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The Statue of Unity: An irony cast in stone

Statues have always been a cheap way of appeasing people

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

  • Published 3.11.18, 7:53 AM
  • Updated 3.11.18, 5:07 PM
A view of the Statue of Unity at sunset.
A view of the Statue of Unity at sunset. PTI

The very reasons cited for honouring Vallabhbhai Patel suggest he would have been profoundly disappointed at the futility of the so-called Statue of Unity. India’s first home minister under whose guidance V.P. Menon and Lord Mountbatten “persuaded” almost all the princes to sign instruments of accession certainly deserves gratitude. With only half the number of foreign tourists that even tiny Singapore attracts every year, tourism, too, desperately needs boosting. But a realist like Patel is bound to have wondered whether the monument puts a poor country’s scarce resources to optimum use.

“Sardar Patel wanted that India becomes empowered, strong, sensitive and inclusive,” Narendra Modi declared when unveiling the colossal figure. “We are working towards giving concrete houses to every homeless in the country. We have electrified those eighteen thousand villages, where electricity did not reach after so many years of freedom and our government is working towards electrifying every house across the country,” he added. Leaving aside party polemics and snide aspersions on his predecessors, these are commendable aims that Patel (like Jawaharlal Nehru) would have fully supported without endorsing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology or the mission of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was banned under his direction. Given this identity of secular purpose, a hard-headed realist not committed to any exclusive vision of India is bound to have felt that the nearly Rs 3,000 crore squandered on his image (to say nothing of the social cost, which has been estimated at Rs 5,000 crore) could have been invested more profitably. Patel was, as Rahul Gandhi says, a patriot who fought for an independent, united and secular India. “A man with a steely will, tempered by compassion, he was a Congressman to the core, who had no tolerance for bigotry or communalism.” That description also applies to Subhas Chandra Bose. They might all have demanded that the money be spent on tackling the smog that is choking me in Sonepat, 45 kilometres from Delhi.

Faced with the boast that at 182 metres, the Statue of Unity is twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty, Patel might have wished India enjoyed twice the per capita income of the United States of America. Instead, India’s lags at under $2,000 (even according to government figures) against more than $60,000 in the US and China’s $17,000. The other boast about the Statue of Unity worsting the Buddha in China’s Spring Temple by 177 feet is even more ridiculous if not downright sacrilegious. It would have been another matter if India’s economy had matched China’s, which is the world’s second biggest. Or if India could hold the US to ransom like China, which owns $1.18 trillion in American treasury bonds. A detail that provoked Rahul Gandhi’s jibe that the statue should carry a “Made in China” tag cannot be ignored either. According to reports, the statue’s distinctive surface is due to 565 bronze panels, each of which has 10 to 15 micro panels, which were imported from China, presumably because the technology is beyond us. That foreign element — especially from a country that is regarded as India’s principal rival and which challenges India at every turn — makes nonsense of any pretence to swaraj.

It does not reflect well either on Modi’s boast that “the statue will remind those who question India’s existence, that this nation was, is and will remain eternal”. It is trite to reduce a nation of 1.3 billion people with 5,000 years of civilization behind them to the level of a man-made graven image, however stupendous or extravagant. Indira Gandhi’s favourite Peter Sellers line was a riposte from the comedy, The Party, where an Indian who is asked, “Who do you think you are?” retorts, “In India we don’t think... we know who we are.” It indicated a much more respectful as well as mature appreciation of what A.L. Basham called “the wonder that was India”. If that wonder has to be underwritten through such obvious and simplistic devices it is only for the benefit of hordes of villagers who flock into town to be mesmerized by the jadu ghar, to excitedly follow the antics of bird and beast in the chiriakhana, make their ritual obeisances at the mandir, and gaze with adoration on the neta if they can’t take the dust of his feet. The comment is on the quality of India’s equivalent of what the Victorians called “the Great Unwashed”. Modi displays his astute grasp of the untutored and unlettered mind in dazzling it with a colossal “source of unity”, and urging the faithful to “march with a dream to make the country ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat (One India, Premier India)’”. It’s not the world that needs reminding of the eternity that is India for the world will take very little note of such an insignificant event in a remote corner of India but the voter whose primary loyalty is to caste, religion and village, and who is still grappling with the concept of India. Modi’s tales of how chattily familiar he was with the great president of the US whom he didn’t have to treat with deference must have profoundly impressed this class of voter. They are the BJP’s backbone throughout the cow belt.

Statues have always been a cheap — in a non-monetary sense — way of appeasing such people. Initially, the British thought that royal statuary would impress Indians. Then they realized that potentially rebellious natives could be flattered into obedience by appearing to honour their own traditional rulers. Hence the future King-Emperor Edward VII eulogized Shivaji as “one of India’s greatest soldiers and statesmen” and founder of Maratha greatness when laying the foundation stone of a Shivaji memorial in Poona. The unlikely gesture prompted Motilal Nehru to remark (tongue in cheek? sarcastically?) that nationalist icons that were once considered seditious now enjoyed royal sanction. Calcutta acknowledged the emotive appeal of statues by removing them, inspiring the probably apocryphal story that an ultra-radical United Front minister had to be persuaded that the classical figures of Justice, Commerce, Science and Agriculture flanking Minerva atop Writers’ Buildings were not grand colonial memsahibs looking down (literally) on hoi-polloi and could be allowed to remain. Bombay’s modern Shivaji memorial, mooted in 2004 by Vilasrao Deshmukh’s Congress-National Congress Party regime and sanctified by Modi with two bhoomi poojas in 2016 and 2018, seemed to face one hurdle after another. It was originally going to be slightly bigger than the Statue of Liberty but the size waxed and waned over the years.

One statue that should raise no cavil is that of a bushy-bearded little viceroy in the robes of a Garter knight whom reverential Indians called “His Honoured Enormity, Lord Ripon”, according to a British visitor. Ripon symbolized a crucial turning point in Indian history. Even 31 years after he had left India and six years after his death, neither the colonial authorities nor British residents would contribute a paisa for his statue. It was a voluntary expression of public gratitude by Indians who honoured him for repealing the Vernacular Press Act, passing the Bengal Municipal Act which Philip Mason called “the only hint that India was one day to be governed by Indians”, and for trying to introduce judicial race equality through the Ilbert bill. The fierce backlash this provoked among Europeans who scuttled the measure led to the Indian National Congress being launched three years later.

Ripon’s statue was not foisted on the people by a distant government. Nor was it the self-serving handiwork of an all-powerful politician wooing gullible voters at the State’s expense. There’s a touch of Ozymandias’s “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” about all such grandiose structures. It’s not the subject but the creator who demands attention. It’s not the subject but the creator who is doomed to ultimate oblivion.

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