A prominent Dalit academic once told me that when a Dalit entered the seminar room, the rest of them should feel uncomfortable. Given the monumental oppression Dalits face, this should be the least consequence of Dalits getting a voice.
I am reminded of this when I think of Mayawati’s gigantic Dalit memorials that have changed Lucknow’s landscape.
When Mayawati first came to power in 1995, she began building an Ambedkar memorial that was heavily criticised for wasteful expenditure. When other parties interrupted her three successive stints in power, they simply ignore the Ambedkar memorials, and built memorials of their own. When the people of Uttar Pradesh gave her a rare majority in 2007, they did so despite knowing she will make large monuments to Dalits. It is as if Mayawati wanted to say, ‘You are comfortable now about the Ambedkar memorial? Let me give you this. Ten new memorials, with statues including my own!’
Mayawati’s monuments would not serve their purpose if they did not cause us discomfort. Question is: what would happen to them when she goes out of power? Mulayam Singh of rival Samajwadi Party, seen as antithetical to Dalit interests, said in 2009 that he would demolish these monuments when he becomes chief minister again. But he won’t become CM again, said the BSP smugly, and warned of “law and order problems” if any demolition took place. Digvijay Singh said the Congress was not in favour of “this culture” of demolition of monuments erected by an elected government. The BJP, too, said they didn’t believe in bulldozers.
There were those who compared her statues to those of the Communists, and of dictators such as Saddam Hussein, which the people brought down. This, they said, is what will happen to Mayawati’s statues, her own and those of Dalit icons from north and south she has put up. In response to such fears the Mayawati government has raised a special force to protect the monuments. The force will obviously be disbanded by whoever succeeds her.
Mayawati’s monuments are all in stone, and the statues all in bronze. Bronze will last the longest, said her advisors. At least 300 years. Mayawati wants to produce a history.
What could such a history be like, and what could these monuments do to history? I got a hint of the answer when I recently visited the Lucknow zoo. The Uttar Pradesh State Museum is inside the zoo. For decades, twenty odd statues and a few busts lay out in the open. It was only in 2006 that a large display room was built for the statues. The room is called “Foreign Sculptural Art Gallery”. They are large, awe-inspiring majestic statues carved in marble. Ten of them are of Queen Victoria, once the Empress of India. In one of them, the nose is missing. She always has a globe in her hand, a cross over the globe. The sun never sets on the Empire! Three are of George V. The rest are of English officers or governor-generals. Some are missing – perhaps Sotheby’s knows where they are.
At the entrance of the “Foreign Sculptural Art Gallery” is an apologetic note in impossibly shuddh Hindi. It begins by saying that Indian culture has always been appreciative of art, be it Romani (Roman) or Unani (Greek). It goes on about this at some length – appreciating art without discrimination and so on. Then it comes to the point, acknowledging that displaying these statues is not a good idea from a nationalist point of view, but we can ‘appreciate’ them for their art and history.
Most were placed in public squares in Lucknow, but some in Gorakhpur and Allahabad. It was only in 1955 – eight years after independence – that they were removed to protect them from the Lohiaite socialites who wanted to destroy them as part of the anti-Hindi movement. Colonial statues in Delhi, too, were removed and placed at ‘Coronation Park’. They changed Calcutta to Kolkata but Victoria’s statue is still there at the Victoria Memorial. King Edward’s statue in Lahore was taken to the museum, replaced at a public square by a copy of the Qu’ran.
So think whatever you want to of Mayawati’s statues and monuments, whether you want them demolished or not, removed or not, placed in a museum or a park – a board will one day tell you to appreciate them for their art and history. Already, the UP government plans to promote them as a tourist attraction. That’s how history is made, cast in stone and metal.
(Appears in this morning’s Economic Times.)