Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s second-longest ruling monarch, died on Thursday, plunging the United Kingdom and parts of the Commonwealth, indeed the modern world touched by the British, into grief and periods of official mourning. The second Elizabethan era has well and truly ended.
When the elaborate rituals of her funeral are conducted on Sep 18 as scheduled now, they will no doubt be televised around the world and could easily rank among the most watched hours on television or social media. Irrespective of the numbers, the monarchy, an institution that still inspires awe and affection even among people once colonised by Britain, will again become visible around the world. Faces of the royal family will be scrutinised and commented upon, they will draw sympathy, nuggets about her long reign and life will fill windows on the screens, and the future of the monarchy will be debated all over again. The monarchy, the media and the royal family have come a long way from the day Elizabeth was crowned. The then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, weighing in on proposals to broadcast the coronation on live television – the most modern media then – had reportedly remarked that “modern mechanical arrangements… would damage the coronation’s magic” and that “religious and spiritual aspects should not be presented as if it were a theatrical performance”.
That there will be no such debate now signals something significant: The world is a dramatically different place and the Queen, from the gilded lofty perch she occupied, saw it all change in her lifetime. At 96, she was older than Anne Frank would have been and nearly a decade older than Elvis Presley would have been – iconic figures who firmly belong in history. When she was crowned, India, newly independent of the colonial yoke, was still charting out her destiny in the world. Television was a new technology then; it is passé now in large parts of the mediascape. All this gives a sense of how long her reign as monarch was. She saw the world emerge shuddering from World War II, industrialised economies transform into post-industrial societies, colonies claw their independence, and her family caught in publicly debated scandals that would have been secure behind castle walls in another age.
Indeed, she presided over a churn in the world and in the U.K. over decolonisation and shrinking of the empire. For former colonies like India, it was a good turn to have taken; for the British, an incalculable loss. This dichotomy was evident around the world as news of her demise spread: solemnity and melancholy dominated public sentiment in the U.K., but the sadness was not universal. From former colonies, including India, people commented on how the empire had presided over a time of slave trade, how it had thwarted independence movements in its colonies, and why the 21st century social media-connected world would look beyond the trappings of royalty. Officially, India declared a day of mourning, too, but large sections of Indians wondered if there was a need to revere the head of a state that had unleashed large-scale repression, even famine, on the country and impoverished the land. As it happened, news of the Queen’s demise came shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had renamed Rajpath to Kartavya Path. Rajpath, commonly understood to mean Kingsway after its eponymous avenue in London, was in the post-Independence decades symbolic of those who govern India; Rajpath crossed Janpath, where the paths of power and people met. Within hours of changing the name to supposedly throw off the last vestiges of colonialism, the Prime Minister was paying heartfelt homage to the head of that colonial empire.
The coming days and months will see more dichotomy around the world – people bereaved by her loss and people who question the place of the royals in today’s world. Each side will offer strong arguments to support its view. How people around the world respond to the post-Elizabethan era will depend on how her heir, King Charles III, reshapes the institution to make it relevant. The Queen, immediately after the unfortunate death of Princess Diana in August 1997, faced the lowest public support for the monarchy because people believed she had acted inappropriately and failed to respond to the massive public grief that had engulfed the House of Windsor and the world. She later made a televised speech to respond to headlines that screamed “Show us you care”. It’s a cry King Charles III may have to contend with too in the years to come as the U.K. grapples with economic and social challenges. A clear-eyed evaluation of the Queen’s long reign and her legacy is a matter for historians and political scientists to address in a more rational, less emotional, time. As a woman who held her own across generations, Elizabeth will be missed.