After the toppling of a Lenin statue in Tripura following the BJP’s annihilation of the Left set off a domino effect in parts of the country, Sujan Dutta examines why the ringing-in of new governments is often marked by the undoing and re-doing of legacies
The stench around a toppled statue is mixed with burnt and burning rubber, mortar, concrete and molten girders of steel and it lingers 15 years after Saddam Hussein’s kowtowing and inanimate form was televised across the world from the Square of Paradise in Baghdad, the Al Firdaus.
Amid columns of smoke that framed the Blue Mosque and the Hotels Palestine and Sheraton, cheered by a few hundred Iraqi men, some in kaffiyehs and some in tees and track pants, a US Marine Corps armoured car tugged a metal cable hooked to the neck of that statue that stood on a plinth in the centre of the square. It bent from the feet till the body was ripped from the iron bars on which it was planted. The bars bent too. It was April 9, 2003.
“The ‘Alibabas’ came from there,” Jamal Mohammed, who worked at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, told this reporter at the square three days later. ‘Alibabas’ was the generic Baghdadi term for looters and vandals. In the days that followed, the Iraq Museum, the National Library, universities and laboratories were plundered.
What was sold to the world by the US as a Hollywood-style finale to the invasion of Iraq was really the beginning of fresh waves of violence that continue till today.
The time and space between Baghdad, the embattled Iraqi capital, and Belonia, in South Tripura, where Lenin’s statue was uprooted on Stalin’s death anniversary this month, is bridged by a truism: toppled statues are emblematic of regime change but are an exhibition of aggressive conformism.
In Baghdad, the motley crowd wanted to show that they were with the new regime that came in riding M1A1 Abrams tanks after crossing the Tigris.
Belonia was endorsing the end of 25 years of Left rule that the polls had already accomplished.
Inexorably, the spark lit in South Tripura radiated to Tamil Nadu, where Dravida movement founder Periyar’s statue was desecrated; to Calcutta where Leftist students blackened the face of a bust of Jan Sangh father Syama Prasad Mookerjee; to Meerut where Constitution-framer Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statue was damaged; and to elected legislatures in Maharashtra and Bihar where members argued over the height of a Shivaji statue and traded charges over the intentions of the Sangh Parivar.
A situation best described as “competitive vandalism”, as it were, has singed almost every shade of partisan politics in the country.
Last June, shortly after a statue of Rajiv Gandhi was damaged following the assumption of power by the Yogi Adityanath government, the DIG of police at Mirzapur’s Awas Vikas Colony, dismissed the incident. “It was just mischief,” he said.
Vandalism has a history of mischievousness – by naughty boys in school classrooms to drunkards in clubs – but, as essayist Colin Ward writes, there are “ways in which destruction and damage become meaningful within political frames.”
Those frames often compel political parties in India to undo, and some times, re-do, legacies.
“They (Indian political parties) are doing these things (vandalising icons of predecessors) but it is not important at all to erase legacies such as statues,” says Sudha Pai, Professor at the Centre for Political Science, JNU. “The fight should be electoral and ideological. That is how it should be in a free democracy. Bringing down statues is a sheer waste of time,” she adds.
In West Bengal, the Left Front established statues of members of the Marxist pantheon after beginning their three-decade reign in 1977. In 2011, after Mamata was voted to power, notes political analyst Siddhartha Dey, she “shifted the state secretariat from the British-era red-coloured Writers’ Buildings in Calcutta to ‘Nabanna’ in Howrah and then blue and white became the unwritten official colours of the TMC government with offices, flyovers, footpaths, bridges, state buses re-painted.”
Uttar Pradesh, exceptionally, has few instances of statuary being damaged. Governments have tried other tools to rewrite legacies since May 2012, when a Samajwadi worker beheaded a statue of Mayawati. In the Yogi regime’s methods to erase reminders of past regimes, the renaming of Mughalsarai railway station, reputedly Asia’s biggest junction, figures high. It wants the station renamed after Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the former president of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh who was found dead on a train nearby in 1968. The state government also wanted the civilian terminal in the air force base in Gorakhpur named after Mahayogi Gorakhnath, the founder of the Nath sect to which the chief minister belongs.
In New Delhi, the Centre has renamed Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam. Lok Kalyan Marg is the new name for Race Course Road that houses the PM’s official residence.
The other side of campaigns to create new legacies is the plethora of expensive statues. The proposed multi-thousand crore rupee statues of Sardar Patel and Shivaji follows Mayawati’s Dalit Park in Noida where she herself features, vanity bag in hand, alongside idol Kanshi Ram. In India, the perversity of such profligacy runs alongside the vulgarity of vandalism. With inputs from Namita Bajpai, Aishik Chanda, Amit Agnihotri and Pushkar Banakar