Statues and memorials embody narratives of the past and symbolise societal values. Be it for religious significance, commemoration of patriots, representation of country, preservation of cultural heritage, famous celebrities and revered leaders; monuments are collective tributes to memorialise unique individuals, events and activities. And, to this end, statues and memorials are having profound impact on societies and their culture.

Incidentally, as politics seep into every aspect of our life, both politics and politicians reflect our society. And, therefore, statues of politicians and political monuments are also an essential part of a country’s history and culture. But, what is worrying is when memorials are increasingly built for the sole purpose of political expansion. More worrying still, policy makers continue to enjoy a virtual monopoly on building monuments and erecting statues in public spaces.

In India, we have a history of constructing monuments of all sizes for promoting political interests. And, it’s despite a growing sense of remoteness and disenchantment with the mainstream political parties irrespective of ideology. It seems the colonial legacy left a lasting memory of the statue as an assertion of power and privilege.

While there are many cherished statues and memorials memorising heroic politicians, unforgettable political moments and historically significant events, there are also so many built as merely political projects. Hence, the country grappling with significant poverty and social problems but spending millions on such projects is bound to attract criticism and stir up controversies.

From the whopping Rs 2,990 crore Sardar Patel statue to the Rs. 2,800 crore Shivaji statue to elephant statues costing crores of rupees, to a proposed 2,000-acre grand Vishnu temple complex modelling Cambodia’s Angkor Vat temple; are all no less political projects aimed at garnering political dividends.

The question therefore, aptly raised is why government exchequer should suffer as policymakers splurge on political projects. Also, why should there be prioritisation of monument-funding over societal development.

Incidentally, people don’t raise objections to statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, APJ Abdul Kalam and J. R. D. Tata and a few others. Some time back when the museum dedicated to Shaheed Bhagat Singh was inaugurated at his ancestral village in Punjab, it won people’s wholehearted support. The nation also welcomed the proposal for naming newly-constructed Chandigarh International Airport after Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

Likewise, the unveiling of Sir Chhotu Ram’s (knighted in 1937 and popularly known as Deen Bandhu – messiah of the poor) statue recently in Haryana was hailed with great joy by the people particularly the peasant community.

However, such examples are few and far between. Country’s policymakers have seemingly taken note of Jean Sibelius’s words – “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”

Be that as it may, it’s high time for the country to set the statue/memorial building narrative right as there are instances of authorities taking measures to this effect elsewhere.

A year ago, the statue of Thomas Edison, holding an incandescent light bulb, replaced that of William Allen, an Ohio Democrat who served two terms in the US Senate and was elected governor.

It’s interesting to know how it happened. Ohio’s legislature decided to recall Allen’s statue and launched a state-wide campaign to pick a replacement. Although more than 90 candidates were proposed, eventually 10 finalists were selected and put to a public vote.

It’s not only Ohio where a politician’s statue has been replaced by one non-politician; it happened in other states like Alabama, Iowa and North Carolina too.

In San Francisco, the Public Safety and Neighbourhood Services Committee recently passed an ordinance to ensure more women statues to allow the city children see the accomplishments of great women alongside great men. The statue of late poet Maya Angelou is the first planned statue under the new rules to be installed by December 2020.

The following measures seem pertinent to usher in new statue/ memorial building culture as also reduce or eliminate political interventions in the process.

  • Memorial/statue construction, building renaming, and road renaming etc. to be brought onto the agenda of government to secure major changes to regulations. And, to do so, political parties in unison must support such an initiative; not waiting for an election to come along, but by engaging the stakeholders and advocating on their behalf.
  • To ensure a refreshing and progressive change, both the central government and the state governments/ local civic authorities should form committees comprising architects, historians, sociologists and artists from outside formal politics to decide on future statue/ memorial, evaluate existing ones and make a decision which statues should stay and which should go.
  • The Committees are to choose the geographical space (public park/place) in which statues are to be positioned and also decide on sculpture material and specifications.
  • The statues of political leaders are to be preferably erected within the premises of political parties’ offices.
  • To shake up statue politics, the country must have more and more statues of famous role models, ideally nonpartisan. For example, building a statue of G D Agarwal, the indefatigable save Ganga crusader, scientist and professor of IIT- Kanpur, who died recently following a fast unto death for a clean Ganga.
  • We must have a memorial in honour of national heroes who made supreme sacrifice for the country at every block/sub-division/district.

Sudha Murthy’s piece ‘A Wedding in Russia’ talked about marriages in Russia and how every married couple visits the nearest war memorial as a mark of gratitude to their forefathers who had sacrificed their lives in various wars Russia had fought. And also to remember they are living in a peaceful independent Russia because of their ancestor’s sacrifices.

Ms Murthy’s concluding sentence reads – “My eyes filled with tears at the thought and I wished we could learn a lesson from the Russians”.

While we should indeed learn a lesson from Russians, we should also bear in mind how cities like Ohio, Alabama, Iowa, North Carolina and San Francisco brought about the changes to ensure an improved and inspiring statue/memorial culture.

As democracy’s ultimate deciders we must raise a question: If they can, why can’t we? And country’s policymakers must answer the question as the inevitable result of question-dodging leads to further disillusionment with them.

The writers are respectively a social activist and a former General Manager, International Centre, Goa.