Statues are not safe in India

One cynic says that after every election, the new Government can spend its first year in uninstalling the statutes erected by the previous regime.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
10 March 2018
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Violent political activists in India, used to attacking fellow humans, have now turned their attention to statues. Within a week they demolished or damaged the statues of Lenin, Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, and Periyar, the social reformer who fought against upper-caste hegemony.

In India statues of leaders command an immense political significance which now characterises even the idols of Hindu Gods. These come in all sizes and colours. Prime Minister Modi is seeking to ensure that his home state Gujarat boasts the tallest statue of Sardar Patel, co-opted by his party, even though he was a life-long leader of the Congress and India’s Home Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet. Sardar Patel is being used as an instrument for diminishing Nehru!

Towns are dotted with statues installed by the followers of one political party or the other. Statues are erected, defaced and made controversial, all for promoting political interests. A State Governor belonging to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist party said what a democratically elected government can do can be undone by the next elected party! He was responding to reports of the demolition of a statue of Lenin in a state where the BJP ousted a communist government that had ruled the state for 25 years.

One cynic says that after every election, the new Government can spend its first year in uninstalling the statutes erected by the previous regime. The old order changed in this north-eastern state and a commentator is sure that streets named after Lenin will now be renamed to glorify some Hindu nationalist leader!

India’s economic policy-makers had some years ago bid goodbye to Lenin, who supported India’s anti-colonial struggle and inspired many Indians to come under the influence of communism. Lenin’s statue suffered a worse fate as soon as the Hindu nationalists dislodged the long-ruling communist government in the state of Tripura. They bulldozed his statue, severed its head and played football with it. The cries of “Victory to Mother India” filled the air as the 11.5-feet tall fibre-glass statue of Lenin was brought down.

The demolition of Lenin’s statue was followed up in another state by some miscreants who vandalised a statue of iconic Dravidian leader Periyar. The statue of the social reformer and thinker was attacked soon after a BJP worker issued a statement: “Today it is Lenin’s statue in Tripura. Tomorrow it will be caste zealot E V Ramaswamy’s (Periyar) statue in Tamil Nadu.”

The social reformer is revered by large sections in the state for having led a self-respect movement against upper-caste hegemony. The BJP could hardly show respect to the memory of a leader who called the believers in god Barbarians. The state leader of the BJP did not realise that his party is now trying to extend its reach by shedding its image as an upper-caste party.

Periyar is not Lenin because the attack on his statue can upset the Prime Minister’s party’s electoral chances in the state of Tamil Nadu. Demolition of Lenin’s statue only strengthens the Indian Prime Minister’s credentials in the eyes of some western powers.

It is not just Lenin’s statue that made news. A political carnival, once started, tends to expand. In Kolkata, the statue of Syama Prasad Mookerjee was vandalised by those who felt offended by the demolition of Lenin’s statue by the BJP supporters in another state. Mookerjee was among the founder of BJP’s precursor Hindu nationalist party. He was once in Nehru’s cabinet but fell out with him and founded a new party.  The BJP Government is trying to see that history is rewritten to give Mookerjee a more prominent part in the national narrative.

A statue of B. R. Ambedkar in the state of the BJP-ruled state of UP was vandalised by some miscreants. Numerous statues of this eminent Dalit leader were installed when the state had a woman Dalit chief minister. However, other parties including the BJP also show respect towards Ambedkar, who was also one of the architects of India’s Constitution. Of course, reverence towards Ambedkar is not shared by many from the upper castes.

The focus on statues made the Shiv Sena in Goa demand the reinstallation of a statue of Shivaji, a Hindu King known for his valour. The statue was removed by the local authorities because it was installed illegally. Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu party, is an ally of the BJP so its demand in a BJP-ruled state matters. A Shiv Sena leader said it was not a question of legality but an issue of the people’s emotional attachment to the statue! Hundreds of tiny temples built without permission on public property in Indian cities cannot be touched lest the demolition hurts public sentiments.

