The consensus curse
There is a contradiction that runs through public history in India. On the one hand, there is intense interest in our past. To the point of vitriol and political posturing—and often beyond—there is tremendous interest in, say, the historical accuracy of period films, the comparative legacy of politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, the ‘who did what during the Freedom struggle’, Aryan migration, Mughal sentiments towards their Hindu subjects and so on.
And on the other hand, there is the pitiable state of India’s heritage and history sector. By which I mean our construction, management, promotion and monetization of monuments, museums and so on.
It is as if we care about our history only as long as there is contestation involved. The moment a historical issue has run out of political mileage, or is no longer a matter of dispute, it immediately falls off the radar. One might call this the consensus curse: that moment when a historical dispute achieves consensus, and moves from the newsroom, with an audience of outraged millions, to the reading room, to gather dust.
Perhaps this is best illustrated through the ongoing story of a major Indian monument project.
Last week, whilst preparing the playlist to accompany a 1990s-themed New Year’s Eve party, my music-streaming app suggested I queue up the ‘remixed’ Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram track from a Hindi film. Annoyed by that particular interpretation, I sought out and played an authentic rendition of Mahatma Gandhi’s bhajan.
Then, as one does when one has been drinking wine since breakfast, I began to think about two things. First, how profoundly interesting it was that Gandhi in his bhajan asks for the almighty to give all people wisdom. Not freedom, wealth, or happiness… but wisdom. How interesting.
And secondly, I wondered about the first few people who joined Gandhi on the Dandi March. Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram was the theme song of that iconic event in Indian history. I vaguely recalled that before the Salt March had transformed into a phenomenon of thousands, Gandhi had originally been accompanied by less than 100 marchers. Who were these people, I wondered, and what happened to them?
There were, I later found, 79 marchers who originally set out with Gandhi. It was a remarkably diverse group of people. There was a Nepali student named Mahadev Giri, a 25-year-old Gujarati named Haridas Muzumdar then studying sociology at the University of Wisconsin, and there was a Malayali agriculturist named Theverthundiyil Titus, from Maramon in erstwhile Travancore.
One thing led to the other and I eventually landed on the website of the National Salt Satyagraha Memorial project.
In 2005, to mark the 75th anniversary of the event, a Dandi Memorial Project was announced by the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The DandiMemorial.in website explained what followed: “A High Level Dandi Memorial Committee (HLDMC) was constituted under the leadership of Gopal Krishna Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma Gandhi, to oversee the project. IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Bombay was later assigned the task of conceptual design, coordination and implementation of the project.”
After an initial period of public sector sluggishness, of approximately eight years, work appeared to have picked up in earnest sometime in the latter half of 2013. Elaborate designs were prepared, and IIT, Bombay announced that it was conducting two sculpture workshops in November and December 2013. At these workshops, 40 sculptors from India and abroad worked on 81 life-sized bronze sculptures. Eventually, they were to be installed at the memorial in Dandi, to represent the original group of marchers.
Completed quickly, the sculptures were shipped to Dandi in 2014, even as the government mulled over funds for the project. (Approving a monument and approving funding for a monument are things that sound very similar but are actually completely different. Like butterfly and butter chicken.)
In April 2015, a full decade after the original proposal, The Times Of India reported that the Central government had sanctioned Rs84 crore for the project. Despite delays, the report said, the Dandi Memorial Committee “still expects to complete the project by December 2016”. In October 2015, The Indian Express reported that the project, now costing Rs200 crore, was nearing completion and would soon be open to the public. Everything seemed on track.
Except that nothing really was. Six months after that ‘opening soon’ report, in April 2016, The Times Of India had an extraordinary update from Vinay Mandir School in Dandi. The school, it said, was finding it increasingly bothersome to take care of the 40 or so statues left in a storeroom in the school compound for two years, wrapped in plastic.
Later, there were a few conflicting updates which give various dates for completion. Finally, last November, the Dandi Memorial Twitter handle posted pictures of engineers at the construction site. The site seems bare for now. But 12 years after its inception, there is now, at least, a site.
What can possibly be done to help speed up the process? And get the public to care for its speedy completion?
This writer has an idea. How about a new satire film about the Salt March? Where the original 79 marchers comprise all kinds of unsavoury types such as smugglers, black marketeers, intellectuals, feminists and non-vegetarians?
That should do the trick.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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