Home / Politics / Policy /  Why memorials and statues are so important to Dalits

New Delhi: Several parks and memorials built by former Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Mayawati as a tribute to Dalit icons such as B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram will now also host statues of other leaders, including those from upper castes. According to a 5 June report in The Indian Express, the UP government has decided to put up statues of 11th century king of Shravasti Raja Suheldev (an of other backward classes or OBC), Maharana Pratap and Prithviraj Chauhan (both upper castes), among others, inside and outside Lucknow’s Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal (Ambedkar Memorial).

Om Prakash Rajbhar, the state’s cabinet minister for backward classes welfare, was quoted in the Express report as saying: “We will install statues of all the great personalities who deserve honour, irrespective of their caste."

Vivek Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, says if the idea really is to create an egalitarian society, the approach of the government should be different. “Let every park and memorial of upper caste leader also house a Dalit and OBC icon. This is fascism to the hilt to dismantle the spaces of the subaltern classes…who have never had independent spaces of their own," Kumar says.

India has a history of constructing memorials and statues, as ways of recognizing and preserving political memories. These are reminders of important historical events or people, and are built to keep the past alive. In general, as Benedict Anderson, a scholar of Southeast Asia argues, “political symbols play a major part in the way a nation is depicted and fed into the imagination of its citizens." But while many of these are installed to create a public memory, there are some structures that transform into spaces of empowerment particularly when it concerns the underprivileged.

For instance, for the Dalits who have been subjugated in various forms, including spatial discrimination, installation of statues of leaders like Ambedkar represents their struggles for the symbolic appropriation of public spaces. These spaces are yet another way of self assertion on part of the Dalits.

French anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul in his 2006 paper Learning the use of symbolic means: Dalits, Ambedkar statues and the state in Uttar Pradesh, writes “In the context of poverty and illiteracy where they operate, such symbolic means have profound political implications, promoting ideals of citizenship and nationhood among the politically destitute where the state has partially failed," writes Jaoul. And that can be seen in how the Ambedkar statue stands as a major feature of the Dalit movement in the country today.

Walking through the Rasoolpur village in Bulandshahr district of UP, or in fact any village with a substantial Dalit population, it is common to sight an Ambedkar statue in every other corner, and his photographs in every household.

“These are the people who were devoid of cultural capital for thousands of years, whose struggles were never even recognized, whose stories and rightful contribution did not make it to the history books….their struggles need to be counted in the process of nation building. These memorials and statues are nothing but recreation of lost history, an attempt at resurrecting the struggles of these people," says Kumar.

With increased Dalit unity created around these symbols and a rising consciousness of constitutional rights among the unprivileged, assertion and political mobilization have also become stronger in the community. So, while for some these installations might be a way of keeping themselves and their leaders alive in public memory or honouring them, for Dalits, insertion of such memorials in public spaces and hence popular consciousness, is a way of showing they also belong.

The Ambedkar Memorial in Lucknow has a gigantic bronze statue of Ambedkar, seated the same way as the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Mayawati received a lot of criticism for this installation, with some, as Sambaiah Gundimeda in his book Dalit Politics in Contemporary India writes, even condemning the project as “Chamarisation" (as opposed to Sanskritization) of UP.

To be sure, it was the British who introduced the practice of building statues of political leaders at public sites. Then, it was statues of soldiers and civil servants of the British Raj. After Independence, statues of Mahatma Gandhi, regional figures of the Independence movement, as well as historical figures such as emperor Shivaji in Maharashtra, continued to be installed. However, the first official statue of Ambedkar, as quoted by Jaoul in his 2006 paper, was set up in what was then Bombay in 1962, at the Institute of Science crossing (the former provincial assembly). In 1966, another bronze statue of Ambedkar was set up in front of the national Parliament in New Delhi. The Ambedkar statue phenomenon literally mushroomed after the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition came to power in Uttar Pradesh in December 1993. It was 1994 that marked an unprecedented number of “Ambedkar statue incidents," as Jaoul notes in the paper.

In her book Memorial Mania, author Erika Doss explains why memorials of all kinds are flourishing in the US. She says, “The growing numbers of memorials represent heightened anxieties about who and what should be remembered in America. The passionate debates in which they are often embroiled represent efforts to harness those anxieties and particular narratives about the nation and its publics."

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