(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
After the decisive defeat of the CPM in recent Assembly election in Tripura, statues of Lenin became the target of attack as a strong expression of victory over Marxist philosophy after 25 years of Communist rule in the State. Violence spread to neighbouring State of West Bengal, where in retaliation, a statue of Shyama Prasad Mukherji, founder of the Jana Sangh from which the BJP was born, was defaced in Jadavpur. In UP, Ambedkar’s statue was disfigured in two villages in Meerut district.
The mania spread in no time and in Tamil Nadu, the statues of Periyar EVR, the founder of the Dravida Kazhagam (the parent organisation of the DMK and the AIADMK), and Ambedkar were vandalized. This was replied with bombs thrown on the BJP office in Coimbatore.
The Prime Minister strongly condemned the incidents of vandalism of statues and promptly took up the matter with the Home Ministry, which issued advisories to State Governments to prevent such incidents and warned that stern action would be taken against those found guilty. The State Governments have been asked to maintain law and order and investigate the matter.
The Ministry’s advisory has asked the State Governments to make district magistrates and superintendent of police personally responsible for preventing vandalism and maintaining peace. District officials are advised to keep a strict vigil on anti-social elements, social media, and rumour mongers and take action against anyone indulging in inciting violence.
True. The incidents themselves are not so violent as to create law and order problems, but totally unacceptable in a democracy where governments are formed by popular vote. Beyond the question of orderly governance, the incidents pose a serious threat to freedom to hold, cherish, and propagate social, economic, and political ideals that do not adversely affect national security and integration. They are signs of intolerance of alternative beliefs. There are enough groups in the country to take advantage of the situation to play divisive politics.
Statues are sensitive objects raising emotions even if they are not maintained properly and serve only as resting places for birds. Any damage to them provokes instant retaliation and counter attacks as if they are living beings.
Erection of statues is a symbolic gesture and so is the deliberate damage done to them. Statues represent a group or community and its shared beliefs and ideals. They convey respect for a person and for what he/she did. Deliberately damaging them is a symbolic act and has the effect of attacking the philosophy, the ideals and beliefs of the person represented.
Political symbolism denotes symbols that are used to represent a political standpoint. It can occur in various modes like banners, acronyms, pictures, flags, mottos, photos, colours, statues, etc. Symbol laden pictures make more lasting impression on onlookers than words and last longer.
In the 1960s, Lasswell and Arnold recognised the phenomenon of political symbolism and Edelman showed the pervasive and profound importance of symbols in politics. Symbolism is indeed vital to political process and is critically significant.
Significance of symbols was well recognised during the national movement in India. Bharat Mata was pictured as the nation; Charka found a place in the flag; Salt Satyagraha was conducted as symbolic of India’s freedom.
Destroying the flag of rival parties and pulling down their banners, burning effigies of Opposition leaders or defacing pictures and statues of rivals have the effect of making a direct attack on the concerned persons and what they stand for. It is symbolic politics. Though recognised late as a form of politics, it had been in existence ever since the beginning of history.
Sculpture became the vehicle of politics and the visual symbol of an empire from Greek and Roman era. Roman Triumphal Column in ancient Rome, known as Trajan’s Column was erected to commemorate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian War. The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colona, Rome, was built in honour of this Roman Emperor. The statue of Julius Caesar was idealised to serve as a religious symbol and to elevate him above humans.
Societies have always been obsessed with erecting memorials and busts and hold on to them with religious fervor. In all countries in all continents, statues made of stone, bronze, clay, or plaster of Paris can be found. So also, history is full of iconoclasm, i.e. a social belief in the importance of destruction of icons and other images or monuments for religious or political reasons. Iconoclasm has also spread all over the world as a form of opposition.
Protestant reformers like Calvin encouraged removal of religious images. During the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty pulled down the gilded lead statue of King George III of UK in New York. During the radical phase of the French revolution, several historical monuments and places and religious works were destroyed to obliterate the memory of the old regime. The Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) went to the extent of destroying not only several Tibetan monasteries, but also their religious artifacts.
In our own time, Taliban destroyed world’s tallest Buddha statue in Bhamian in 2001. Paintings from the University of Cape Town were burnt by student protesters to show the end of colonialism. Pillars of Asoka, on which the Buddhist doctrines were inscribed, are symbolic relics of Buddhism. Instances are numerous and Indian history is also full of incidents of destruction of temples and other monuments by invaders.
But these are different from what is happening in Tripura or Tamil Nadu. Here, there are no conquests, and no revolutionary social or political changes. The destructive mania is a result of political animosities recurring after every election. The players are not enemies, but only subscribers to different political ideologies all of which have right to exist in a democracy.
Like desecration of statues, a mad rush for renaming streets and colonies goes on in many States. Committees are set up in some places to proceed with the job systematically. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued some guidelines regarding street name changes in 1975. They do not permit change for existing roads/streets unless they are stretches without specific names. Names of eminent personalities – local, national, or international – may be given for honouring them.
Unfortunately, name changing has become a big industry in all the States akin to erection of statues. Streets and roads, institutions, schemes and programmes are being renamed. Sometimes, the new names chosen for institutions like hospitals betray sheer politics to emphasize political power and not to remind people of the association between the institution and the leader. Such names are bound to have a short life, given the importance of symbolism in politics, and will change according to political wind.
History cannot be rewritten or erased by removing and changing symbols. On the contrary, the wrath shown against Lenin and Periyar has given rise to brushing up of our memory regarding their contributions. Lenin is remembered afresh. Periyar is recalled with emotional attachment by all those who parted company with him for some reason and founded separate parties. They now unite to defend Periyar.—INFA