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Screenshot of E.V. Ramasamy (Periyar) statue, still intact at Vaikom town in Kottayam, Kerala. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

World impact

Those who celebrated the demolition of Lenin’s statue abused the communists while some of those who expressed their shock wondered whether India was becoming Iraq or Afghanistan.

The world saw in 1992 the TV coverage of the demolition of the Babri mosque in India by the workers of the same party. The demolition of Lenin’s statute was surely seen on the TV screens by the Taliban terrorists. They must have recalled with pride their own glorious feat of demolishing the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Alas, Ronald Reagan could not live to see the destruction of Lenin’s statue in India. The present President of America does not consider Communism to be a threat to America’s survival, so he sent no congratulatory message to the Indian Prime Minister. In the post-Reagan era, Washington got more interested in the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq which it accomplished with great aplomb.

But the foreign service of at least one nation retains institutional memory. An unnamed foreign diplomat was quick to send a message to Ram Madhav, general secretary of the ruling Hindu nationalist party. The BJP leader publicised the certificate of good conduct: “Congrats Ram! The world needs fewer Communists.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

No celebratory event these days passes without a reverential reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ram Madhav in his newspaper article said that in India the task of decimating Communism will most likely be completed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While Lenin faced physical violence, even national icons such a Nehru and Gandhi have been facing verbal violence in social media. The two mass leaders had fought the sectarian forces and Gandhi was, of course, killed by a Hindu nationalist.

This in a country with such diverse traditions that a figure considered evil incarnate in one region is worshipped in another. And despite Shashi Tharoor reminding the nation about the sins of the British Empire, one village in Rajasthan has a temple of a white British military officer where devotees go and offer cigarettes in order to seek his blessings!

But this is not the BJP’s idea of India. It seeks to discredit the multi-cultural narrative and assert the supremacy of Hindus. The Prime Minister’s party has unleashed a sort of cultural revolution with its cadres targeting every institution, official, autonomous or even academic. Official plans to weaken the spirit of pluralism, to revise India’s history and to modify the text books are part of a strategy to kill the idea of India and to fashion a new Indian identity reflective of a religious ethos.

Scientific temperament, a reference to which figures in India’s Constitution, has been devalued. Scientific theories are challenged by semi-literate ministers and fictional accounts about India’s past are turned into factual treatises. Works of literary imagination glorifying India’s past are presented as reportage based on observation.

The storm-troopers for street action against the dissenters, beef-eaters, women drinkers and lovers who display affection in public are supplied by organisations affiliated with the ruling party.

The BJP’s mentor, RSS, acts as a think tank, does public service and organises military-style drills by its volunteers to highlight the importance of discipline and love for Mother India. The RSS was banned after the murder of Mahatma Gandhi but then it got free from the ban by declaring itself a “cultural organisation”.

The ongoing million mutinies in India have got intensified as a direct consequence of the Modi Government’s efforts to culturally transform India. This plan is based on a vision of India’s fabled past and on the veneration of Hindu Gods.

The process is chaotic and at times violent because it involves curbs on personal freedom, demolition of old institutions, vilification of national heroes and manufacturing new idols.

India was not pushed into the twenty-first century kicking and screaming, but now there is a systematic attempt to take it back to the medieval period. Interestingly, those leading this movement use the most modern communication technologies and constantly talk of digital nirvana.

The ruling party cadres fight some of yesterday’s battles and celebrate victories with an exuberance bordering on violence. They feel empowered after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister.

Then there is Hinduism

The Hindu ethos is somewhat different from the ruling party-led Hindutva revolution that is currently spreading in India. Hinduism, as is known, has no central church, no one single book and no single head of the religion. It projects a Parliament of gods! The multiplicity of gods and goddesses that caused occasional intra-faith clashes in the past promoted diversity of beliefs and enabled even the atheists to remain in its fold.

The Vedic literature affirms the validity of questioning in faith. Questions were even raised about whether God knows everything!

