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The year of statement statues

From the Statue of Unity in Gujarat to the under-construction Shiv Smarak in Maharashtra, the building and destruction of statues became a proxy for political battles over ideology, identity and memory in 2018

A view of the Statue of Unity in Kevadia colony of Narmada district, which was inaugurated on 31 October. Photo: PTI
A view of the Statue of Unity in Kevadia colony of Narmada district, which was inaugurated on 31 October. Photo: PTI

It could be said that the Congress party and its supporters hate the Narendra Modi regime because the latter hates Jawaharlal Nehru, the suave sire of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Indeed, the ruling party, in its marathon run since 2014, has drawn much of its fuel from the accumulated anger the larger Sangh Parivar has against Nehru and his political progeny. A manifest symbol of the hatred the reigning right in India harbours for Nehru, the Congress argues—with ample support from a school of intellectuals and historians —is the “destruction" of institutions that India’s first prime minister built. The other manifest symbol, is the revival of icons posited as “victims" of the Nehru “raj". Ambedkar, who the BJP now accuses the Congress of conspiring against but who was no darling of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when he was alive, is being appropriated by way of a sprawling 12-acre memorial in Mumbai, including a 351ft statue. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who, ironically, as India’s first home minister, had banned the RSS in 1948 following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, is getting his day in the sun in Gujarat. “The Patel statue is a concerted attempt to obliterate Nehru and Gandhi both from our national memory," says Suhas Palshikar, a Pune-based political scientist and the chief editor of the journal Studies In Indian Politics.

This grand narrative, an ideological and political construct to obliterate an earlier one, explains itself in the birth and death of statues this year. The irony in this clash of narratives is a shared fascination with monumental grandeur—Nehru had it and Modi has taken it, literally, to newer heights. In Nehruvian times , 50ft was considered too tall a luxury for a socialist government to fund. But the logic of the Modi age propels monuments into orbits of machismo meant to dwarf everything else that has come before.

My statue is taller than yours

Ram Sutar, 93, has personally traversed this epochal distance between Nehru and Modi, having designed at the request of both these prime ministers. And like the two very distinct eras, the statues that Sutar has sculpted too differ vastly in their scale and statement of intent. In the 1960s, Sutar’s marquee assignments were measured in feet. His tallest work was 45ft high—the Chambal devi monument was a tribute in bronze to the Chambal river and the brotherhood between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Forty-eight years later, Modi got Padma Bhushan recipient Sutar to design a monument astounding in its size. The 182m-tall Statue of Unity consecrates Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “Nehru ji had an artistic appreciation for sculptures. The statues he commissioned were more of a tribute whereas the monuments Modi ji has got built are tributes as well as sources of inspiration. To each his own," says Sutar, who refuses to comment on the choice of statues but underlines their significance for a people. “Well, statues do inspire. And they are a way to say thank you," he says.

Between the two prime ministers, quintessential symbols of the times that produced and shaped them, Sutar’s sculptures have metamorphosed. From modest odes to the spirit of collectivism, enterprise and humanity, to humongous ballads in bronze, they signify the distance between the monuments and the masses they are meant to mesmerize. In 1963, when Nehru wanted Sutar to sculpt a 50ft statue that would commemorate the human capital involved in the making of the Bhakra Nangal dam—“the temples of modern India", according to Nehru—an estimated budget of 15 lakh was thought to be prohibitively high and the project was shelved. “It was a high amount those days," recalls Sutar. But in 2018, the statue saga went epic in scale. The Patel statue—world’s tallest—cost nearly 3,000 crore.


Once height became the measure of greatness, a statue-erecting frenzy ensued among the BJP-ruled states. The proposed Shiv Smarak (Shivaji Memorial) is a statue standing 121.2m tall on a pedestal measuring 87.4m in the Arabian Sea. Larsen & Toubro won the bid in March for the construction estimated to cost 3,650 crore. A tall order in itself but it is still a good 60m shorter than the Gujarat giant.

The Shiv Sena, ever more uncomfortable with Modi, perceived a slight in Patel’s statue—construction of which started in October 2014—being taller than the one being built of Shivaji. Not content with the apotheosis of national icons, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh has decided to reach for the divine itself. On the banks of the Sarayu river in Ayodhya, a 151m-tall statue of Ram will be built. In Maharashtra, the proposed Ram statue has put pressure on the state government to see if the Shivaji Memorial can go even higher. In this fight for height, Ram Sutar is the only common factor. It is his designs that Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have accepted. “These are all grand plans and we are excited to be working on them," says Sutar’s son Anil, who assists his father.

“There is an unprecedented gargantuanism which is on show now. You can’t see these monuments, their faces. This gargantuanism has become the symptom of the new idea of history," says Shiv Visvanathan, professor at Jindal Global Law School, and director, centre for the study of knowledge systems, O.P. Jindal Global University. He distinguishes these “authoritative spectacles" from what he terms as the “humane memorials" of Mahatma Gandhi or Ambedkar found in abundance in public spaces. “There is something endearingly human about those memorials. They aren’t statues, they are memorials. A Mahatma Gandhi memorial in a public park is a place for sparrows to sit," Visvanathan says, adding, “This obsession with statistics and statues drives what I call the Guinness Book mentality," he says.

