My Taiwanese friend Jing-Shiang Hwang drove me to Cihu Mausoleum, the Mausoleum of late President Chiang Kaishek, located in Taoyuan City of Daxi District, about 60 km south of Taipei. I was particularly amazed by the adjacent Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden. Approximately 150 Chiang Kai-shek statues, removed from different parts of Taiwan, were placed in the Garden, thus turning it into a nice place for tourists.
Many of Chiang Kai-shek’s 43,000 statues from parks, schools, universities, hospitals, military bases of Taiwan have been removed beginning 1999, under the influence of the pro-Taiwan independence movement. However, there were protests and opposition as well, mostly on the grounds of culture and history.
The history of removal of statues, however, is quite old. Between 876-670 B.C. in what is today Syria, archaeological records suggest deliberate statuetoppling happened with the change of dynastic regimes. Numerous statues have been vandalised or removed due to mass agitations in the recent past throughout the world.
Certainly not all of them got rehabilitation like Chiang’s statues. For example, the Taliban blew up and destroyed the one-and-a-half millennia-old iconic Buddha statues of Bamyan in 2001. Even if you were as powerful as Vladimir Lenin was, thousands of your statues can be vandalised and removed from different corners of the globe.
While the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered an outrage to bid “Good Bye” to Lenin, we must remember that was just a repeat of history – after the revolution of 1917, Russian civilians took part in the deconstruction of statues of Tsarist leaders. If you are as revered as Gandhiji is, critics can still describe you as a “racist against black Africans and a misogynist”, and try to remove your statues – be that from Carleton University in Ottawa, or University of Ghana, or at a public park near Sacramento in California.
And if you are a great social reformer, educationist, and an icon of Bengal’s renaissance like Vidyasagar, goons would still keep on beheading your statues times and again. Certainly, the values and outlook of society change dramatically. Thus, when you erect a statue of Christopher Columbus, you never know that people may at some time prefer to label him by the words “looter”, “murderer”, “rapist”, and “genocidal” rather than “discoverer of America”, and his statues would be removed from different parts of the continent he was said to have discovered.
The statues of Confederate generals in the US are seen as representing white-supremacists and are believed to memorialise a treasonous Confederate government whose founding principle was the perpetuation and expansion of slavery. However, these statues remained for years; public anger poured out when incidences like the Charleston church shooting happened in 2015, which got momentum after the Unite the Right rally against the removal of a Robert Edward Lee statue in Charlottesville in 2017, or the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis recently.
In South Africa, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement was targeted at the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist Prime Minister of South Africa, coloniser of Zimbabwe and Zambian territory, and diamond mine owner. Interestingly, in 2016, students at the Oxford Union voted in favour of removing the statue of Rhodes from Oxford University as well. However, the decision was reversed after “furious donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million” if it was removed.
Money matters! However, while Rhodes’ racist political views are well known, these statues were installed at a time when such views were celebrated. The broader question is: should history be erased this way? Celebrated historians such as Sir Roy Strong, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, believe that “Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing…The past is the past. You can’t rewrite history.”
But there are other views, for sure. For example, while removing statues of Robert E. Lee and three other Confederate- era figures from the University of Texas at Austin in August 2017, Greg Fenves, the president of the University, argued: “We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honour and celebrate on our campus.” You possibly can’t rewrite history, you can only create new history! But these are mere theories.
Were we not part of the mob vandalising the statue of another Diamond King (Hirak Raja) when we enjoyed Satyajit Ray’s movie ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’? Did we ever think whether the destruction of the statue was necessary or not when the king was being removed from the throne? So, no statue can be safe in the hands of the future. The social and political agenda of future people are unknown and unpredictable. Destruction of statues is deep rooted within our culture. Should we then stop erecting statues?
Or, should we fix a spot in a nearby dumping ground for any statue we want to erect now? However, whether that will be relocated to that dumping ground (‘murtir math’) or will be turned into pieces (‘raja hobe khankhan’) will again be subject to the mercy of the future.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)