The politics of public memorials

By taking the moral high ground on the Sardar Patel statue issue, the
Congress has conveniently forgotten that it was among the earliest to take
to statues in a big way.

Art has never been the objective of public statuary in India, but politics
is. State-sponsored memorials are unabashed political projects, and no
party is an exception to this practice. Hence, it is strange to see the
Congress party take the moral high ground and criticise Narendra Modi’s
proposal to build the statue of Sardar Patel, to be the tallest public
sculpture in the world, as political propaganda. Its own track record is
not any different. This episode also lays bare another entrenched
prejudice: the commemorative practices of regional parties such as the
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are often
derided as memorial mania, while that of the national parties are passed
off as honourable collective remembering. The Modi-Congress spat reiterates
the fact that no matter who had built it or what they are clad with, all
memorials are political spectacles.

Sardar patel

Sardar patel

Portrait figures in temples and other confined spaces were prevalent in
pre-colonial India, but installing statues of public figures in civic
spaces is largely a colonial legacy. The Congress has conveniently
forgotten that, after independence, it was among the earliest political
parties to take to statues in a big way. Nehru’s opposition to installing
Gandhiji’s statue inside Parliament is often cited as the Congress’s sober
approach to memorials. But the lesser known fact is that Nehru was
inconsistent in his position and participated in memorial projects. As
irony would have it, this became evident in Tamil Nadu, which is often
looked down upon as badlands of regional memorials.

*Kamaraj statues*

In 1961, Kamaraj, a prominent Congress leader and Chief Minister of Tamil
Nadu, consented to the city Corporation installing his statue in Madras.
The party and Kamaraj were not perturbed that they are self-sanctioning the
statue of a political person in his own lifetime and imposing it on the
city. They invited Nehru to sanctify the event and unveil the statue. Nehru
inaugurated and tried to justify it. He had come to honour “a dear friend
and colleague,” he said. “Kamaraj is a notable example of a real
representative of people with extraordinary capacity,” Nehru explained, and
implied he deserved a statue. When similar sentiments were echoed by the
DMK while unveiling statues of Annadurai, the founder leader, in 1967, it
was criticised.

What Nehru could not admit in public was that the influence of the Congress
was waning in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, and the meteoric rise of the DMK,
founded in 1949, was threatening its political future. The party resorted
to inscribing the cityscape with memorials as a part of its political
propaganda. When the DMK came to power in 1967, it lined up statues of its
own leaders on the same road where Kamaraj had his statue unveiled.

Later, inspired by the series of memorials along the Yamuna river, the DMK
expanded its commemorative project along the Marina beachfront, the most
popular civic space in the city. This scheme predictably left out Kamaraj
and other Congress affiliates. The peeved Congress party had to wait until
1976, when the Emergency was in force, to get another Kamaraj statue
installed on Marina beach.

*For ‘national’ leaders*

The Congress also favours another myth: the commemoration of “national”
leaders (read Congress leaders) had the full support of people. But history
has a different story to narrate. Efforts to mobilise a memorial fund for
Nehru after he died met with poor response. Karan Singh, Secretary of the
Nehru Memorial Trust in 1966 admitted that even two years since the
proposal was mooted, only Rs.1 crore was collected against the targeted
amount of Rs.20 crore. Even in States such as Maharashtra and Andhra
Pradesh where the Congress was a dominant political party, the collection
was pathetic. Maharashtra contributed Rs.17 lakh of the targeted Rs.2
crore; Andhra pitched in with only Rs.18 lakh instead of Rs.1.3 crore that
was expected of it, and Tamil Nadu contributed a meagre Rs.2 lakh instead
of Rs.1.5 crore assigned to it.

