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King Charles III Faces Challenges as Old Colonial Links Go
Narendra Modi initiates moves to erase “symbols of slavery”
By: John Elliott
In a coincidence that illustrates the great changes that Queen Elizabeth II had to deal with during a long reign, her death on September 8 came just a few hours after India, a leading member of what was once called the “British Commonwealth,” began removing some of the last emblems of British colonialism from central Delhi.
Erasing what Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a “symbol of slavery”, the name of Delhi’s revamped ceremonial road from the presidential palace to India Gate was changed from Rajpath to Kartavya Path, which means Path of Duty. It had been called Kings Way before independence and Modi said at the renaming ceremony on September 7 that both the old names “symbolized the power of the ruler”.
The new Kartavya Path “represented the sense of duty as well as the spirit of public ownership and empowerment”. He congratulated the nation “for their freedom from yet another symbol of slavery of the British Raj”.
This is not a move against the UK or the Commonwealth, but about removing the relics of British rule as India’s modern history is rewritten to shift Jawaharlal Nehru (and also Mahatma Gandhi) from their revered positions as the primary independence heroes. Modi wants to be seen as India’s pre-eminent post-1947 leader and to eliminate the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s already fading Congress Party.
The new hero of independence is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a political leader who sided with the Japanese in World War II as a move against the British. His 28-ft statue was unveiled this past week on Kartavya Path under a Grand Canopy that used to cover a statue of King George V.
“At the time of slavery, there was a statue of the representative of the British Raj. Today, the country has also brought to life a modern, strong India by establishing the statue of Netaji at the same place,” said Modi. The Indian Navy has also dropped the red cross of St George in a new version of its ensign (it was also dropped earlier, then restored).
Such moves illustrate the challenges that King Charles III will face in steering a path through the domestic political gyrations of the 56-nation Commonwealth, which his mother loved and preserved.
“In any list of her achievements, her role in smoothing the transition from empire to post-colonial Commonwealth must stand among the highest,” says a tribute on the website of the Commonwealth’s Round Table journal.
When Elizabeth succeeded her father King George VI in 1952, she became head of state of more than 30 countries, or realms as they are known in Commonwealth parlance. While she was Queen, 17 replaced her with their own heads of state and many of the remaining 14, which include Canada and Australia, are likely eventually to do so too.
In 1952, India was the only country in Britain’s old empire that was not only independent (from 1947) but had also become a republic (in 1950). Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s prime minister, initiated moves that ensured the Queen immediately inherited the role as head of the Commonwealth.
In 2018, when the biennial Commonwealth summit (known as Chogm) was held in London, Modi is believed to have also played a significant role in ensuring that the then Prince Charles, who had visited him in Delhi for a dinner a few months earlier, was adopted as the future leader. In hindsight, it seems that achieving this smooth succession was the Queen’s primary aim for the summit.
Questions at a Chogm press conference about whether there had been any objections to Prince Charles drew answers that indicated not all the countries had at first agreed. The Ghana president, Nana Akufo-Addo, revealingly said there was “a strong consensus”. Theresa May, the British prime minister, said it was “unanimous” which, of course, did not mean there were not any dissenters during the discussions.
Earlier suggestions that the role could rotate around the realms did not have much support, and there was no other international figure of sufficient stature. The decision could have been delayed, but the British government and royal family lobbied effectively against that happening.
The frictions King Charles will face were illustrated when the Duke of Cambridge, now the Prince of Wales, toured the Caribbean in March. Barbados had replaced the Queen with an elected president four months earlier, and the Jamaican prime minister publicly told the duke and duchess that his country too would be “moving on”. Reparations for the slave trade under British rule were demanded in the Bahamas.
It looked as if the British foreign ministry had not done an adequate job discovering and preparing for what would emerge. The duke said the tour had “brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future.”
Who the Commonwealth chose as leader “wasn’t on my mind,” he added, thinking ahead to when he becomes king and the question of him succeeding his father will arise. “What matters to us is the potential the Commonwealth family has to create a better future for the people who form it.”
The Commonwealth has never emerged as a major internationally significant or influential institution, and it is widely regarded as a waste of time and money. Even Narendra Modi seemed to lose interest after the 2018 Chogm and didn’t attend this year’s summit in Rwanda. In 2018, there was an idea that India should play more of a leadership role but that has not developed, even though the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a rare international organization where China doesn’t qualify for membership.
As an organization, it is most valued by over 30 small states with populations under 1.5million. They see it as a forum where they can meet and mix with world leaders and where they can also find a voice and call on expert advice and support. On a different level, there are valuable events like the Commonwealth Games and many associated organizations dealing with issues from human rights to climate change.
Sunday (Sept 11) has been declared an official day of mourning in India and the Queen is revered in most other countries. There are exceptions, however, notably, it seems in Africa where there have been reports (including here on CNN) that she doesn’t deserve to be mourned because she was sovereign during the repression of the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.
But the monarch has less power than many other heads of state and is not supposed to intervene – something the new king might find difficult, given his past record of speaking out, especially on climate change and the environment.
Referring to the Queen, the Round Table said, “Although her role necessitated discretion and is shrouded in secrecy, it is well known that on several occasions (such as on the question of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa) she fought the Commonwealth’s corner with her then UK prime ministers,”. She also dropped a gentle hint against a vote for independence when Scotland had a referendum in 2014.
That then is the challenge facing the new King – finding a way to fill the role performed with tact and skill by his mother so that he is accepted as the leader, and then holds the Commonwealth together as individual countries like India determinedly sever relics of colonial rule while others become republics and remove him as head of state.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.