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The politics of public memorials


By taking the moral high ground on the Sardar Patel statue issue, the Congress has conveniently forgotten that it was among the earliest to take to statues in a big way.

Art has never been the objective of public statuary in India, but politics is. State-sponsored memorials are unabashed political projects, and no party is an exception to this practice. Hence, it is strange to see the Congress party take the moral high ground and criticise Narendra Modi’s proposal to build the statue of Sardar Patel, to be the tallest public sculpture in the world, as political propaganda. Its own track record is not any different. This episode also lays bare another entrenched prejudice: the commemorative practices of regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are often derided as memorial mania, while that of the national parties are passed off as honourable collective remembering. The Modi-Congress spat reiterates the fact that no matter who had built it or what they are clad with, all memorials are political spectacles.

Portrait figures in temples and other confined spaces were prevalent in pre-colonial India, but installing statues of public figures in civic spaces is largely a colonial legacy. The Congress has conveniently forgotten that, after independence, it was among the earliest political parties to take to statues in a big way. Nehru’s opposition to installing Gandhiji’s statue inside Parliament is often cited as the Congress’s sober approach to memorials. But the lesser known fact is that Nehru was inconsistent in his position and participated in memorial projects. As irony would have it, this became evident in Tamil Nadu, which is often looked down upon as badlands of regional memorials.

Kamaraj statues

In 1961, Kamaraj, a prominent Congress leader and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, consented to the city Corporation installing his statue in Madras. The party and Kamaraj were not perturbed that they are self-sanctioning the statue of a political person in his own lifetime and imposing it on the city. They invited Nehru to sanctify the event and unveil the statue. Nehru inaugurated and tried to justify it. He had come to honour “a dear friend and colleague,” he said. “Kamaraj is a notable example of a real representative of people with extraordinary capacity,” Nehru explained, and implied he deserved a statue. When similar sentiments were echoed by the DMK while unveiling statues of Annadurai, the founder leader, in 1967, it was criticised.

What Nehru could not admit in public was that the influence of the Congress was waning in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, and the meteoric rise of the DMK, founded in 1949, was threatening its political future. The party 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.

Later, inspired by the series of memorials along the Yamuna river, the DMK expanded its commemorative project along the Marina beachfront, the most popular civic space in the city. This scheme predictably left out Kamaraj and other Congress affiliates. The peeved Congress party had to wait until 1976, when the Emergency was in force, to get another Kamaraj statue installed on Marina beach.

For ‘national’ leaders

The Congress also favours another myth: the commemoration of “national” leaders (read Congress leaders) had the full support of people. But history has a different story to narrate. Efforts to mobilise a memorial fund for Nehru after he died met with poor response. Karan Singh, Secretary of the Nehru Memorial Trust in 1966 admitted that even two years since the proposal was mooted, only Rs.1 crore was collected against the targeted amount of Rs.20 crore. Even in States such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where the Congress was a dominant political party, the collection was pathetic. Maharashtra contributed Rs.17 lakh of the targeted Rs.2 crore; Andhra pitched in with only Rs.18 lakh instead of Rs.1.3 crore that was expected of it, and Tamil Nadu contributed a meagre Rs.2 lakh instead of Rs.1.5 crore assigned to it.

This, however, did not stop the Congress from taking up numerous memorial projects for Nehru. When it did, not everyone welcomed it. When Jawahar Jyoti, an eternal flame, was installed in Teen Murti House where Nehru lived, and later converted into a museum, P. Rajeswara Rao, a reader from Eluru wrote in The Hindu that it was a waste of money. Apart from lamenting the frivolous use of precious fuel, he complained about the wasteful employment of four persons to maintain it. He was “surprised and even shocked” to see the manner in which such commemorations were carried out. Similarly, people were critical of converting houses where Congress leaders lived, including that of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Sastri, into a memorial. Writing in The Hindu, in 1969, K. Ramaswamy, a reader from Bombay, disapproved it as unnecessary “hero worship.”

Sriperumbudur memorial

Even as recently as in 1991, when the Congress government proposed a large memorial for Rajiv Gandhi on a 12.19 acre piece of land belonging to a temple in Sriperumbudur, it was met with resistance. The head of the centuries old Vaishnavite Mutt, who was a flight lieutenant with the Indian Air Force, opposed the memorial coming up on temple land. He said that the structure would block the temple’s rituals, while renaming the town, as Rajivpuram, would override local history and religious significance of the place. The site of Rajiv’s “martyrdom” was too important for the party to give up. The Congress, which was once reluctant to acquire Birla House to commemorate Gandhiji’s death, managed the resistance and built the memorial.

In Mumbai

The Congress would try to defend its memorials as modest public gestures and differentiate them from that of the monumental and propagating ones such as the Modi’s statue project. But such arguments would not wash. The Shiv Sena tried a similar strategy. After the Maharashtra government denied it permission to build a memorial for Bal Thackeray in Shivaji Park in Mumbai, it wanted to take over the Mahalaxmi Racecourse for this purpose. It tried hard to disguise its intention as a call for creating public space, but the government called the Shiv Sena’s bluff.

If there was any difference in commemorative practices, it would be, as Erika Doss, the author of the book Memorial Mania, points out, only materialistic: temporary or permanent. Otherwise, they are all in political service.


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Printable version | Mar 18, 2018 10:41:42 AM |