India's Modi 'pained' by death of Queen Elizabeth II

·3-min read

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Thursday he was "pained" by the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, hailing the monarch of his country's former colonial ruler as a paragon of "dignity and decency".

The queen acceded to the throne in 1952 -- the first British monarch in more than a century not to have also reigned as either emperor or empress of India.

Modi said she had provided "inspiring leadership to her nation and people" and offered his condolences to the royal family and British public.

During a meeting with the queen in Britain, she showed Modi a handkerchief given to her by Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi at her wedding.

"I will always cherish that gesture," he wrote on Twitter.

"She personified dignity and decency in public life. Pained by her demise."

Elizabeth II's tenure as the United Kingdom's longest-reigning sovereign began just five years after the independence of a country once referred to as the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire.

By the end of it, the former colony's GDP had just overtaken that of Britain, according to IMF figures, and it is set soon to become the world's most populous nation.

Modi's government has in recent years accelerated efforts to scrap the last symbolic vestiges of colonial rule.

His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) espouses a muscular Hindu nationalism that champions historical figures who opposed foreign domination and influence during the colonial era.

Earlier Thursday, Modi unveiled a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, an independence hero venerated for taking up arms against the British, but controversial for his collaboration with Nazi Germany's war machine.

The image in New Delhi replaces a statue of Britain's king George V -- the queen's grandfather -- torn down nearly half a century ago.

Last week, Modi also unveiled a new naval ensign that removed the prominent St George's cross -- the national emblem of England -- from the existing flag.

Colonial history continues to colour and occasionally sour relations with Britain.

Senior European diplomats in New Delhi say it is far easier for them to question Indian government actions than the British ambassador, from whom any criticism risks provoking a torrent of condemnation over the past.

- Colonial massacre -

Queen Elizabeth visited India three times during her reign.

Her final tour in 1997, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, was tainted by rancour and controversy from almost the moment she began her journey in Pakistan.

Soon after her arrival in Islamabad, the British government was accused of unwarranted interference in India's territorial dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, a saga that has long poisoned relations between the two neighbours.

Hours before she landed in New Delhi, police used water cannon to disperse a demonstration against her visit outside the British High Commission.

Protesters -- along with public officials -- were incensed over her plans to visit Amritsar, a western city where in 1919 colonial security forces massacred upwards of 379 people.

The infamous attack in the Jallianwala Bagh walled gardens galvanised contemporary opinion against British rule and remains a sore point in relations.

Elizabeth II laid a wreath on its grounds but did not yield to calls for an apology, and her husband Prince Philip enraged the Indian public for reportedly questioning the massacre's death toll.

Her visit was part of the first royal tour since the death of Princess Diana in a car crash weeks earlier, and a recap from the Times of India newspaper declared her time in the country "jinxed from the word go".

But Harsh V Pant, a professor at King's India Institute in London, said there was "a great degree of warmth" towards her in India.

Her death marked the end of an era of transition, he added.

"Britain was an imperial power to begin with and the queen then made that adjustment vis-a-vis the post-colonial entities", he said.

"Despite herself being part of the colonial enterprise," he said, she "understood better than many politicians how to navigate the distance between history and present".