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Business News/ Opinion / The politics of building memorials in India

The politics of building memorials in India

Great leaders should live in the actions of a country and not in monuments

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The communist states of the 20th century had a tradition of making statues of dead leaders and placing them in virtually every city of their empires. These statues would often be built in way out of human proportions, an effort to make them look divine. Instead they amplified the tyranny these figures represented. From mountains to parks to forests, none were immune from this memorializing drive.

In its own way, India is emulating all this. How India, a democracy, acquired this habit is a story in itself.

The latest example is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s plan to create a memorial for the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, the prime minister under whose watch economic reforms were effected in 1991. The political motivation in this is evident from two facts. One, Rao, a Congressman, is a person whose legacy his parent party, the Congress, is rather shy to accept. Two, the national memorial space, so to speak, is a patch on the Yamuna waterfront in New Delhi where there is little room for ordinary Indians, however great their achievements may be. It requires special political will—often from the highest quarters in the Union government—to reserve a place for anyone in this already cramped space.

So there must be a special reason for the government to take this step. It is not hard to fathom one. Just as it is building a huge statue for Vallabhbhai Patel, the Congressman who was independent India’s first home minister, so it is with Rao. The politics of it becomes obvious when one understands that these two leaders were great figures in their own right but they were not members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The BJP government is appropriating these leaders who have been ignored by the Congress. The memorials may be an effort to keep the memory of these leaders alive but they are also meant to embarrass the Congress party, a partisan end.

Is this a bad thing? The answer is complicated but a simple version will run like this. In a democracy, political memory—and the building of memorials and monuments is a part of that—should rest with citizens and not governments. This has never been observed by any party. From the building of Shantivan—the monument to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru—until now, all such steps have been political. In no other democracy to which India can be rightly compared is this trend observed. It is tyrants whose memory has to be enforced on a hapless people; forced memory is alien to democracy.

Having said that, it is also important that one remember who began it all. It was the Congress party that started the practice. Other parties seeking space for memorials—be it the followers of Charan Singh or Rao now—are reacting to that original bad decision. That is the extent to which this practice can be absolved.

This, however, is not a good reason to continue the practice. One can understand the statue for Patel. He was, after all, the unifier of India and the statue in his memory comes almost 64 years after he died, a period of time in which historic memory has replaced more partisan political thoughts, if there were any. But that is where all this should end for now. If, in the future, citizens want to honour a leader, then it should be up to them and not any government.

Having said that, one should be clear that Rao was indeed a great prime minister. He steered India through one of its toughest economic and political patches after 1947. He was also the first non-Nehru-Gandhi leader to complete five years as prime minister. His sin was that he allegedly undid the legacy of another famous prime minister belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Rao does not need artificial memorials for being remembered, history books are sufficient for that task.

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Published: 02 Apr 2015, 09:57 PM IST
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