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South Asians grapple with generational impacts of colonialism as King Charles ascends the throne

Reflecting on how British colonialism has touched their lives, South Asians say King Charles III’s upcoming coronation puts imperialism on display.
Prince Charles during a visit to India in November 1980.
Then-Prince Charles during a visit to India in November 1980. Tim Graham Photo Library / via Getty Images file

Leading up to the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, South Asians all over the world are reflecting on what it means for another British monarch to come to power. With golden carriages, crowns, capes and jewels all set to be trotted out, people in the diaspora are preparing themselves for a celebration of an institution that they say oppressed their parents, grandparents and ancestors. 

Born only a year after India won independence from what was then his grandfather’s empire, Charles’ legacy is impossible to divorce from the pains of colonialism that still ripple through the subcontinent and diaspora today, experts said. The coronation, no matter how scaled back, is a relic of that colonial legacy, they said. 

“I think the pageantry and pomp is kind of the last hurrah of an empire in deep decline,” said Priyamvada Gopal, 54, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge. “This is almost like a parody of empire and imperial pageantry, while there is very real everyday suffering.” 

Buckingham Palace didn't respond to NBC News' request for comment.

Bharat Shah, 88, remembers hearing the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, he told NBC News in an interview translated from Gujarati by his granddaughter Pooja Shah, 31.

At the time, fresh from Partition and the fight for independence, India had been plunged into a period of instability and uncertainty. Prices for basic necessities had soared, Shah said, and he hoped a new monarch might help usher in a better era. 

“I remember hearing about it on the radio,” he said. “There was also news about her coronation in the newspapers. … It was difficult to even afford to buy a newspaper; one person would buy it and a group would huddle around and read about her 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 with stories of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when a British general gave the order to fire on hundreds of peaceful Punjabi protesters.

“My father would go marching with the rest of the Indians in our community, and we had to appoint a community member to stay up and keep an eye on the community,” he said. “I just remember that time period being really difficult mentally and physically.”

For Ishaan Parmar, 21, the British Empire and royal family were never on the forefront of his mind. Growing up in the U.S., he said his parents tried their best to protect him from a reality that had defined their lives. 

But during coronations, royal weddings and even funerals, he can’t help but feel a dark subtext as a South Asian person watching.

“I don’t think there actually is a way to overstate colonialism,” he said. “All of this is to create this ideal image of Britain. I think the pomp and circumstance of the coronation, it’s like any nationalistic event. It’s this false idea of a shining house on the hill.”

The link to King Charles III

Though Charles is stepping into the role of monarch at a very different time than his mother, as the leader of the Commonwealth, experts said he is still inextricably linked to the exploits of colonialism.

“The Commonwealth wouldn’t exist without the empire,” Gopal said. “There is a lot of wealth in the royal family, both the monarchy’s wealth and the private wealth of the family, which is completely tied up to the imperial project unfolding over several hundred years.”

Gopal remembers Charles paying India a visit while she was attending middle school there. Growing up, she was only aware of him as a young prince whom beautiful women everywhere wanted to be with, but he didn’t symbolize all that much more. 

It’s easy for people to get stuck in that image, she said, but he now represents something much bigger. 

“I think the monarchy sits at the pinnacle of and symbolizes what Britain has now become: a small cabal of very, very wealthy people, and a large number of increasingly impoverished ordinary British citizens,” she said. 

In contrast to the environment during Elizabeth’s coronation, the British and global public are increasingly questioning monarchy. 

“Very few at home 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-forward to 2023, we’re in some ways in a very different world. The empire, for the most part, is gone. … I think [Charles] runs the risk of the monarchy’s demise.” 

Experts wonder how Charles will address issues like reparations, racism and the spoils of imperial violence, but Elkins doubts he will do so in any meaningful way.

For Gopal, the very foundation of monarchy is linked to all those things. She cited recent comments by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who said that palace insiders made racist comments about her and her son Archie.

“It’s very hard to separate that understanding of bloodline and the passing on of royal blood from the ways in which bloodline was tied up with racism and race hierarchies,” she said. “Some of that we have seen already with Meghan and her children.”

Having experienced colonialism firsthand, Bharat Shah is done caring too much about the royal family. 

“There’s still a feeling of distrust and those negative feelings still come up because it’s a huge part of our past,” he said. “I don’t think there’s that much frenzy over the upcoming coronation in India, but there is an Indian actress Sonam Kapoor who is going to be part of that festivities.”

His granddaughter, Pooja Shah, 31, who grew up in the U.S. and now lives in London, will be able to watch parts of the ceremony unfold on the streets outside her home. It’s odd, she said, to feel the royal family as such a strong everyday presence since her move to the U.K.

“There’s people who are absolutely obsessed with the royals, like they’re so excited about the coronation,” she said. “There are all these parties and food and every single supermarket you go to, every street that you go to, are full of flags and pastries and news catered to this long weekend.”

Considering her family’s history and her life spent in the U.S., she doesn’t get the hype. 

“I’m trying to be optimistic in the sense that maybe this is going to be a time for change,” she said. “I wonder if it’s finally an opportunity for the British Empire to step outside of what used to be and into what could be: a new direction that hopefully is more inclusive, that kind of emphasizes diverse communities.”