Hinduism is tempered with uncertainty. Certainty in faith unleashes a wave of intolerance. Of late, the space for scholarly debates has shrunk. India has a rich tradition of argumentation but now everyone seems to be screaming: “if you disagree, you are my enemy.” Of course, any critic of the Prime Minister is trolled and certified as the enemy of the nation.

Writers, poets and thinkers who were the first to criticise the ruling establishment were given hard time. No one has cared to recall how the poets had started expressing disenchantment with the ruling establishment in the life time of Nehru despite his being adored by the masses.

All that the officially discredited writers and poets had done was to criticise the rise of intolerance. But Modi’s devotees could not take it. So how could they allow Lenin’s statue to stand after they defeated the communists in the state elections? 

It remains to be seen whether the pieces of the statue will be preserved in a museum for visitors to come and throw stones or will be buried for ever so that no power is able to resurrect it for adoration in changed political circumstances.

Communism and communalism

Any opinion poll would show that most Indians believe in reincarnation. But Lenin has little chance since India’s poor are too busy trying to ward off hunger to join in any political revolution.

Any serious discussion on the future of communism in India in the wake of the fall of Lenin’s statue is futile. India is one democratic country where the extraordinary power of political power constantly crushes the spirit of democracy. The willing suspension of dissent and disbelief is widespread.  The media and the business leaders pay tributes to the ruling deity.

The Vicar of Bray used to change his religious doctrines depending on who ruled the country. He has been adopted as a role model by most people and many political leaders.

Political power has become a powerful tool for “awakening” the Hindus and showing other faith communities their place. It was only because the BJP was not in power that the public discourse on sectarianism could not take this vicious turn all these years. Those who used to keep their pro-Hindutva views to themselves have been emboldened to say nasty things in public.

The poor and neglected states are so dependent on the financial grants from New Delhi that the people readily switch their political loyalty to the party that forms the Union Government.

The rulers get away with anything. A Government scheme causing a widespread disaster and costing human lives, is successfully sold by invoking morality.

In the current political scenario, ideologies have lost all relevance. The BJP has been embracing its ideological opponents and forming state governments with their help. What matters is setting up a formidable electoral machine and implementing a winning strategy based on the polarisation of voters on the basis of caste or religion and attracting the opponents by promising spoils of office.

The cadres and even senior leaders defect either before a coming election if they see their party going nowhere or after an election that dislodges their party’s government. Even the ideologically distinct leftist parties are not immune to this, not to talk of the Congress that provides an umbrella to various shades of opinion.

The ruling Hindu nationalist party has benefited from this vulnerability of its opponents, attracting to its fold a large number of them who till the other day were supposed to be committed to secularism and socialism.

In its assiduous attempt to cast its net wider and wider, the BJP has displayed amazing flexibility dumbfounding the few ideological purists within its fold. Those committed to the interests of the farmers and workers feel uncomfortable with the economic policies of the Modi Government, but they can’t sever their links with a winning party.

As soon as Modi came to power, the RSS abandoned its principle of not encouraging foreign goods and capital and not having any truck with the separatists. The Prime Minister himself set an example of ideological flexibility when he began to implement many of the policies of the earlier Government that he used to attack vociferously.

It seems that sectarianism, called communalism in India, has always had more mass appeal than was estimated. It was only that strong secular governments kept divisive sentiments under check. That changed when the BJP came to power in New Delhi.

Secularism will perhaps assert itself more forcefully only because of the good sense of the majority and the pluralistic ethos of true Hinduism. The communists, who failed to counter capitalism, are more handicapped in fighting communalism which can be controlled effectively only by the true Hindu believers.

The relentless campaign to polarise Hindu voters has succeeded in several recent elections. This trend cannot be arrested by campaigns by the secularists and leftists till the BJP’s political fortunes decline because of new circumstances.

The BJP is using its rule in New Delhi to consolidate its hold and propagate its vision of a Hindu India. An occasional electoral setback apart, the Hindu nationalist party marches on triumphantly under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

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