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What statue-topplers around the world can learn from India

Indian nationalists knew how to live with their past, as they created a new future

Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Austin… these are just a few in a long list of American cities where Statues, monuments and memorials to Confederate generals have been brought down, amid much resistance. It was one such demolition bid that led to wanton violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12.

For over a century, these monuments stood quietly as reminders of a chequered past; today, they are understood as symbols of oppression, inequality and division, which could tear the unifying fabric of America. Or so the pro-demolition groups argue. But this problem isn’t confined to America.

In South Africa, there have been violent protests to remove statues of Cecil Day Rhodes, a campaign supported by a section of Oxford University students as well. But as often happens with mass campaigns, this campaign has been accused of metamorphosing into a racial one that’s overwhelmingly against non-blacks, particularly the whites. In Ghana, a campaign is building to demolish a Statue of Mahatma Gandhi, which the Modi government had presented to a university in 2016. Gandhi is perceived as a racist by those campaigners.

Coronation Park

For a conservationist, no matter what one’s ideological mooring are, these are patently wrong campaigns. And yet, emotive public issues can’t be cast aside either. Is there a better way to deal with them, and can Indian history offer some instruction to the world?

The British built imposing statues of their rulers, generals and civil servants all over India. Over time, these became part and parcel of life, even the identity of some places. Think of the statue of Sir Frederick Lawley, a fictional British officer, which marks R K Narayan’s Malgudi, a fictional microcosm of India.

As the national movement gathered force after the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, such statues began to be resisted. A white marble statue of Queen Victoria in Bombay (where the VSNL building now stands), a symbol of British imperial pomp, was daubed in tar by Damodar Chapekar of the Chapekar Brothers in 1896. The bubonic plague pandemic that broke out in Pune later was seen by many Indians as the curse of Queen Victoria.

Vandalised statue of Governor General Lord Wellesley at BDL Museum, Mumbai.

Such incidents started to happen at many places. In 1908, another Victoria statue was vandalised in Nagpur. In the 1930s, in Calcutta, nationalists demanded the removal of a memorial to the Black Hole tragedy. “In 1940, it was removed from Dalhousie Square to St John’s churchyard,” says archaeologist Tathagata Neogi, whose firm conducts heritage walks in Kolkata.

After Independence, there was a clamour to remove all British traces from public space. The Bombay Municipal Corporation adopted a resolution in November 1947 to remove all such busts and statues from its corporation hall and replace them with statues of Indians.

But that didn’t go unopposed. Many members in the House were aghast that such a resolution, which smacked of “racialism of such a morbid character”, could ever be introduced in the House. It was pointed out that Indians had nothing against British people, only against British imperialism. In fact, Dahyabhai Patel, who had introduced the resolution, was mocked for trying to remove the bust of Queen Victoria, the great-grandmother of Lord Mountbatten who was his father’s (Sardar Patel) superior.

However, these erudite arguments didn’t quite heal the sense of hurt that many Indian nationalists harboured. And by 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was forced to acknowledge in the Lok Sabha that the continued presence of some statues was an offence to national sentiment and that these would be removed “without making too much fuss”.

Even the agitating Indians were quite clear that they didn’t want statues destroyed; only removed to museums. Statues in Raipur were moved to Ghasidas museum in 1957; those in Bombay were shifted to Prince of Wales Museum and Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the 1960s; those in Delhi were rehabilitated at Coronation Park in the 1960s. Some were sent abroad. “A bronze statue of Lord Auckland (Governor General) was sent to Auckland, new Zealand by the West Bengal government in 1969, at the request of the Auckland City Council,” Neogi said. The statue occupies pride of place in that city today.

In Bombay, statues were not damaged during Independence or after, but in the mid-1950s and 60s during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, says art historian and honorary director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. A symbol can mean something in one age and something else in another. For instance, a vandalised statue of Lord Cornwallis at BDL Museum was an object of veneration among Indians during the Raj, to the extent that the statue had to be ringed with an iron fence because people used to offer puja and put vermillion on it. During the Maharashtra movement, the head of this statue was lopped off.

So is it right to demand the removal of statues? “There are multiple points of view on this and it’s tough to take sides. The statues in our museum are of high artistic quality and were done by well-known sculptors. But when we put them in a public square, we look at them as figures worth adulating. So there has to be a consensus that these public figures embody fundamental human values that cannot be abrogated,” says Mehta.

Swapna Liddle, convenor of Intach’s Delhi chapter, has a similar view: “Would I have liked to see George V under the chhatri at India Gate? Maybe not, since that is a place so central to the capital complex. Yet it was there for several years. There was no sense of vengeance against the British in the early years after Independence. But the importance of symbols increases in an age of political correctness.” History must be constantly reassessed, and there are no linear conclusions, says Mehta. “It’s tough to do, I know, but that’s the challenge of democracy, isn’t it?” she says.

Source : timesofindia



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