What does a statue do?

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In a spate of acrimony and vandalism around symbols from our collective past is a reminder that these are ‘symbols’ from our ‘collective’ past.

When you demolish a statue, do you destroy the ideology too?

Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That is not gibberish. It is a German word for the act of coming to terms with the past (German seems to have a word for almost everything). Accepting the past, warts and glory. Accepting that the past happened not only helps us reconcile with the permanent scars that it has left or feel pride on how well we lived but also serves as a reminder — both in the positive and negative senses — of where we could go in the future if we learn our lessons from the past well. The idea being that lessons from the past, if and when implemented in the present, will ensure a bright future.

Legendary classical Tamil film Ratha Kanneer opens with a scene in which a statue depicting MR Radha’s character as a leper and beggar is unveiled. The purpose behind the statue is explained via the story. The character, Mohan, is a womaniser and has no discipline in his personal life, pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle, thanks to which he ends up a leper and a pauper. The statue, the character wishes, should serve as a denunciatory symbol, a reminder of where one is bound to end up if they were to choose to pursue such a way of life.

Traditionally though, erecting a statue is considered the highest honour that can be given to a person or the idea that the person stood for. Consequently, defacing or destroying such a statue is considered the highest level of insult that can be meted out to the said person or idea. Statues of the Bamiyan Buddha were torn down in Afghanistan once Taliban came to power. Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down in an iconic photographic moment in Iraq post war. While this is par for the course in a war environment, as it happened in Iraq or Afghanistan with the losers rendered powerless, it does not work the same way in a democracy, which enjoins coexistence among all varieties of citizens. The latest instances of statue vandalism — the statue of Lenin brought down in Tripura, SP Mukherjee’s bust damaged in Kolkata and Periyar’s statue defaced in Tamil Nadu — therefore, inject a violent tradition into a democratic environment.

Attacking a statue of a person can well be construed as a direct attack on the person’s ideology. Ideologies have fervent followers who vow to live and die by it. By attacking a venerated statue, the vandal is making a statement that his is the greater ideology and that he has emerged as victors in an ideological war. It’s a belligerent act of dominance, of asserting the establishment of a new systemic order.

 

 

However, unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan where a statue may connote the supremacy of a dictator and dismantling such a statue becomes significant as a harbinger of democracy, the intention behind attacking a symbolic monument within a democracy is and always will be merely provocation. Curiously, this makes it simultaneously innocuous as well as inflammatory. The faith or belief in the ideas represented by a symbol cannot be destroyed by attacking a thousand statues. Octavian Paler, Romanian writer, famously said, “The statues of Lenin and Stalin are down, but the fight against their ghosts seems harder.” All such an action can do is to betray the territorialism and power-play mindset of the vandal.

It is politics and politicians who, in their zeal to consolidate vote banks, raise and remove statues. While there is no consensus sought before placing a statue, no consensus is sought for removal of one either. A statue, once placed becomes a rooted symbol, and deserves a lot of thought as well as consensus. Once installed, therefore, its removal requires even more thought and consensus. Politics, however, does not hinge much on thought as much as it does on stirring the passions and emotions of its followers and practitioners. The net result is a vicious cycle of retaliation and disruption of piece. And in the end, it is the common populace who suffer — the very same common non-partisan populace who care little for the statue’s existence and likely never gave it any more importance than its being a landmark for navigation.

Statues of a democracy

Old ideas — regressive and enlightening both — survive in the statutes they are enshrined in. And the value of a democracy is in how it balances the old and the new. This was exhibited in two recent events in the West. In the United States, a monument dedicated to a Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who fought for the right to own slaves, faced a whole lot of acrimony over whether it deserved a place in an emancipated America; it was brought down after a vote. In a German village, the preservation of a church bell inscribed with a large Swastika, a Nazi-era quote and a reference to Adolf Hitler, elicited protest; it was kept intact (along with a new plaque to place it in context) after a vote. Even symbols associated with two of the most violent events in recent history, slavery and the Holocaust, deserve deliberation and not wanton destruction.

 

 

In Budapest, Hungary, all controversial Communist era statues were moved into a memorial park designed to preserve the past by contextualising it. The architect of Memento Park, which was built in 1991 following the fall of the Communist regime, said of the project, “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

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