Though welcome, the Central government’s decision to stop constructing samadhis along the Yamuna in Delhi and instead build a common facility to perform the last rites of departed leaders is unlikely to have any sobering effect on the memorial mania of political parties. The issue is not shortage of space as the government makes it out to be, but contestable commemorative practices that encroach on public spaces and impose memorials on helpless cities. Collective mourning and remembering by building structures and statuaries are valid cultural practices. However, one has to make a clear distinction between memorialising as an act of self-serving propaganda and the honouring of iconic persons who served to unify or inspire the people. Political parties cleverly manipulate this difference and legitimise their takeover of parks and waterfronts to build monuments for their leaders, many of whom have dubious standing, appeal and achievement. The Shiv Sena, for instance, after being denied permission by the Maharashtra government to build in Shivaji Park, wants to encroach on Mahalaxmi Racecourse to memorialise Bal Thackeray. It is trying hard to disguise its sinister demand as a call for creating public space, but this will not wash. The Congress and regional parties too are not free of this failing.
The Supreme Court, in January, severely criticised State governments for mindlessly allowing statues and unambiguously ordered that they should not permit construction of statues that would cause traffic problems. This should bring in some order to public areas. What is needed now is regulation of political memorials. In this context, there are a few lessons to learn from the City of Westminster’s policy for erecting statues and memorials. This London borough, which has 300 commemorative structures, faces a growing demand for building more. To handle this saturation, the city council advises groups to explore alternative practices such as putting up a plaque, planting trees or endowing a charity. When this does not work, it imposes a 10-year waiting period between the death of a person or occurrence of an event and a related commemoration. The reasoning is that this period would cool ‘partisan passions’ and ‘enable sober reflection’ about the need to commemorate. Apart from this, it insists on public consultation, aesthetic assessment of the proposed structure and upfront payment of the project and maintenance costs. The state may legally own public spaces, but parties in power cannot treat them as their personal fiefdom. While the government can allocate areas and funds for collective remembrance such as a memorial for Bhopal gas victims or the anti-colonial struggle, it should firmly stay away from building monuments to political leaders.