Statue war: Vandalism and violence as the new discourse

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 3/11/2018 12:39:00 AM

"You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind," said Gandhi. Great men like him left behind a legacy of ideas and body of work that continues to inspire people the world over. Their deaths, in different circumstances, did not kill those ideas. Destruction of their statues will hardly cause any dent.
After the RSS activists, euphoric over BJP's electoral victory, brought down the grand statue of Russian Communist leader Lenin in Tripura, triggering a fad of statue vandalism across the country - Periyar in Vellore, Ambedkar in Meerut, another Lenin statue in Tripura and in reaction to these of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in Kolkatta, there are two pertinent questions to grapple with. What do statues dotting the city landscapes signify? And more importantly, whether this is the language people in this country choose to speak - breaking, destroying, beating and lynching anything and anyone they do not agree with?
Statues of tall leaders are not only attempts to glorify individuals but are also edifications of the ideas those leaders were committed to. One may not agree with them but they memorialise moments in India's history when their ideas and actions appealed to some or they wielded power. These ideas and moments may be cherished or may be negative reminders of some point in history, depending on different perspectives. Statues thus are both a legacy of ideas and nuances of history, which cannot be denied, even though BJP is taking pain-staking efforts to rewrite all of India's history and tar it with a brush of multiple lies.
When the Bamiyan Buddha statues were vandalised by Talibans in Afghanistan, the world was horrified not only for the destruction of the rich heritage that the statues signified but also of an attack on the values that Buddha espoused. Buddha was alien to Afghanistan. His ideas were not. His appeal continues to be universal. It is in this light that Lenin's persona needs to be analysed. Lenin and the Russian revolution he led in the beginning of last century have inspired leftists around the globe including India, whether or not one agrees with views or his actions. When photos and videos of BJP cadres bringing down a statue of Lenin in West Tripura district began being circulated in social media and CPM leaders alleged the demeaning ways in which the statue was being destroyed with some BJP men playing football with the severed head of Lenin's statue, the BJP rose up in shoddy defence of the act.
Ram Madhav, the BJP national secretary and in-charge of the Northeast, tweeted a photo of the incident, saying: "People taking down Lenin's statue … not in Russia, it is in Tripura. 'Chalo Paltai.'" He later deleted the tweet. Hansraj Ahir, a BJP minister, justified the bringing down of the statue, saying that the statues of foreigners have no place in the country.
By that logic, Lutyen's Delhi should have been razed to the ground because of its colonial legacy, and the statues of colonial officers and rulers should be dismantled - not legally but by euphoric crowds. Statues of great men from India - Buddha, Gandhi, Tagore - have been installed in various parts of the world. Should they need a valid passport and visa to be there? Ironically, some time back,the BJP opposed the bringing down of Gandhi's statue in Ghana. And pray, what explains the tearing down statues of social reformer Periyar and architect of Indian constitution Ambedkar. Are they foreigners too in the imagination of BJP which wants to unite Indians under one majoritarian discourse where everybody else is considered an 'outsider'.
There is no logic to vandalism of statues other than hatred and intolerance for dissenting viewpoints. Many within BJP ascribed the pulling down of the statue to the anger against previous communist regimes. Some chose to recall the violent legacy of Lenin. But communist regimes were elected under the Indian electoral system and did not come throw violent overthrow of existing rulers. Also, Lenin cannot be remembered solely for his belief in violent overthrow of power structures but also for his ideas that espoused equality and liberty. Periyar and Ambedkar fought for similar ideals of class-less society. These attacks on the statues are thus an expression of aversion to such ideas. Thankfully, destruction of statues cannot kill those ideas.
But is this how opposition to people or their ideas should be expressed by encouraging and spreading a culture of mob violence, lawlessness, anarchy and uncivilized ways of damaging public property, vandalism, beating up people and even lynching them. The vandalism of statues of Lenin, Periyar and Ambedkar provoked some lunatics to bring down Shyama Parasad Mukherji's statue in Kolkatta, unjustifiably so. Starting with the Babri mosque demolition, discourse for destroying places of worship, monuments and now statues is growing louder. The BJP must realise the dangerous consequences of the trend it is starting of intolerance, destruction and anarchy that will have ramifications which will be beyond its own control. As a nation, we do need to ponder, whatever one's individual views, whether this language of violence and vandalism is what we want to adopt as the focus of our socio-political discourse and our future.



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