Statue-felling is, without a shred of doubt, a political act. The actors may or may not be affiliates of any specific political outfit, but the act does have political and ideological underpinnings. For instance, hundreds of Iraqis together felled Saddam Hussain’s statue after he was deposed, while millions of their fellow-countrymen cheered. Such acts may be spontaneous expressions, charged by the euphoria of feeling liberated from an oppressive regime or could even be democratically ushered in. For instance, students of Oriel College at the Oxford University wanted the statue of British imperialist and slave trader Cecil Rhodes taken down, though Rhodes had been a generous benefactor of the college. (The Rhodes Must Fall movement didn’t succeed, with the college administration deciding to keep his statue.) Memphis, Texas, though removed statues of the Confederate heroes after its city council voted to do so, given the Confederacy is historically linked to slavery in the United States. The short point is that statues, memorials, monuments are inextricably tied to politics and ideology. And so is razing or vandalising them. The recent felling of Lenin’s statue in Tripura, as well as subsequent vandalising of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Periyar and Syama Prasad Mukherjee statues in other states, should force India to think hard on what kind of political space it wants.
Lenin is decried as a “tyrant” and “representing a failed ideology”. Nevertheless, democracy-espousing Indian Left parties subscribe to the thoughts and writings of a pantheon of political and economic thinkers that includes Lenin. Felling statues is a zero-sum game—Mukherjee’s statue graced the Jadavpur University campus for many years under the Left Front rule in Bengal without being vandalised; within hours of the Tripura statue-razing, six Left-affiliated students defaced it. To be sure, there are instances in which statues, monuments and memorabilia have been destroyed to erase a painful past—the Allied forces did it as part of the de-Nazification of Germany. Choosing what to raze and what to leave to benign neglect is a tightrope that the Indian polity must walk. India must draw lessons from South Africa (SA). Gandhi may be revered by many in India and elsewhere, but remains a controversial figure in SA because he was quite openly racist in his early years—a stance he changed in later life. But, the father of South African independence, the late Nelson Mandela, openly admitted to being inspired by Gandhi. Consequently, SA still has more than one Gandhi Road and there are statues of his at Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg.