Column in Business Standard, March 28, 2015
Like many countries in the West, the British are keen on putting images of their famous figures on public display. If you aren’t craning your necks in the cities and towns of Britain to look up at little blue plaques on buildings where notable politicians, poets, artists, sportsmen and pop stars once lived, then you’re likely to be knocking up against statues of imperious monarchs, war-mongering soldiers and larger-than-life leaders in parks, street corners or the roundabouts they call “circuses”. (As in Piccadilly Circus; the word comes from the Latin for “arena” or “circle”.)
In India, such a tradition hardly exists. In modern times, leaders like Gandhi and Nehru disdained personal commemoration as idols. And in times past exact likenesses of great figures are hard to discern: it is often left to the viewer’s imagination to sift the distinction between man, ruler and god. It is, therefore, an irony – one of many – that the unveiling of a nine-foot statue of Gandhi in London’s Parliament Square, in the presence of David Cameron, Arun Jaitley, Amitabh Bachchan and the Mahatma’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi, should be considered so remarkable an event.
First, there is already a meditative seated statue of Gandhi in Tavistock Square, installed in 1968. Second, the last leader to be last so honoured in Parliament Square was Nelson Mandela in 2007; he is positioned at a discreet distance from South Africa’s foremost champion of racial segregation, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, unveiled in 1956. Abraham Lincoln was installed in 1920 near the 19th century British prime minister Lord Palmerston, known for his lifelong hostility to the United States and for opposing the Union during the Civil War. Finally, in that park, Gandhi now joins such fervent drivers of imperial subjugation and ambition in India as Lord Derby, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill. Is it a case of redressing the balance – or reparation for the Raj?
Mr Cameron, more conscious of the changing world and his British-Indian constituency, referred to the mutual respect of the two countries in “cooperation and trade, and, of course, through the one-and-a-half million Indians who do so much to make Britain the country it is today”. Less sanguine Indians at home are awed by the fast-paced legacy of political statue-building the British have left behind – towering idols of M G Ramachandran and K Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, handbag-toting Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and B R Ambedkar everywhere (including one that held up the construction of the Bengaluru Metro for months). Then there is Narendra Modi’s pride: a 597-foot statue of Sardar Patel outside Vadodara that Larsen & Toubro is building at a reported cost of Rs 2,989 crore.
Napoleon once dismissed the British as “a nation of shopkeepers” but Indians, including British Indians, have long since stolen a march on them. The Guardian carries a withering account of how Britain is catching the fever of commerce-driven nostalgia in the week of Gandhi’s unveiling: there is a Raj TV serial, Indian Summers, circa 1932, on TV; the retired returnees are back on the big screen in The Second Best Marigold Hotel; and an enterprising Mumbai entrepreneur has opened a luxury goods store, the East India Company, on Regent Street, having purchased the title “to capitalise on and retain the brand’s impeccable pedigree and enviable heritage”. In a successful new London restaurant chain called Dishoom, the signs read: “No violence”, and “No foreign clothes”. When the reporter quizzed the waiter about the latter, he replied, “By foreign Gandhi meant British – the foreign clothes that came to India during the Raj.”
During the Nehru centenary celebrations in 1986-87, a disagreement broke out over which statue should replace that of King George V under the canopy near India Gate – Gandhi’s or Nehru’s? It was finally conceded that both were likely to have deplored such an idea. The canopy remains unfilled. In 1965, when Victoria’s statue was removed from its prime location in south Mumbai, a wealthy industrialist paid a large sum to purchase its ornate Gothic canopy.
For more 50 years, Indians have been tearing down British statues in every corner and kicking them in the dust. Coronation Park in north Delhi, the scene of the 1911 Durbar, is where many lie strewn about in a dusty wilderness, among empty plinths, and covered in cobwebs, beehives and birdshit. In Mumbai, the figures at Flora Fountain, Victoria Terminus and Edward VII’s equestrian statue at Kala Ghoda were stripped away in a wave of nationalist fervour in the 1960s. They haven’t fared much better, although the municipality is considering returning the fountain to its original location as part of a “beautification” plan. A broken-nosed Victoria, headless Wellesley and Cornwallis with his crotch coloured in ink rest at the Bhau Daji Lad city museum in Byculla.
Adorning Parliament Square with Gandhi’s statue is seen as dignified reparation for the Raj. Why can’t it include a little repair to the indignities heaped on idols the British left behind?