The politics of public memorials

A. Srivathsan
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While 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

The proposed statue of Sardar Patel to be built near the Narmada Dam site in Gujarat. The statue is set to be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty and will rise 182 metres when completed in four years' AFP
The proposed statue of Sardar Patel to be built near the Narmada Dam site in Gujarat. The statue is set to be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty and will rise 182 metres when completed in four years' AFP

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 a statue of Sardar Patel, to be the tallest public sculpture in the world, as political propaganda. Its own track record is no 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 underscores the fact that no matter who 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 the badlands of regional memorials.

Kamaraj statues

In 1961, Kamaraj, the 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 were self-sanctioning the statue of a political personality 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.

This, however, did not stop the Congress from taking up numerous memorial projects for Nehru. When it did, not everyone welcomed it. Similarly, people were critical of converting houses where Congress leaders lived, including that of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Sastri, into a memorial.

In Mumbai

The Congress would try to defend its memorials as modest public gestures and differentiate them from that of the monumental and propaganda-laden ones such as the Modi’s statue project. But such arguments won't 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.

What’s the agenda?

Do you think the setting up of statues in India is more patriotic or political? Share your views with us at (Subject: Statue) along with your name, class, school, city/town. Selected entries will be featured in next week’s ‘Opinion’ page.



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