This, however, did not stop the Congress from taking up numerous memorial
projects for Nehru. When it did, not everyone welcomed it. When Jawahar
Jyoti, an eternal flame, was installed in Teen Murti House where Nehru
lived, and later converted into a museum, P. Rajeswara Rao, a reader from
Eluru wrote in *The Hindu *that it was a waste of money. Apart from
lamenting the frivolous use of precious fuel, he complained about the
wasteful employment of four persons to maintain it. He was “surprised and
even shocked” to see the manner in which such commemorations were carried
out. Similarly, people were critical of converting houses where Congress
leaders lived, including that of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Sastri, into a
memorial. Writing in *The Hindu*, in 1969, K. Ramaswamy, a reader from
Bombay, disapproved it as unnecessary “hero worship.”

*Sriperumbudur memorial*

Even as recently as in 1991, when the Congress government proposed a large
memorial for Rajiv Gandhi on a 12.19 acre piece of land belonging to a
temple in Sriperumbudur, it was met with resistance. The head of the
centuries old Vaishnavite Mutt, who was a flight lieutenant with the Indian
Air Force, opposed the memorial coming up on temple land. He said that the
structure would block the temple’s rituals, while renaming the town, as
Rajivpuram, would override local history and religious significance of the
place. The site of Rajiv’s “martyrdom” was too important for the party to
give up. The Congress, which was once reluctant to acquire Birla House to
commemorate Gandhiji’s death, managed the resistance and built the

*In Mumbai*

The Congress would try to defend its memorials as modest public gestures
and differentiate them from that of the monumental and propagating ones
such as the Modi’s statue project. But such arguments would not wash. The
Shiv Sena tried a similar strategy. After the Maharashtra government denied
it permission to build a memorial for Bal Thackeray in Shivaji Park in
Mumbai, it wanted to take over the Mahalaxmi Racecourse for this purpose.
It tried hard to disguise its intention as a call for creating public
space, but the government called the Shiv Sena’s bluff.

If there was any difference in commemorative practices, it would be, as
Erika Doss, the author of the book *Memorial Mania*, points out, only
materialistic: temporary or permanent. Otherwise, they are all in political



Why Congress should be worried by their lack of buzz on Twitter

With the Delhi assembly elections weeks away, we decided to dip a barometer into the social media world to gauge the political chatter. This is what we found!

From fuelling the Arab Spring to sparking protests in Kashmir to giving ordinary people a platform to vent their ire at everything from ill-treatment by airlines to leaders’ shenanigans, it is undeniable that social media has revolutionised the world.

So, with the Delhi assembly elections weeks away, we decided to dip a barometer into the social media world to gauge the political chatter.

We looked at re-tweets — a re-tweet is seen as an endorsement.

And we chose what you can call the twitterati — people who make an effort to be heard on Twitter; many are journalists and in that sense their influence may be disproportionate to their numbers.

We looked only at re-tweets from the Twitter ID of these personalities — such as Congress politicians (digvijaya_28, JhaSanjay, priyankac19, PMOIndia), Bharatiya Janata Party politicians (RajnathSingh, SushmaSwaraj, narendramodi, nitingadkari, VijayGoel), Aam Aadmi Party members (sanjayazadsln, ArvindKejriwal, AapYogendra), and high-profile journalists (KanchanGupta, swapan55, minhazmerchant, madhukishwar, sardesairajdeep, BDUTT, sagarikaghose, vikramchandra, AmolSharmaWsj, SachinKalbag, madversity, rahulkanwal).

We focused on re-tweets about topics that matter to Delhi-ites — such as elections, law and order, power cuts, women’s safety, corruption, inflation, unemployment, Lokpal, ordinance, Batla House, onions, Delhi, rapes, electricity, prices, cost, traffic, water, shortage, scarcity.

As you can see from re-tweets for six days ending October 30, the Delhi twitterati have overwhelmingly endorsed stuff from BJP and Aam Admi sources.

The official Congress sources and even the Prime Minister’s Office are soft voices, barely audible on these Delhi-centric topics.

In the coming days we will show you who the most active re-tweeters are for each party and what topics excite them to re-tweet to most.

A Rediff Labs Initiative