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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Indian royals can learn from Prince Harry-Meghan Markle

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about two sets of royals from different parts of the world who have been in the news lately for very different reasons.

vir sanghvi Updated: Nov 29, 2017 12:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Britain’s Prince Harry with his fiancée US actress Meghan Markle in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London on Monday.
Britain’s Prince Harry with his fiancée US actress Meghan Markle in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London on Monday. (AFP)

Royals are back in the news. The big global headline is the putative arrival of a woman who is half African-American at the heart of the British royal family. Buckingham Palace announced earlier this week, that Prince Harry, the younger of Prince Charles’s two sons intends to many Meghan Markle, an American actress (of the TV show, Suits) whose mother is black and who has been married once before.

It is a measure of how much times have changed that nobody makes too much of the fact that the son of the next king of England is marrying a) an American b) an actress, c) a divorcee and d) a person who is not entirely white.

Even two decades ago, the news of Prince Harry’s engagement would have been considered shocking. And once upon a time, the marriage would have been impossible. Edward VIII was forced to give up the throne when he wanted to marry an American divorcee and lived the rest of his years in exile as the Duke of Windsor. And Wallis Simpson, the woman he married, wasn’t even mixed-race.

It has been said that the reason the Royal family has not objected to the wedding is because Harry is the younger son. Had Prince William, who will become Prince of Wales when his father becomes King, married a divorcee or a half-black person, there would have been an uproar.

There is certainly something to that view. But more significant, I think, is the way in which the British monarchy has changed and adapted to the transformations in British society. Divorce is no longer a big deal in the UK and the country is now far more multiracial than it was when say, Prince Charles got married.The Royal family recognises that and it reflects in their behaviour.

It helps also, I think, that the Royal family has remained far above the prejudices that others of its social class might have embraced. The Queen was a determined opponent of apartheid and clashed often with the appalling Margaret Thatcher who loved the white supremacist South African regime. Mrs. Thatcher and her successors had no time for the mixed-race Commonwealth, preferring to forge an alliance with white Europe. The Queen, on the other hand, remains fiercely committed to the Commonwealth and gossip has it (she is not allowed to express a view on the matter) that she is at heart a Brexiter with no real affection for the European Union.

Her son, Prince Charles, has gone further than any royal before him in the pursuit of racial equality. He has embraced minority communities in British inner cities and has tried to introduce racial diversity in the military regiments where the Prince of Wales has a ceremonial role.

It helped also, I suspect, that his late wife Princess Diana was colour-blind on matters of race and those of the heart. When she died, she was with Dodi Fayed who was Arab and Muslim. And the great love of her life in the years following her separation from Prince Charles was Dr. Hasnat Khan, a Pakistani surgeon who lived in London.

It is this ability to move with the times that has ensured that the British monarchy continues to seem relevant in today’s world. The deposed King of Egypt, King Farouk, is supposed to have once said that in the future, there would be only five Kings left in the world: the Kings of Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs. And the King of England.

Our own maharajas have been in the news lately, thanks to the Padmavati film controversy.

Each time I think of British royalty, I think back to our own maharajas. They too have been much in the news lately, thanks to the Padmavati controversy. The Princess of Jaipur has gone on record to say that she is concerned about the portrayal of Rani Padmini (or Padmavati) in the film. And Arvind Singh, the younger brother of the Maharana of Mewar (Udaipur) has gone on TV to argue that the story of Padmini is integral to the history of his house and has attempted to thrust himself into the centre of the controversy.

Clearly, the statements made by Rajasthan’s royal families have spurred on some of the Rajput protestors, who have even suggested that the Mewar royal family should be asked to clear the film before its release. But I rather suspect that their statements have left the rest of India cold. Why, many of us wonder, should maharajas get involved in controversies that have nothing to do with them? Who are they to sit in judgement over Indian cinema or any kind of artistic expression?

In that sense, the maharajas are the opposite of the British royal family: except for a few of their former subjects, nobody thinks they are particularly relevant to today’s India.

Karan Singh is the son of the last ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. (Twitter)

In fact, the Maharajas we admire or respect are those who have risen above their thrones. Dr. Karan Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, who is a first division potentate (the British gave only five houses the honour of a 21 gun salute: Hyderabad, Kashmir, Mysore, Gwalior and Baroda), stopped people from calling him “Your Highness” in the 1960s and went on to be respected for his own achievements rather an accident of birth. The same was true of Madhavrao Scindia, another 21-gun-salute maharaja (Gwalior) and now holds true for his son Jyotiraditya. Captain Amarinder Singh is the Maharaja of Patiala the most important princely state in Punjab, but is known as “Captainsahab” rather than “Maharaj”.

It is true that many of the maharajas who have joined politics rely on their former subjects for their political bases. But it is as true that being a Maharaja no longer guarantees an electoral victory: there is a long list of maharajas and maharanis who have been defeated in their own backyards.

The problem for most Maharajas was that they did not adapt to the changing times soon enough. In 1971, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi stripped them of their titles, they still had the right to fly their own flags, get their gun salutes, demand to be addressed as “Your Highness” and pretend that they still ruled their former kingdoms.

Unfortunately for them, the public mood was changing. India turned left and hereditary privilege seemed offensive and anachronistic. The maharajas themselves seemed like bizarre relics of an era when they bowed before the British crown before demanding that the rest of us bow to them.

I believe Mrs. Gandhi was wrong to take away the privileged status accorded to the maharajas. They had been promised these privileges by the government of India in 1947 and the Indian state was honour-bound to keep its promises. But equally, they didn’t make things easier for themselves by refusing to recognise the change in public mood.

Now, most maharajas are left in a peculiar situation. They can accept the truth: that they lost the legal right to use their titles in 1971 and live like ordinary citizens. And indeed some have adopted this course.

But the vast majority of the maharajas, sadly, possess no special skills, overpowering intellectual ability or great leadership qualities. For every Amarinder Singh, there are 20 maharajas who would be lost in anonymity were they to become just normal citizens.

Amarinder Singh’s father was the last king of the erstwhile state of Patiala. (HT Photo)

On the other hand, there is profit in being a maharaja. They can turn their palaces into hotels. They can rent themselves out for corporate events. They can become tourist attractions by wearing the elaborate costumes of their ancestors. And some of them can whip up Rajput pride on emotive issues — as a few families have done over the Padmavati issue —and get a measure of personal publicity for themselves.

Given these options, it is not surprising that so many of them have chosen to play the maharaja card again and again. Why struggle along with everyone else if you can draw on the legacy of your ancestors to make a good living?

But this option brings with it a new set of problems. How can the maharajas ever seem to be relevant and to have moved with the times, if their livelihood depends on going back in time and trading on the royal past? If the Udaipur royal family, for instance, wants to stand up for a medieval queen who may or may not have existed, then it willingly chooses to be associated with a past that has now disappeared.

And so most of India’s maharajahs have preferred to become permanent members of the cast of a comic opera based on their real or imagined past. They believe, perhaps reasonably, that it is all very well for the British royal family to transform itself to fit in with the present. But the British Royals are still monarchs (of a constitutional kind, anyway) and the Queen is still head of the British state.

Our royals, alas, no longer count for anything. So why should they embrace an unfriendly present which only guarantees obscurity for them when there is so much to be gained by reliving the past?

And in a strange, pragmatic sort of way , their attitude probably makes sense—for them!

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