Reverse Swing: The Revolt of the Statue
The realm of public statues is fickle and treacherous. Which is why one feels for Home Minister Amit Shah and the helpless situation he found himself in the other day.
Does a country’s Home Minister need to be also informed on culture, history, commerce or science? Is that not an unfair expectation? As long as he can arm-twist Central agencies, brow-beat the courts, hammer the police units into being his pocket borough and make State Governors feed off his palm, has he not pretty much served his purpose? An occasional tirade in favour of ‘freedom of speech’ to defend those of his own ilk in the media adds to his stature. And, of course, an additional diploma in Home Science could be of help.
There is no reason why he needs to swot up sundry information or digest the Manorama Year Book like any wannabe TV Crorepati or an aspirant in the competitive civil services exams. There is, besides, absolutely no need for him to take a crash course in any basic fundas about all the statues installed in the country to honour leaders and personalities. Cynics might want to carp and mock at this as being equivalent to someone who has a puja-room at home crammed with deities but is uninformed about the identity of the icons in there. But we shall ignore such nit-picking.
It is sufficient enough if our Home Minister can distinguish between a Vallabhbhai and a Keshubhai Patel or between a Mohandas and an Indira Gandhi. Really, why should anyone be expected to know the Adhaar Card details of a person whose statue you have never been called upon to inaugurate? And, that too, in a country where making and erecting statues is more ubiquitous than a midday meal? Besides the assorted ones in the pantheon, ranging from Shiva, Hanuman, Ganesha, Durga, Amman, Jesus, Mary, Padmasambhava, Gomateswara and so on, our landscape is dotted with conspicuously ugly statues of politicians, prime and chief ministers, statesmen and women, army-men (no women), social reformers, freedom fighters, historical and mythical figures, Dalit and Adivasi militants, legendary artists and literary figures, bankers, industrialists, royalty, film stars, philanthropists, colonial relics, the girl in the Nirma detergent ad – and even of cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’.
Mind you, these are statues. There is a whole lot of others that comes in the category of public sculpture, installed at prominent urban locations, many of which are artistic creations by prominent sculptors like Ramkinker Baij, Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury, Kanayi Kunhiraman, Piloo Pochkhanawala, Balan Nambiar, Nek Chand, Ruth Waterman (who sculpted the memorial for the Bhopal gas victims) and so on while most of the rest are products of the local PWD’s or city administration’s fantasies.
You really cannot be expected to know the provenance of all these eruptions on the landscape, many of which lack even basic signage to help one identify the stone or Plaster of Paris or bronze or fibreglass or cement expressions of fleeting fame and hubris. In ‘Ozymandias’, poet Shelley reflects wryly at the pompous words of self-obsessed grandeur on the statue’s pedestal and the revenge of Time in the devastation and “decay of that colossal wreck” all around. Or Faiz’s quiet prediction in ‘Hum Dekhenge’, of how these symbols of power and pelf will eventually be toppled.
The realm of these statues is fickle and treacherous. Which is why one feels for Home Minister Amit Shah and the helpless situation he found himself in the other day.
Campaigning in the Adivasi regions of Bankura district in West Bengal, he and his BJP/RSS cohorts chanced upon a roadside statue of a tribal lad. Promptly, the cavalcade from Delhi stopped. Garlands and camphor and agarbatti were pulled out and a speech was prepared eulogising the celebrated local tribal warrior Birsa Munda, based on whose inspiring life Mahasweta Devi wrote her immortal ‘Aranyer Adhikar’ (translated into Hindi as ‘Jungle ke Davedaar’ and into English as ‘Occupation of the Forest’).
Bankura being a tribal constituency, Shah & Co. decided to milk the situation by enacting a grand show of homage to the tribal leader, venerated in that region for his martyrdom, in 1900, in jail, as a 25-year-old battling British imperial aggression as well as the assault of rapacious thekedars on forests and its Adivasi denizens. But, in an almost Trump-like moment, their boat capsized when the locals informed them that the statue, installed as a road-side decoration by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), was not of Birsa Munda but merely the random representation of any local boy. This political naivety and disconnect with the ground could have led to a loss of face of epic proportions. They had to think on their feet. After a quick scramble, a portrait of Birsa Munda was procured, placed at the foot of the said statue, and ceremoniously garlanded. Not before it left the local voters chortling in amusement.
Mananiya @AmitShah ji offering prayers at The statue of Birsa Munda at Bankura.— Dilip Ghosh (@DilipGhoshBJP) November 5, 2020
The spirit of Birsa Munda who fought against an opressive regime for the rights of his fellow tribals will inspire us to fight the oppressive regime of Mamata Banerjee. pic.twitter.com/fLZGq9LHqa
The Home Minister’s goof-up has led to several hilarious comments online from citizens as well as from political opponents, like the ever-feisty Mohua Moitra. But, it is not beyond speculation that the Centre might quickly despatch apparatchiks from the NHAI to reverse-engineer the situation by retro-fitting the existing statue with that of Birsa. Once done, it would wipe the slate clean and the HM can go about his business as if the faux pax never happened.
This can easily be developed into a robust game we could all have enormous fun playing. It can be named ‘The Revolt of the Statues’. The game involves imagining Minister Shah standing in front of a statue and guessing who it might be; and the statue revolting and, in an imprudent act of dissent, turning out to be of someone else. Like, if he stands before one of say, Raja Bhoj in Bhopal, who might he mistake it for? Raja Man Singh? If so how long will it take to quietly replace the 32 feet high statue in the middle of the lake with one of Man Singh? Or if he were to see the Prithviraj Chauhan statue in Ajmer and mistake it for the rather similar looking one of Rana Pratap in Udaipur? How long will the respective municipalities take to effect a mutual exchange? No one will even know the difference.
Trouble, of course, will arise if he spots the granite Valmiki statue at Tapovan in Bengaluru and confuses it with the golden one of Nagarjuna at the Ling Monastery in Scotland. Or if he were to misidentify the 41 meters high statue of Tamil philosopher/poet Thiruvalluvar, sculpted by the genius Ganapathy Sthapathy, with that of the much older, 46 meters tall Statue of Liberty, in New York harbour, by Frederic Bartholdi. These could have international ramifications that could shift the game from Home Affairs to Foreign Affairs and minister S. Jaishankar will need to step in to resolve the monumental crisis. It might turn out to be just about a little bit more knotty than the current one he’s chipping and carving away at, over the Aksai Chin real estate.
There is, of course, always the other alternative open to the pyrotechnicians of the party. Embarrassed by it? Cannot handle it? Find yourself being mocked at by the subalterns? As Wilhelm Reich wrote, ‘do what comes to you best, Little Man’ – knock it, demolish it, raze it to the ground. Bengal has already had a taste of this when BJP cadre in Kolkata smashed up a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar last year. In July this year, tensions ran high in Purulia district in Bengal, when BJP workers were arrested for vandalising the statue of the 19th century Santhal hero of the struggle against the British Raj, Kanhu Murmu. Obviously, this is a lesson the party and its leaders need not be taught. They are well equipped for it.
No revolt of the statues will be tolerated. As the ideological battle for the Indian mind hots up, all symbols and statuary will be made to fall in line. Literally. Those that refuse to toe the line, will be de-recognized and dismantled. As statues.
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Reality Check. I wrote the above in the spirit of a heckle. However, last night, the West Bengal State BJP president Dilip Ghosh, put out the following post: “We paid respect to a statue thinking it was Birsa Munda's. Even if it isn't, as the HM has garlanded that statue, it's Birsa Munda's statue from now on. Everyone must agree to this." No comments.