By Aijaz Zaka Syed
What’s with this obsession of powerful men with grand monuments? The biggest, largest and tallest…the more insecure a leader, the more grandiloquent is his vision of his legacy. Perhaps Freud could explain the psychological causes behind these magnificent obsessions and preoccupation with size.
So Egypt’s pyramids had been more than mere last abodes of pharaohs and other members of the ruling class; they were the ultimate symbols of power and glory of a disappearing order that was supposed to inspire awe even in death. The grand mausoleums of Muslim monarchs like the iconic one belonging to emperor Humayun in Delhi and magnificent seven tombs of Qutub Shahi dynasty in Hyderabad probably fall in the same category.
The Taj Mahal, the ultimate monument to love, is also a mausoleum and houses the remains of Shah Jahan’s beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. The Mughal emperor who also built Delhi’s majestic Jama Masjid and the Red Fort and went nearly crazy pining for his late wife was finally buried next to his love.
Matinee idol NT Rama Rao, who swept to power riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, had had his share of obsessions. He had 33 statues of various historical figures and some obscure men and women from Telugu history erected along the picturesque Hussainsagar Lake in Hyderabad. Except for poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Nizam Mehboob Ali Khan and Qutub Shahi King Tana Shah, none of them had anything to do with Hyderabad or its grand past.
NTR is also remembered for the massive statue of Buddha, carved out of a single monolithic rock, that he had erected in the middle of the lake at a huge cost to the exchequer and environment. He came up with the idea of a giant Buddha statue, again touted as the tallest in the world, after a visit to New York’s Statue of Liberty.
Statue of Sardar Patel
The gigantic statue of Sardar Patel that Narendra Modi has had built at a staggering cost of Rs.3500cr ($500 million dollars) is also said to have been inspired by the Lady Liberty. Modi’s ‘statue of unity’ at 182 metres is twice the size of the US icon (93 metres).
However, unlike the most popular American icon celebrating the ideals of freedom and democracy and offering refuge to the poor, wretched and rejected lot of humanity, this monument is nothing but a celebration of Modi’s own vanity and an inflated vision of his legacy. Indeed, a number of things about the Patel statue just do not make any sense.
First, the first home minister of India was a Congress leader. Indeed, he was Prime Minister Nehru’s deputy. Secondly, unlike Modi, Patel was not a member of the RSS, the mother ship of the BJP. Indeed, he had actually banned the extremist Hindu organisation after one of its members Nathuram Godse shot dead Gandhi. The ban was lifted only after the RSS promised in writing to stay away from politics.
Thirdly, if anyone needed to be honoured with the world’s tallest statue, shouldn’t it be Mahatma Gandhi, the undisputed leader of India’s Independence movement and the global icon of peace and nonviolence? He is feted as the Father of the nation. Virtually every Indian city has a street named after Gandhi, not to mention tens of thousands of Gandhi statues.
Other freedom fighters
While there had been a number of formidable leaders like Dadabhai Nauroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (both patrons of Mohammed Ali Jinnah), Mohammed Ali Jauhar and Tilak leading the freedom struggle before Gandhi appeared on the scene, it was the Mahatma who helped it capture the people’s imagination, turning it into a mass movement. Eventually, he gave his life for national unity and Hindu-Muslim peace.
And what about Nehru, the first PM and the architect of modern India? Having led India for the first 14 years after independence, it was Nehru, who literally built the country with the help of friends and fellow travellers like Maulana Azad, creating world-class institutions.
Of course, Nehru had had his share of warts and all. But it was thanks chiefly to his inclusive vision and progressive leadership that India is today acknowledged as the world’s largest democracy with strong democratic institutions, a free media and independent judiciary. It was thanks to Nehru’s leadership that India adopted a fine, liberal constitution, drafted by Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar, that promises democracy, freedom and equal rights to all.
So after Gandhi if anyone deserves this monumental tribute, it is Nehru. Why are the Sangh members then falling over themselves to hail Patel as the greatest national icon — someone who actually banned them and held their politics of hate responsible for Gandhi’s assassination?
But then this had never really been about celebrating Patel but undermining Nehru and the idea of a secular, democratic and inclusive India that he represents. Besides, having totally stood out and boycotted the freedom movement, they desperately need to usurp and appropriate the icons of the very party that they want India rid of.
From Gandhi and Patel to Ambedkar and Bose, the Parivar has been brazenly hijacking the national icons who had nothing to do with Hindutva and indeed abhorred its divisive worldview. But then, as Salil Tripathi puts it, the BJP doesn’t really have a choice. The men that the RSS looks up to are not considered heroes by the majority of Indians!
In the words of Prof M Sajjad of Aligarh Muslim University, “Hindutva’s urge for persecuting minorities and this whole politics of brazenly opportunistic appropriation of certain makers of modern India are closely interlinked. This is basically aimed at dwarfing and vilifying Nehruvian ideals. Nehru’s leadership is seen by Hindutva forces as the one which did not let them have their Hindu Raj.”
By the way, everyone must read this brilliant piece in the Times of India by Swaminathan A Aiyar. “His (Patel’s) birthday is now celebrated as National Unity Day. Paeans of praise have been heaped on Patel. I, however, view him as a flawed hero. He was a great Independence leader. Yet his anniversary is an occasion to remember his failures as well as successes,” writes Aiyar before dismantling the icon celebrated as India’s Iron Man.
Aiyar holds Patel, along with Nehru, squarely responsible for failing to work with the Muslim League (as part of the Congress-League coalition government) which eventually led to the Partition and the killing of at least a million people. He tears into Patel also for the godawful mess in Kashmir: “Had Kashmir joined Pakistan, the human and financial cost of India-Pakistan wars and unending border clashes would have been a tiny fraction of actual outcomes. Most Indians think getting Kashmir was a great achievement of Patel. But today Kashmiris mostly hate India, and are in open revolt. This is not the Great Unity that Patel is credited with.”
Amid all this brouhaha, what few pay attention to is the great humanitarian tragedy of the thousands of poor farmers and tribals, India’s most marginalised communities, who have been deprived of their homes and livelihoods thanks to this ambitious project. Hundreds of victims silently protested in the run-up to the unveiling of the monument but few in India’s toady media bothered or dared to report it. No compensation, if any, can bring back what they have lost for one man’s delusions of grandeur.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @AijazZaka