial forefathers, but it is far more complicated than just reading a book one day and marching down to Buckingham Palace the next to evict a monarchy that is possibly inseparable from the country’s past, present and future.
India’s stance, or at least the messaging within its borders of late has been of decolonisation. More so of the mind, if not of the tangible structures that must continue to function as a matter of economic and cultural sustenance. History cannot be erased or avenged by untactful retorts that betray a certain eloquence that International diplomacy relies on. Nor can it be helped by snide steps to withdraw in a moment where the majority of the world, even if reluctantly, will do the same. Which is why India’s response reflects the tenderness that an ongoing war in Eastern Europe has introduced into an otherwise metallic and plain relationship. Missteps can be costly, even if applied through the garbled messaging of grief, or worse, ignorance.
The truth is that England’s own political structure has over the last few decades, in one way or the other, tried to wriggle free of the crown’s influence. To the effect that the Royal Family possibly exerts little control over the country or the region’s socio-political future beyond representing an era that almost all would like to forget. It’s possibly out of reluctant etiquette that Britons continue to acknowledge the Crown’s conspicuous existence in a time when democracy is the machinery of power. It’s painfully clear then that while the Empire’s sordid history could still use wider circulation, it is also one that is incredibly hard to divorce as a matter of existence. We can and obviously have written our own stories of courage and sacrifice, but we are also interminably linked with the Empire’s leftovers, its unending impact on a world that can possibly only move forward as opposed to return to the past to correct it.
Jokes about the Kohinoor and Queen, angry rants about India’s choice to grant the death of a monarch, a moment of respect, disregards the fact that even in personal life, we often mourn those whom we do not necessarily like or love. It might be insincere at times but at least it doesn’t stretch fabric that is by definition perpetually tense and unpredictable. Diplomacy is not a game of emotional tendencies, but a learned trade of selective, precise decision-making. It’s also possibly the one arena where restraint is a quality far more valuable than power. The world doesn’t run on revenge, because if it did, we’d never see peace. Ranting about it doesn’t help either. Because unlike on social media, there are no brownie points to be won, in international politics.
The author writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between. Views expressed are personal.