This grand narrative, an ideological and political construct to obliterate an earlier one, explains itself in the birth and death of statues that India saw in 2018.-

Statues raised and razed

Palshikar, however, says statue politics is not exclusive to the right wing in India and offers a more nuanced explanation for the BJP-RSS’ newfound fascination for big monuments. “Memorializing of icons is the hobby of ruling classes generally. In India, the right wing was marginal in its societal impact and hence the statues belonging to their iconography were limited or non-existent. They are probably compensating for that backlog now with a vengeance," says the political scientist.

But rarely before has a single calendar year in India been so monumental in terms of statues razed, erected, imagined and re-imagined. For instance, few people outside Tripura knew that the state had a couple of Vladimir Lenin statues. Mobs of vandals, allegedly from the BJP, toppled the Russian revolutionary from the two pedestals he stood on in March, soon after the 25-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist) rule in Tripura fell to the BJP. “When you build a statue, you resurrect an era. When you destroy one, you end an era," says Visvanathan of that moment of destruction in Tripura. (This writer made several calls to BJP’s Sunil Deodhar, who was the party in-charge of Tripura, and sent text messages to him as well as to three of his personal assistants but did not get any response.)


The gender poser

There is more to this cult of statues. It is unabashedly masculine. This gender incongruity hasn’t passed unnoticed.

On 12 December, Congress veteran Karan Singh, who is also a scholar on Hinduism, wrote to Yogi Adityanath urging him to cut down the height of the proposed Ram statue by half and build a statue to the couple, Sita and Ram.

“I was travelling in and around Simaria in Bihar which is part of the Mithila kingdom and it is the land of Sita mata. It struck me that she had a tragic life. Soon after her marriage, she joins prabhu Ramchandra on his 14-year-long exile. She gets abducted by Ravana in the 14th year and the great war ensues. She returns to Ayodhya as the Maharani but is again condemned to live in the woods when she is pregnant. I felt we need to bring Sita mata home and give what is due to her in Ayodhya. So I wrote to Yogi ji and marked a copy to Modi ji too. I am awaiting their response," the Congress veteran told Mint.

Singh finds no fault with the torrent of grand statues. “Hinduism has had this tradition of building magnificent temples. I don’t condemn this idea even though there could be a political side to building these statues. But since Uttar Pradesh has decided to build a mega statue to Prabhu Ramchandra, why not pay Sita mata her due and why not resurrect this beautiful imagery of Sita-Ram," he says.

Statues quo ante

In the 2019 general election tussle between things Modi and un-Modi, the statues are likely to grow taller. Uttar Pradesh—the state that will majorly determine whether Modi will rule India in 2019—and Maharashtra, which sends the next largest contingent of MPs to the Lok Sabha, will be the main theatres of this interplay between statues, temples and politics. The statues have already started serving as sites where alliances are made and unmade. In November, when the Patel statue was unveiled, it was practically a BJP event, or rather, a Modi event. But on 16 December, the unveiling of a statue of M. Karunanidhi, the late DMK supremo, in Tamil Nadu offered a stage from which the DMK chief M. K. Stalin proposed Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who was in attendance, as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate to take on Modi. Also, the politics around the statues has been as engrossing and polarizing, as have been most things since 2014. Says Palshikar, “Statues are about politics, power, assertion and underlining the presence of specific ideas/social segments."

Yet, Palshikar locates statue politics in the larger landscape of identity politics and the politics of memory. “There have always been statues spread across the country and the purpose was not always only to memorialize, and even memorializing certain personalities does involve politics in the larger sense. As a country and society, we are rather over-fond of statues while the world over, statues would always demarcate both a national consensus at a given point and the elite’s thinking at that time," he says.

A very instructive example are the statues that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati built as a tribute to Ambedkar, to BSP founder Kanshiram, and to herself in Uttar Pradesh when she ruled the state between 2007 and 2012. The elephant is the election symbol of the BSP, a party Kanshiram founded to end the Brahminical hegemony over power. At the time, the BSP and Mayawati received much flak for this splurge of public money. In fact, the Samajwadi Party (SP), which came to power next, accused its predecessor of a 40,000 crore scam. But the BSP and the marginal intellectual support it had then justified the monuments as the “re-assertion of the downtrodden and Dalits" finding a concrete expression in their own iconography.

“Statues and memorials are a way of remembering history and understanding it in a symbolic manner. They also serve contemporary political purposes. In the case of Ambedkar, the reason why the BSP and the Amebdkarites would want his statues and memorials is because of the overall neglect of his role till recently," concurs Palshikar. But even this justification has its limits, he points out. “For the downtrodden and for Ambedkar’s followers, one way of fighting back the upper caste cultural assertions is to find counter to that. Having said this, it is at the same time a limited assertion because it reduces great figures like Phule or Ambedkar or Periyar to symbols and facilitates either amnesia about their ideas, or distortion and simplification," avers Palshikar.

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