Past fixation at present cost

Politics Of Statues

By Poonam I Kaushish

It’s been a week of stark contradictions in India’s ongoing political nautanki. Seven days when we stood witness to the public mask and private face of our netagan. Replete with State-funded narcissism at one end, interspersed with our polity’s experiments in untruth. At one end, Parliament was paralysed over Congress’s Karti Chidabaram vs BJP’s Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi. On the other, the Saffron Sangh celebrated their electoral victory in three North Eastern States by bringing down a Communist edifice, beginning a tit-for-tat.
See how our Hindutva Brigade saw “red” over a Comrade Lenin statue in Tripura following the Left Front’s defeat there. A statue of BJP leader SP Mukherjee was defiled in Kolkata as Bengal Chief Minister Mamata condemned the Lenin felling. Ambedkar and Periyar statues in UP and Tamil Nadu too were vandalized and BJP’s Coimbatore office was petrol bombed after its National Secretary said Periyar statues should be razed. All caring two hoots for public perception or maintaining politesse and decorum.
Am I surprised? No. Invariably, a change in Government is followed by iconoclasm whereby statues and other memorabilia are often targets of retribution by the victorious Party confident that there will be no retribution. True, it can be argued with politics being a demanding profession our leaders are obliged to show tangible results, what better than statues, perfect symbols of rabble rousing content, exemplifying an ideological and communal divide.
Questionably, is the polity afraid of a clash of ideas in our public life? Why are we so obsessed with pulling down old statues and putting up new ones? Shouldn’t we be solving more pressing problems like eliminating poverty, generating employment, security challenges posed by the China-Pakistan axis? Do dead icons matter more than living people?
If every Government takes it upon itself to pull down old statues and erect new ones, what’s to prevent the next of opposing ideology from replacing your icons with its own? Is it mere coincidence or a sign of an increasingly knee-jerk, reactionary country where one is forced to go public about icons?
Shockingly, thousands of crores of rupees are poured into new statues every year. A 182 metres huge statue of Sardar Patel (double the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York) called the Statue of Unity is being constructed at Sadhu Bet, an island 3 kms from the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat costing Rs 4,000 crores is billed as the tallest sculpture in the world. Another giant Shivaji statue off Mumbai is expected to cost Rs 3,600 crores.
Remember Dalit ki beti Mayawati who cast herself in stone in sprawling parks across the State. Spending a mind-boggling Rs 1200 crores of hard-earned tax-payers money to prop up her own statues and those of her mentor Kanshi Ram. With a few figures of Ambedkar thrown in to give the 15 massive memorials a touch of respectability.
Other leaders are no different. It’s all about leaving behind a legacy for future generation. Else who will remember one? Besides, aren’t memorials part of the fishes and loaves of office? Look at the huge bronze statues of powerful leaders-to-eka-duka Party chieftains coming out of every nook and corner of Parliament house and its surrounding areas.
State-sponsored memorials are unabashed political projects, and no Party is an exception to this practice. Ironically even as the Congress lambasts the memorial sprees of others they seem to forget and refuse to explain the logic of naming nearly every airport, most Government statutory institutions and cultural hubs after the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? Justifying it as ‘honourable collectively remembering national” leaders. Notwithstanding, both Gandhi and Nehru and strongly disapproved statues and iconoclasm.
Ditto the BJP which is busy installing statues or busts of RSS and Jan Sangh leader Deendayal Upadhyay in all 683 districts of the country. A part of his Centenary celebration being coordinated by the Culture Ministry for which Rs 100 crores has been allocated. The DMK too is memorial mania driven.
In fact, Tamil Nadu is looked as the badlands of memorials. In 1961, Congress leader Kamaraj built his statue and got Nehru to unveil it. As the Party was waning with the DMK’s meteoric rise, it resorted to inscribing the cityscape with memorials as a part of its political propaganda.
When the DMK came to power in 1967, it lined up statues of its own leaders on the same road where Kamaraj had his statue unveiled. Worse, houses of Congress leaders Nehru, Shastri and Indira are now memorials. Undoubtedly, politicians and Parties use statutes to expand their base and political footprints to areas they have very little influence. Cast in stone or metal, they plan to take their icons to every nook and corner of the country, thereby following the well-trodden path of political competitiveness.
But even as they destroy the old, one needs to realise the past is never dead and cannot be denied or wished away. By destroying statues we are only showcasing tokenism which is an exercise in futility. Given it symbolized an ideology which was once powerful and influential and was an instrument in propelling society forward.
In the ultimate, this vandalism underscores the narrow-minded climate of political discourse we live in wherein objects, art, cinematic and cultural freedom can be twisted and misrepresented to suit our ‘holy cows’ netas narrow ends, shore up their image and commitment to their beliefs and ideology.
Alas, the country is in the grip of self-styled chauvinism and cultural dogmas. Whereby, the political class exploits the common man’s emotions and only looks at what will help popularize it more with its vote bank. Even if its amounts to heading towards an era of intolerance and cultural terrorism.
Given our narcissist polity with a penchant for lack of integrity we need to evolve a code of governance. Our netagan need to remember a home-truth: With power comes responsibility. Who will tell them that destruction or bhoomi pujans are an invitation to disaster and statues are neither necessities or vital to enriching the aam aadmi’s life and providing him roti kapada aur makaan. Those who reduce the level of discourse to such depths only do so at the cost of exposing their lack of civility to the electorate and the nation at large.
Clearly, our leaders need to be tolerant as populism will only provide immediate succour at the expense of the future. Importantly, no quarter should be given to those who fan hatred among people and communities. Be it a Hindu fundamentalist, Left thinker or Muslim militant. All are destroyers of the State, which has no religious entity. Thus, our moral angst cannot be selective but should be just, honourable and equal.
The message should ring loud and clear that no person, group or organization can threaten violence, and if they do, they lose their democratic right to be heard. India could do without netas who distort politics. Alongside no licence should be given to anyone from any background to spread hatred or ill-feeling towards any community.
One is free not accepting a statue, statement or view of others, it is a matter of perception. What is objectionable to one might be normal to another. Plainly, the speed with which our tolerance is falling to fragile levels is scary. As Confucius said: Study the past if you would define the future. —- INFA