The controversy over a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Manchester in northwest England is further confirmation of the official determination to redefine India. Gandhi had already been subjected to what the American scholar, Richard Fox, called “ideological hijacking” when Deen Dayal Upadhyaya borrowed terms like sarvodaya, swadeshi and gram swaraj for his political programme which the Jan Sangh adopted and is now the Bharatiya Janata Party’s creed. A nine-foot bronze Mahatma standing vigil outside Manchester’s Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George proclaims that a true Gandhian heart beats under Narendra Modi’s fancy waistcoats.
Actually, our rulers have in mind a triple identity. Ostentatious devotion to Lord Ram assures the gods that never mind the farmers’ suicides and the incarceration of dissenters in Kashmir, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi preside over a true “ram rajya”. A gigantic Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel promises strong governance, capitalistic opportunity and firmness towards Pakistan and its suspected fifth columnists in this country. Gandhi’s statue will proclaim benign inclusiveness even while barbaric lynchings and initiatives like the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill trim the idea of India to the logic of numbers.
Strictly speaking, the Manchester statue isn’t the BJP’s handiwork. Its sponsor is the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur, whose website sounds devotional to the point of idolatry of the folk Hinduism kind. Claiming that the statue — paid for by a Manchester-based Sindhi family selling fashion goods — is non-political, the mission calls it an expression of the “non-violence and compassion” that was also evident during Manchester’s deadly 2017 terrorist attack. But critics of the project accuse Gandhi of “anti-black racism and complicity in the British Empire’s actions in Africa”. They also say he is being “used as a propaganda tool to cover up human rights abuses by the current Indian government under Modi, which is engaging in an effort to erect Gandhi statues globally to create an image of India as an anti-imperialist state”.
This would bracket the statue with the obvious public relations exercise of the recent state-sponsored visit to Kashmir of 23 members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg while India’s own Opposition politicians are not allowed into the state. The hospitality paid off when the visitors obligingly agreed that the abrogation of Article 370 was an “internal” Indian matter. By blaming the crisis on “terrorism”, they also played down the political demand of several million Kashmiri Muslims to determine their future. People who thought Gandhi’s statue was “insulting towards the Kashmiri community” probably had in mind his support for India’s military resistance when Pakistan invaded Kashmir in 1947.
Many Gandhi statues abroad seem to be mired in controversy. The first one, planned appropriately enough for Bow in London’s poor East End where he stayed in 1931, didn’t materialise. Thirty-seven years later, then British PM Harold Wilson refused pleas to utter a single word for the record when Fredda Brilliant’s statue of a cross-legged Mahatma was unveiled in London’s Tavistock Square. Since non-resident Indians were not a factor in British politics then, it was assumed the Prime Minister felt anything he said would be wasted breath. Mary Wilson didn’t ingratiate herself with ethnic South Asian voters by flaunting a sari or salwar-kameez like Theresa May, Samantha Cameron, Sarah Brown and Cherie Blair.
As David Cameron’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, whom the wheel of political fortune has reduced to editing the Russian-owned free Evening Standard, described Philip Jackson’s bronze Gandhi outside the Houses of Parliament in London as “a lasting and fitting tribute to his memory in Britain”. But a chance conversation exposed the falsity of the claim. Some weeks after the installation, a prominent English life peer with an interest in Indian affairs and highly placed friends in New Delhi asked me at a dinner party in St. John’s Wood in London what I thought of “the Gandhi statue”. When I began to say it seemed too tall for the plinth, he cut in with “but Gandhi is sitting cross-legged!” He meant the old Tavistock Square figure. Neither he nor anyone else around that table had heard of Jackson’s bronze which Osborne had called “a permanent monument to our friendship with India”.
Gandhi’s comments on that supposed friendship were too enigmatic, woolly and contradictory to be convincing. Asked whether he believed in England’s good faith, he replied he had faith in England because he had faith in the human race. Although “bitten” many times, he “trusted” England and “expected” the English to “be converted one day”. Despite that feeble testament, the astute Gandhi must have known that the British connection will continue to flourish as long as Indians nurse worldly ambition and hanker for a slice of the pie of Western affluence and lifestyle. Of course, that has nothing to do with Gandhi. Nor was he responsible for a war-weary and bankrupt Britain’s decision to withdraw from an imperial rulership it could no longer sustain. But independence allowed Indians to invent a reason that reflected credit on the freedom movement and its stalwarts. It also enabled Britain to claim the dignity of surrendering to the apostle of peace. Gandhi and pacifism unwittingly provided convenient excuses and alibis all round.
They will continue to do so as more and more graven Mahatmas stride the world while the domestic economy flounders and India moves closer to the “Hindian” reality that Fox mentioned. He reasoned that the “Bharatiya” of M.S. Golwalkar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh patriarch, was a device to circumvent any explicit reference to “Hindu” and thereby avoid openly defying the official commitment to secularism. Combining “Hindu” and “Indian”, he translated “Bharatiya” as “Hindian”. The rendering would probably have been anathema to the Mahatma, whose Hinduism needed no disguise but didn’t seek to penalise anyone else either.