Saturday, April 21, 2012 marked the 86th birthday of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, making her the second-longest reigning monarch in the history of Britain, after the 63-year reign of Queen Empress Victoria. Interestingly, both Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II have had a close connection with South Asia, and especially Pakistan. Queen Victoria, even though she could not visit the country, took a keen interest in Indian affairs and even employed an Indian secretary (munshi) to teach her Hindustani. The faults of the British Raj notwithstanding –– and there were many –– we owe a great deal of development concerning democracy, rights, administration, railways, telegraph, roads, etc., to the Raj. The Raj is a part of our heritage, with all its problems, and there is no use trying to ignore it.
Just over half a century later, Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne on February 6, 1952, not only as Queen of the United Kingdom but also as the Queen of Pakistan (as Pakistan had still not become a republic). She proclaimed that: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. Since then, Elizabeth II has been a great example of service and strength of character, not only for the countries in which she is head of state, but for a large part of the world.
Even in the most anti-royal of places and among the most republican of people, Queen Elizabeth II has managed to attract large crowds and keen interest. In her two visits to Pakistan in 1961 and 1997 — after Pakistan had become a republic — the Queen attracted nearly a quarter of the population of Lahore in 1961 and hundreds of thousands even in 1997. In both of her visits, people spontaneously thronged to her and the leaders of the country were baffled by the love and affection she garnered. So how did a person who only visited Pakistan twice in her life and who was formally the head of state for only four years in the 1950s, achieve such popularity?
First, there is an obvious mystique about any monarchy. Its rituals, pomp and circumstance and longevity command respect, awe and inspiration — after all, over a billion people watched the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last year. In South Asia, due to the persistence of local principalities (as late as 1969 in Pakistan), people are still familiar with such an institution and so obvious linkages are made. Secondly, Elizabeth II, and good monarchs in general, represent that which modern democracy can never represent — life-long, filial, unquestioning and total devotion to the country. Modern politics, especially in countries like Pakistan, is rife with people jostling for power, self-interest and short-term gains. Therefore, in such circumstances the image of a monarch, who even at 85 years of age works long hours and attends hundreds of engagements, out of a sense of duty and devotion to her country is simply admirable. Obviously, the Queen is a queen and does not need to do anything. She can sit pretty in her palace and scoff at the people but instead, she continuously tours the countries that she governs and almost daily replies to correspondence, often from common people around the world. Again, simply, out of devotion.
Ancient Indian philosophy has a concept of ‘Rajdharma’ which perfectly explains the way in which Queen Elizabeth II relates to her role as queen. In Rajdharma, the monarch is the ‘father’ of the land which is the ‘mother’ and the people are the ‘children’. This familial relationship infuses the spirit of love, devotion and a lasting bond between the sovereign, land and the people as if they were a part of one large family. No wonder, then, that the princely states in India were largely spared communal tensions when the same was tearing apart British India. It also explains how troubled the Nawab of Bahawalpur was in 1947 when he heard that Hindus and Sikhs in his state migrated to India and implored them to reconsider.
Maybe her long reign is a reminder of an age which is fast disappearing, where people served others out of a sense of duty and love and not brazen self-interest. Thank you, Queen Elizabeth II, once Queen of Pakistan, for being that example.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2012.