I imagine that hearing of the death of Queen Elizabeth II must have been a paralyzing moment for citizens of the United Kingdom, a collective experience so totalizing that the Kingdom’s ten days of mourning just might not suffice to properly memorialize her tremendously long rule. After all, the world she departed has aged quite a bit since she assumed her reign in 1952, exactly 70 years ago.
But for me, the Queen’s death — her ability to now peacefully populate the pages of history — solemnly reminds me that time can be too kind to institutions of power and their agents; that for the Queen to now inhabit the past is a privilege which her colonial subjects, tortured well into the present by the consequences of British imperialism, will never hold.
In particular, it is a luxury the people of Kashmir — my people, forever shackled to her memory — will never hold. And while the Queen likely forgot Kashmir by the end of her life, the people of Kashmir will not be spared from remembering her name and the suffering she sowed in their land.
Although the Partition of India, Pakistan, and Kashmir in 1947 — a treacherous bloodbath architected by the British that claimed the lives of approximately one million people — predated the Queen’s rule, the Indian subcontinent was still well-inscribed within Britain’s colonial playbook.
Indeed, the nations born of Partition hardly belonged to themselves. India and Pakistan did not triumph post-1947 as paradises of independence; rather, the footprints of the British who had so callously mapped borders and bodies in the Indian subcontinent against each other based largely on religious demographics were not only visible, but also alive. Manufactured by Partition were not new nation-states, but still-breathing artifacts of British coloniality. What had been performed as a profound gesture of decolonization on the international stage had instead only reproduced the horrors of British imperialism.
Kashmir, in particular, became the connective tissue that Britain leveraged to maintain and tighten its colonial gaze in the Indian subcontinent — and, most remarkably, it became the biggest loser in this imperial exchange. It was Queen Elizabeth’s Britain that had consolidated tensions between India and Pakistan by inflaming and prolonging both states’ colonial dreams of acquiring Kashmir, all with no intention to formally intervene in fears of losing economic support in the region.
Indeed, to the British, Kashmir was not a people to protect or a land to be liberated — it was a political balancing act, lives cruelly contorted into the grooves of its colonial imagination. It was Queen Elizabeth’s Britain that trivialized the self-determination of the Kashmiri people, deftly dangling above their heads the fantasy of conducting a plebiscite in Kashmir that would determine whether the region would join India or Pakistan or become its own internationally-recognized state. To this day, almost a century after Britain’s 1948 United Nations Security Council vote in its favor, such a plebiscite has never been held. And it was Queen Elizabeth who considered her political interest in the Indian subcontinent one of “noninterference,” which, frankly, makes me chuckle — because what is more invasive and political than colonialism?
But despite the violence she engineered in my homeland, I do not wish Queen Elizabeth pain in death. I only wish to puncture this protective veil we seem to cast on figures of history, who, upon their death, are allowed to luxuriate in the past, untouched and beautified.
In Kashmir, there is no such thing as the past. Genealogies of occupation in the Kashmir Valley can be traced to the late-sixteenth century, when Sultan Yousuf Shah Chak — the final indigenous ruler of Kashmir — was deposed by the Mughal emperor through a trick of deception now all too familiar to the Kashmiri eye: settler-colonialism, disguised as a call for peaceful negotiations.
Colonization in Kashmir is uniquely embodied. From the toppling of the Shah dynasty to the Valley’s infamous reputation as the most militarized region today, settler-colonialism has crystallized in the bodies of every Kashmiri. For us, one occupier is no different than the other, no history more past than the other. Life in Kashmir bends time and space — and to breathe in Kashmir is not to inhale, but to gasp for air, for relief.
I resent the Queen because, when Kashmiri people die, there is no space in the past for them. When Kashmiri people die, they just disappear — no ten days of mourning, but just ten more days, months, years, and centuries of the same, endless nightmare of occupation.
But these histories are not forgotten; they are erased. Harvard, in particular, knows well the violence inflicted by its own effaced colonial histories, as well as the promise of decolonial knowledge production — knowledge committed to deconstructing our sanitized public memory and honoring the silenced victims of colonialism.
Harvard must expand its probing into colonial encounters, though, beyond its gates. From Harvard to Kashmir and beyond, it is through this kind of counter-hegemonic engagement with institutions of power that we may learn, for once, to empower communities like the Kashmiri people. And it is through this radical attempt at unlearning that we may no longer worship a woman who, before she became a queen, bled the color of a colonizer.
Sameer M. Khan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History of Science and Social Anthropology concentrator in Adams House.