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Statue debate is giving us a more rounded history lesson

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Times of India
Date: November 18, 2018
URL:      https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/right-and-wrong/statue-debate-is-giving-us-a-more-rounded-history-lesson/

The inauguration of the world’s tallest statue — the nearly 600-foot Statue of Unity — in Gujarat by Prime Minister Modi on October 31 was generously covered in the media, both at home and overseas. While the rush of visitors, estimated at 1.28 lakh people in just 11 days, told a story of both curiosity and pride, there was no hiding the sniggers that also greeted this grand commemoration of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. There were, of course, the predictable jibes by opposition politicians of Modi covering up his political inadequacies by focusing on the spectacular. And there were also the familiar asides in the international media of the distorted priorities of a ‘poor’ India.

The divergent reactions also had a definite class bias. The English-knowing cosmopolitans seemed quite disgusted, and there was a lot of aesthetic tut-tutting. The vernacular brigade on the other hand, considered the idea admirable. Inspired by the Statue of Unity, there are now plans to build gigantic statues of Bhagwan Ram in Ayodhya and Mother Cauvery in Mandya, Karnataka. Politicians clearly believe that there are returns from grand symbolism. Without over-stretching the point, the divide over statue politics mirrored an earlier schism over beef.

Contemporary politics and aesthetics apart, the conversation over the Statue of Unity has at least helped steer some public interest in history. Sardar Patel’s seminal role in the integration of the 565 princely states into the Indian Union, including his no-nonsense handling of the difficult rulers of Hyderabad, Junagadh and Travancore, is presented by the nationalists as an achievement worthy of exceptional commemoration. It is, by implication, contrasted to Jawaharlal Nehru’s relatively less successful handling of the equally difficult problem of Jammu and Kashmir. Going by the nationalist narrative, India would have been better off had it banked on steely determination rather than pander to Nehru’s woolly-headed, liberal impulses that served the first Prime Minister more than his country.

The Nehru-Patel schism is among the great might-have-been chapters of recent history. It has become a metaphor for contemporary approaches to politics, with Modi firmly ranged on the side of Patel and his liberal opponents deifying Nehru as the man who institutionalised democracy and steered India towards modernity.

A parallel debate that includes the other great might-have-been chapter centres on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man whose determination to secure India’s independence was not marred by squeamishness. On October 21, Modi attended the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Azad Hind government at Red Fort and used the occasion to decry the tendency to reduce recent history to the tale of “one family”, overlooking the contributions of the likes of Patel, Bose and B R Ambedkar. Here again Modi stressed the need to enlarge the historical narrative to incorporate a figure whose alliance with Germany and Japan made Nehru uneasy.

The importance of today’s revisionism is that it is not bound by a consistent thread. On November 11, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu represented India at the commemoration in Paris of the centenary of the Armistice Day that ended the Great War of 1914-18. Naidu also inaugurated an India-funded war memorial for the 73,000 soldiers who died in that war. And earlier this year, India resurrected the memory of soldiers from the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers who liberated Haifa (now in Israel) from Ottoman control in 1918.

The contrast between the way history is invoked in France and India is instructive. In Paris, President Macron used the occasion to attack the “leprosy of nationalism” that was again infecting Europe. He invoked the heroism of the French forces in the Battle of Verdun but carefully avoided mention of Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun. That is because Petain was subsequently obliterated from national memory for his leadership of the Vichy regime that negotiated a truce with the victorious Germans in 1940. In today’s French politics, Petain is a shadowy inspiration behind the nationalist Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, although he is rarely invoked openly.

For long, India too glossed over the participation of its soldiers in the British Empire’s wars overseas. They didn’t fit into a neat historical narrative. The role of Indians in sustaining British rule still raises awkward questions. But the jagged edges of history are not blunted by denial.

Wittingly or otherwise, Modi’s celebration of his heroes is prompting a more rounded appreciation of India’s history. From medieval vandalism and Tipu Sultan’s excesses to the complexities of the colonial experience and freedom struggle, Indians are realising that history is much more than what politically correct textbooks revealed.
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