New Delhi: In October 1961, Queen Elizabeth II made her maiden visit to India — a 23- day royal itinerary packed with receptions of costume parades, dance performances, children’s rallies, visits to industrial enterprises and factories, institutes of arts and sciences, and more.
In their book, ‘Facets of Contemporary History‘, authors M. Thilakavathy and R.K. Maya said India was in “celebrity fever” in anticipation of the visit, with old roads being renovated, people flocking to the big cities to catch a glimpse of the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip.
Over the course of her reign, she made three state visits to India — 1961, 1983, and 1997 — which were usually part of a larger tour to the region and included trips to countries like Pakistan and Nepal.
However, the Queen’s visits weren’t without their share of controversies — her remarks about the Kashmir issue during her 1997 visit to India and Pakistan caused quite a stir and created further friction between the crown and the then Tony Blair-led UK government.
The tail-end of the Queen’s life was marked by scandals closer home — most notably, the claims of racism made by Meghan Markle, a former American actress married to Elizbeth’s grandson, Prince Harry, and the sexual assault allegations against her son, Prince Andrew.
In an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey last March, Markle, the first person of colour to be married into the royal family, made allegations about the racism she faced in the family after she married Harry.
A brief response from Buckingham Palace shortly after the interview said the Queen intended to deal with what had become arguably one of the biggest crises of her reign “privately”.
Award-winning journalist Tina Brown notes in her latest book The Palace Papers that after the death of Princess Diana — the former wife of the Queen’s son Prince Charles, and mother to Princes William and Harry — in a car crash in 1997, the Queen was opposed to the idea of “explosive celebrity” within the royal family.
“Ever since the death of Diana in 1997, the Queen had made it clear to all those who advised her that it could never happen again — the ‘it’ being Diana’s explosive celebrity, the problem of the British monarchy being upstaged, outshone, drowned out by one overweening, dangerously popular member of the family other than the Queen or the heir to the throne,” Brown wrote.
It wasn’t just the scandal involving Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that the Queen had to contend with in recent times. There have been sexual assault allegations against her other son, Prince Andrew, and his alleged association with convicted sex offenders Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
In January, the Queen took steps to strip her son of his royal titles as he faced a sexual abuse lawsuit. A month later, the lawsuit ended in a settlement, sparing the royal family the humiliation of a trial.
1997 visit to India, Pakistan
The Queen’s trip to India and Pakistan in October 1997 was the first since the death of Princess Diana. But it had been scheduled ahead of time as it sought to celebrate 50 years of independence for both countries.
In 1997, when in Pakistan, the Queen had allegedly urged New Delhi and Islamabad to settle their long-standing differences over the Kashmir issue — a statement that did not go over well with either country.
Britain’s then-foreign secretary Robin Cook, who had accompanied the Queen on the tour, made matters worse when, during a private meeting with Pakistan’s then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he offered to mediate a solution.
“The Indian press objected to Cook’s remarks, and Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral (Inder Kumar Gujral) was quoted as dismissing Britain as a ‘third-rate power’ that should know better than to interfere in a bilateral dispute,” noted a Washington Post report at the time.
The same year, the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, visited India. While paying their respects at the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Prince Philip reportedly “caused a stir” when he objected to a sign indicating that 2,000 Indians had been killed in the massacre. He instead asserted that Britain reported the deaths of only 379 people.
‘Chilly’ relations with Tony Blair government
The Queen’s October 1997 visit to India and Pakistan created trouble for the Tony Blair-led UK government at home, which had come to power just four months after Princess Diana’s death in August that year.
After the Queen’s remarks about the Kashmir issue on her 1997 visit to Pakistan, Blair ordered his cabinet to undertake “a full-scale damage-control mission” to shift focus on the successes of the queen’s visit.
Allegations of a “hidden agenda” behind the Queen’s visit to India and Pakistan came at a sensitive time for Blair, just over a week before he was slated to meet his Indian counterpart, Gujral, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh.
According to Brown, Blair’s royal relations had got off to “a chilly start” with his government’s decision earlier in the year to retire the royal yacht Britannia, which had been a source of much happiness for the royal family.
“In December 1997, at the ship’s decommissioning ceremony, the Queen shed a rare tear. Britannia represented not only memories of grand and glamorous state visits but also some of her happiest times with the family…. It was the only way she could holiday privately,” wrote Brown.
Despite some tensions, Blair’s government did well to quell media scrutiny of the Queen after Prince Diana’s death — a fact that, according to historian Dominic Sandbrook, rankled the Queen.
“Nobody likes to be in someone else’s debt and I think the Queen probably did feel, simultaneously, that he had saved her, but, at the same time, she didn’t like the fact that he’d done it,” said Sandbrook last year.
Other historians like Piers Brendon have also said there was resentment towards Blair for ‘intruding’ into the royal family’s affairs.
In a statement issued by him following the Queen’s death, Blair said: “We have lost not just our monarch but the matriarch of our nation”.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)