How wonderful it is to harbour ambitions to build edifices taller, bigger, better than the Statue of Liberty. But has the irony of the fact that Lady Liberty represents welcoming freedom to struggling immigrants escaped our elected representatives in Maharashtra?
The Maharashtra government’s grand plans to construct a 309ft-high statue of the state’s most iconic figure, Chhatrapati Shivaji, in the Arabian Sea will cost taxpayers Rs100 crore, probably more. For that price we will have a statue in the sea that is taller than even the Statue of Liberty. Imagine that!
It’s a colossal plan in hubris. Statues are symbols that represent a value system. When you construct a mammoth statue of a man who is without doubt the state’s most iconic figure, regardless of cost, regardless of ongoing farmer suicides, regardless of malnutrition deaths and regardless of pathetic infrastructure, you are sending out a message: This is a government that stands for cosmetic change; if it cannot rival the infrastructure and liberalism of New York, it can at least have a statue that is taller than its most enduring symbol.
Maharashtra goes to the polls next year. For years, Shivaji has been appropriated by the Shiv Sena party—Maharashtra’s principal opposition party—that makes divisiveness and parochial pride its chief plank. Now, Bal Thackeray’s rebellious nephew, Raj Thackeray, has taken up that clarion call, decrying “outsiders”, reaffirming that Maharashtra and Mumbai is for the “Marathi manoos” and deriding strange north Indian festivals and customs. For his pains, he has become a national figure.
For the ruling Congress-National Congress Party (NCP) combine, a reversal of this sentiment would be no small achievement. But more, it seems to have decided that Shivaji is not the personal domain of the Shiv Sena or Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Worse, are the NCP’s supporters subscribing to the sort of hooliganism that the Shiv Sena has been notorious for? On 5 June, a mob led by the pro-NCP Shivsangram Sanghatana attacked the house of Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar. Ketkar’s crime? He had written an editorial criticizing the plans to install the statue.
Ironically, the home ministry is held by the NCP and, despite being warned in advance by Ketkar’s assistant, the police arrived at the scene 40 minutes after the mob had begun its rampage.
So, what would the new colossus, the Shivaji statue, stand for? In Mumbai there is no shortage of monuments and statues that honour the Maratha warrior king, from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly known as the Victoria Terminus) to the international airport, from the museum once known as the Prince of Wales Museum to a magnificent statue adjoining the Gateway of India.
For years, Mumbai was known as the “Manhattan of India”. Dreams of building a world-class metropolis were reiterated in 2004 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Mumbai would be transformed into another Shanghai by 2010 as part of a larger plan for urban renewal.
Nothing of the sort has happened. Nearly 60% of the city’s 16 million people continue to live in slums. The monsoon has just hit the city, flooding has begun—and if the pattern of the past few years is consistent—a significant part of Mumbai will go under water, stranding commuters and bringing life to a standstill. In 2005, nearly 500 people died in floods and landslides caused by the rain and an unprepared administration.
So forget about “world-class”, for the majority of its citizens, Mumbai is barely liveable.
But why single out Maharashtra? What Shivaji is to Maharashtra, B.R. Ambedkar is to Uttar Pradesh (or Ram Manohar Lohia, when Mulayam Singh Yadav is in power). Now, after a spree of installing Ambedkar statues, chief minister Mayawati has commissioned several statues of herself. She’s a difficult customer to please: less than 45 days after her statue (and three others, Kanshi Ram, Ambedkar and Ambedkar’s wife, Rama Bai) was installed in Lucknow’s posh Gomti Nagar in April, our behenji with prime ministerial ambitions ordered it to be pulled down: apparently she thought it was too small.
India’s statue-building spree is nothing if not ambitious. In New Delhi, towering statues of Hanuman and Shiva dot the landscape, testimony to the power and faith of the Capital’s nouveau riche.
In Bodhgaya, engineers from the UK are helping to build the world’s tallest statue, a 500ft-high Buddha which is being funded by an international consortium. But unlike the edifices to political luminaries, these are built with private money.
The Congress-NCP’s joint manifesto presented to the people four years ago had promised to build an “international class memorial in honour of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea on the lines of Vivekanand Smarak at Kanyakumari”.
But the manifesto also promises to “target 100% literacy” and come up with a “time-bound plan to prevent infant and malnutrition deaths, specially in tribal areas”.
Here’s my suggestion: let’s declare a moratorium on statue-building for the next 10 years. Let’s instead build schools, hospitals, bridges and roads and name these after people whose legacy we wish to honour and emulate.
Statues, big and small, can wait for another day.
(Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org)