Ahead of King Charles III’s coronation on Saturday, South Asians around the world are pondering what it means when another British monarch comes to power. With gilded carriages, crowns, capes and jewels ready to be unfurled, people across the diaspora prepare to celebrate an institution they say oppressed their parents, grandparents and ancestors.
Born just a year after India won independence from what was then his grandfather’s empire, Charles’s legacy is inseparable from the pangs of colonialism that still grip the subcontinent and diaspora today, experts said. The coronation, small as it is, is a relic of that colonial legacy, they said.
“I think the pageantry and pageantry is like the last hurray for an empire in deep decline,” said Priyamvada Gopal, 54, a professor of postcolonial studies at Cambridge University. “This is almost like a parody of empire and imperial pageantry, while there is very real everyday suffering.”
Buckingham Palace did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Bharat Shah, 88, remembers hearing the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, she told NBC News in an interview translated from Gujarati by her 31-year-old granddaughter Pooja Shah.
At that time, fresh from Partition and the struggle for independence, India had plunged into a period of instability and uncertainty. Prices for basic necessities had skyrocketed, Shah said, and he hoped a new monarch could help usher in a better era.
“I remember hearing it on the radio,” he said. “There was also news about his coronation in the newspapers. … It was hard to even afford to buy a newspaper; one person would buy it and a group would get together and read about his coronation.”
Elizabeth was crowned just six years after India gained independence from the British. Shah still has visceral memories of the poverty and violence that came with the empire’s occupation and eventual withdrawal from the region.
He grew up on stories of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when a British general gave the order to shoot hundreds of peaceful Punjabi protesters.
“My father was going to march with the rest of the indigenous people in our community, and we had to appoint a member of the community to stay awake and watch over the community,” he said. «I just remember that period of time was really tough mentally and physically.»
For 21-year-old Ishaan Parmar, the British Empire and the royal family were never at the forefront of his mind. Growing up in the US, he said his parents did everything they could to protect him from a reality that had defined his life.
But during coronations, royal weddings, and even funerals, you can’t help but feel a dark subtext as a South Asian watching.
“I don’t think there’s actually a way to exaggerate colonialism,” he said. “This is all to create this ideal image of Britain. I think the pomp and circumstance of the coronation is just like any nationalist event. It’s this misconception of a shiny house on the hill.»
The link with King Carlos III
Although Charles is assuming the role of monarch at a very different time than his mother, as leader of the Commonwealth, experts said he is still inextricably linked to the exploits of colonialism.
“The Commonwealth would not exist without the empire,” Gopal said. “There is a lot of wealth in the royal family, both the wealth of the monarchy and the private wealth of the family, which is completely tied to the imperial project that has been going on for several hundred years.”
Gopal remembers that Charles visited India while she was attending high school there. Growing up, she only knew him as a young prince that beautiful women everywhere wanted to be with, but he didn’t symbolize much else.
It’s easy for people to get caught up in that image, he said, but now he represents something much bigger.
“I think the monarchy stands at the pinnacle and symbolizes what Britain has now become: a small cabal of very, very rich people and a large number of increasingly impoverished ordinary British citizens,” he said.
In contrast to the atmosphere during Elizabeth’s coronation, the British and world public is increasingly questioning the monarchy.
«Very few in Britain questioned the empire [in 1953]said Caroline Elkins, a Harvard University professor and author of «Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.» “Fast-forwarding to 2023, we are in a very different world in some ways. The empire, for the most part, is gone. … Believe [Charles] runs the risk of the disappearance of the monarchy”.
Pundits wonder how Charles will tackle issues like reparations, racism, and the spoils of Imperial violence, but Elkins doubts he’ll do so in any meaningful way.
For Gopal, the very foundation of the monarchy is tied to all these things. He cited recent comments from Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who said palace insiders made racist comments about her and her son Archie.
“It is very difficult to separate that understanding of the bloodline and the transmission of royal blood from the ways that the bloodline was tied to racism and racial hierarchies,” he said. “Some of that we have already seen with Meghan and hers, her children.”
Having experienced colonialism firsthand, Bharat Shah no longer cares too much for the royal family.
«There’s still a feeling of mistrust and those negative feelings still come up because it’s a big part of our past,» he said. «I don’t think there will be that much frenzy about the upcoming coronation in India, but there is an Indian actress, Sonam Kapoor, who will be a part of those festivities.»
His granddaughter, 31-year-old Pooja Shah, who grew up in the US and now lives in London, will be able to watch parts of the ceremony in the streets outside her home. It’s strange, she said, to feel the royal family as such a strong everyday presence since she moved to the UK.
“There are people who are absolutely obsessed with royalty, like they are very excited about the coronation,” he said. “There are all these parties and food and every supermarket you go to, every street you go to, they are full of flags and cakes and news for this long weekend.”
Given her family’s history and her life in the US, she’s not enthusiastic.
“I’m trying to be optimistic that maybe this is a turning point,” he said. «I wonder if this is finally a chance for the British Empire to move out of what it used to be and towards what it could be: a new direction that is hopefully more inclusive, one that emphasizes diverse communities.»