By Devesh Narayanan:
The recent unveiling of a 9ft bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi in London’s Parliament Square marks 100 years since Gandhi returned from South Africa to lead India’s struggle for independence. As Prime Minister David Cameron puts it, “This statue is a magnificent tribute to one of the most towering figures in the history of world politics and by putting Mahatma Gandhi in this famous square we are giving him an eternal home in our country.” At first glance, it sounds like a loving and magnanimous gesture to reconcile differences and honour the very man who led one of the greatest opposition struggles against the British Empire. However, ‘The father of our nation’ has been reported to have some unkind words for the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ i.e. The British Parliament, dismissing it with his distinctive brand of misogyny as a “prostitute” and a “sterile woman”. Doesn’t it make little sense to immortalize the man in a place he would prefer not to be in?
There are many people who believe that this move was long overdue. Mahatma Gandhi has always been revered as a symbol of non-violence and peace, and there could be no better time to spread his teachings, when the World is so fraught with conflict. Some people even see the move as a symbolic maturation of a country that is putting its colonizing days behind them, to embrace their former ‘enemy’ and the strong message of peace and harmony that he represents.
Yet the opponents to this move far outnumber the proponents. Their dissent stems from two main arguments that were convincing enough to make me believe that perhaps the erection of this statue wasn’t the best idea after all.
The first argument is perhaps the most vehement, which challenges the saint-like portrayal of Gandhi. Personally, given how history lessons in school have always sung Gandhi’s praises, I’ve always revered him to be a pioneer that led a unique struggle using methods that were way ahead of his time. When stories came about that cast aspersions on his morality and character, I blatantly dismissed them as conspiracy theories. Yet as the stories became more detailed, and evidence started to sprout up, it became increasingly harder to maintain the image of Gandhi as the epitome of human attainment.
I have tremendous respect for the man’s work, so it pains me to consider the possibility that he might have actually been unethical, narrow-minded, racist and pedophilic. I do not wish to comment on the verity of those stories. That he slept with naked nubile women to test his celibacy. That he advised against small-pox vaccinations because of his own orthodox beliefs. That he was a vocal supporter of the discriminatory caste system. And that he ignored the prospects of a Japanese massacre in his blinding passion to get the British out of India, thereby suggesting policies that were against the interests of his own people. Documented evidence crops up every now and then, threatening to dethrone my childhood hero. All I can say is that if these stories are true, no amount of great work could possibly account for these outrageous deficiencies, and that he truly wouldn’t deserve this great honour that is being bestowed upon him.
The second argument revolves around the political motivation behind the move. The announcement of this statue was made a day after George Osborne confirmed a £250 million deal for British manufacturers to provide missiles for the Indian air force. Truly, what a crass link with Gandhi! It is appalling to trade off an arms deal with the statue of a man who embodies peace. Accusations are rampant about this move being purely a political stunt. Notable columnist Stephen Glover was quoted as saying, “(I) take the view that the statue is a cheap and cynical stunt by ministers with scant knowledge of history, whose only interest lies in greasing up to modern Indian politicians. With little or no dignity, they shamelessly prostrate themselves in the most craven way”.
There is much ambiguity about the character of Mahatma Gandhi. But even with the lack of a clear picture, it is safe to assume that he is not the saint the world believes him to be. But then again, the same could be said about the other dignitaries he now shares space with, in the Parliament Square. Perhaps the statue is symbolic of a ‘historical amnesia’, wherein the British Government is merely seeking to bask in the reflected glory of a universally renowned figure without fully understanding the true nature of their symbol. However, I believe that a 9ft tall piece of bronze should never be symbolic enough to trigger off international debate and agitation on such a scale. Maybe the statue should have never been erected, but now that it has, it’s time to move on. I feel that we still have much to learn about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and while we should never stop looking for answers, perhaps the whole issue of this statue is a pointless discussion. We have more pressing problems to solve.
Also read: Confessions Of A Gandhi-Hater