Statue politics

Across the country, vandals are going on a spree of statue desecration and destruction. Be it Tripura, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or Kerala, the objective of the perpetrators — never mind their party affiliations — is to change political or cultural history by brute force. It is in Tripura that this latest manifestation of intolerance has begun, in the immediate aftermath of the BJP’s historic unseating of the Left regime after 25 years. Statues of communist icon Vladimir Lenin have been razed on at least two locations, amidst reports of turf battles between saffron and Leftist supporters breaking out all over the State. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has swiftly taken the high moral ground, claiming that Trinamool supporters never indulged in such acts despite ideological clash with the communists and bringing down the Left citadel there after 34 years. The reality is far removed from her self-serving harangue, for it had been widely reported how Trinamool workers forcibly supplanted their Left counterparts from every village and urban borough after political change of guard in Bengal. And now comes the news that a bust of Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder and saffron ideologue Shyama Prasad Mukherjee has been defaced in Kolkata by ultra-Left student activists from Jadavpur University, even as top CPI(M) leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat took part in a rally in another part of the metropolis to protest the desecration of Lenin statues in Tripura. Meanwhile in Tamil Nadu, statue politics is acquiring a virulent edge after a statue of ‘Periyar’, social reformer, backward caste messiah and founder of Dravidian movement EV Ramasamy, was vandalised in Vellore district. The BJP has drawn flak for the incident after its leader H Raja commented on social media that statues of Periyar could be next in line after those of Lenin. There has already been an attack on Brahmins at Chennai, allegedly by Dravidar activists thrashing them and cutting off their sacred threads. These incidents are being viewed seriously, considering the history of Brahmin versus backward castes conflict in Tamil Nadu that has shaped its politics. This apart, a bust of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar was defaced in Chennai on Wednesday last; the night before, an Ambedkar statue was vandalised at Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s memory has been targeted, with miscreants damaging Bapu’s statue at Kannur district in Kerala. Clearly, matters are getting out of hand, which is why Parliament is witnessing noisy scenes with parties blaming each other. The Prime Minister has expressed strong disapproval, seeking stern action against perpetrators; the Union Home Ministry has reportedly issued an advisory to the States to promptly investigate such attacks and make district magistrates and senior superintendents of police ‘personally responsible’ for law and order situations that may arise. All this is very well, but will parties take stern action against leaders inciting vandalism? In a country where governments splurge on statues, mausoleums and memorials of ‘beloved’ leaders — statue politics going badly wrong offers much scope for mischief and mayhem. After all, ruling dispensations vie to name public assets, institutions and welfare schemes after leaders and ideologues — only to go rabble rousing when a succeeding dispensation of different political hue goes on a renaming binge. If the Congress in power once sought to name everything after the Nehru-Gandhi family, the BJP has been assiduously seeking to stamp its own pantheon of icons on the public mind. It is the furious struggle to replace one political idea by another, to impose a new narrative, to re-write history if needs be. Much public energy is being taken up, if not wasted, in this process. The stakes are being raised so high that public peace is now being endangered. Destructive statue politics needs to be dealt with firmly, but in the long run, the people will have to wise up to the games politicians play over it.