Photo courtesy of Daily Record
Monarchy, dictatorship, authoritarianism and despotism, even of the benevolent kind and as a result of democratic elections, are an affront to people’s struggles over the millennia for sovereignty and freedom. However, I must confess to having mixed feelings at the coronation of King Charles III.
While democracy as a concept has ancient roots, seen in Athens in the fifth Century BC and even earlier in some of the republics in India, we must recognize that its acceptance as the best form of governance has been less than a hundred years old. In Nepal, the abolition of the monarchy took place only in 2008. Monarchy continues in the world today, in both its absolute form and in the form of “symbolic” constitutional monarchy, with some variance in the monarch’s powers.
In the case of the UK, the monarchy has been relegated to symbolism. On May 6, King Charles III became the titular sovereign of 15 realms including the erstwhile settler colonies of Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Opposition to the monarchy is rising across these countries, seen vividly in Greens and First Nations senator to the Australian Parliament Lidia Thorpe refusing to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch at that time. There is also growing concern about what purpose such symbols serve in the face of the enormous cost to the public exchequer. Also, views are expressed on how the coronation continues celebrating centuries of colonial plunder and exploitation. At the same time, we need to recognize the continuing romance with royalty in our midst.
In any case, the abolition of the monarchy is not an end in itself. The poet Neeraj, while penning the lines of a popular song to the 1970 Hindi film Prem Pujari, said: “The king has gone, the crown has gone, the whole world has changed, but our caravan still has not reached its destination”. So, while monarchy continues to exist and, in the case of the UK, a king has been crowned, I must confess to some hope.
I have, with other social justice defenders, interacted with the Prince of Wales in 2003 when he visited India. I shared with him about the work that ActionAid Association was doing. I have no hesitation in stating that I saw a sense of commitment to justice, peace, ecology and sustainability in Prince Charles.
That is why I feel that if the institution of monarchy is to remain, and tragically it will despite my antipathy, shared by many, to the institution of kingship, having King Charles III as the monarch could have some positive impact.
Even if the coronation may not be a turning point, it may form an opportunity to contribute to a process of healing that the majorities of the people of the world and the planet need desperately.
The first step could be a series of apologies to indigenous people across the world for participating and leading what should only be called a genocidal attack on indigenous people to build settler colonies for Europe. In much of the Americas, Africa and Oceania, which is constituted by Australasia and the land masses in the Pacific Ocean, it was only through the brutal killing and dispossession of the indigenous people that Europe could create the settler colonies and then maintain them by the equally inhuman trans-Atlantic slave trade. True, Britain did not front end this assault. Instead, this dubious honour rests with the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors or soldier-explorers who, from the 16th century itself, had begun destroying communities, cultures and civilizations in Africa and the Americas. The British Empire began taking shape during the 17th century. It soon overtook all other rivals and remained the supreme unchallenged world imperial power for at least one century until the challenge in 1914, and continued challenges from freedom struggles in the global south before the eventual breakdown of the empire after the second world war.
While not as severe as settler colonialism, the colonialism faced by several countries in Asia and Africa, many of which were vibrant economies and cultures, left a legacy of deprivation, distorted social relations and legacies of partition and internecine conflict in their wake. Colonialism stole people’s lands, their families, their children and their futures, and in many cases left people stateless or aliens in their own lands, haunted and hunted.
Under King Charles III, the UK could lead the path to reconciliation to the world’s imperialist history by being the first to apologize for its role in this inglorious past. However, this apology would be more meaningful if the UK were to immediately rename “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”, their order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work on charitable and welfare causes and public service – the name smacks of a romance with heinous colonial past.
A second step would be to support, advance and energize the process of decolonization by returning art and artefacts acquired through the loot and plunder that the UK indulged in across the centuries of colonialism, including the Kohinoor diamond on the crown that now can rest on the head of King Charles III. Another meaningful step would be to set up and promote a research agenda that would help build a strategy to reverse the continuing impact of colonialism in the current context in economic, social and cultural fields. As monarch to the realms of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, King Charles III could provide valuable support to the land back movements as a meaningful reconciliation to deprivations of the past. Finally, the UK can meaningfully engage with continuing colonial mindsets by cancelling the policy to transfer refugees and migrants to the UK to Rwanda.
Symbolism can have a complex role to play. One cannot rule out small acts of subversion from the most popular icon of monarchy currently in the world. Some leaders of indigenous communities from Canada have recently shared this hope. It may remain unfulfilled, and in the face of the inglorious past, it most likely is an illogical hope, but it is there.