London's New Gandhi Statue Represents Everything Gandhi Opposed
Mahatma Gandhi, a man who dedicated his life to freeing India from the yoke of Westminster, is being put on a pedestal overlooking Parliament.
Tomorrow morning, a 9ft bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi – the iconic non-violent freedom fighter who led India's liberation from British rule – will be unveiled in Parliament Square.
It's a pretty big deal, with India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley joining Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, UK Indian Diaspora Champion Priti Patel, Lord Desai of the Gandhi Memorial Trust and Bollywood superstar Amitabh "The Big B" Bachchan getting together to make the most of the photo opportunity. However, it seems slightly perverse that Gandhi – a man who dedicated his life to freeing India from the yoke of Westminster – is being put on a pedestal overlooking Parliament.
So why is Gandhi joining statesmen including Churchill, Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela? And why now?
According to Jeremy Clarkson's mate David Cameron, the statue "will enrich the firm bond of friendship between the world's oldest democracy and its largest". However, it's more revealing that the statue was announced during Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague's high-profile trade visit to India in July of last year to brownnose India's new government and Prime Minister Modi, and to hustle for British businesses in India and Indian investment in Britain.
Osborne and Hague's editorial in the Times of India on the 7th of July last year makes no bones about it: "We want British firms who built the infrastructure for the London Olympics to help build the 100 new cities Prime Minister Modi is planning, our world-leading transport companies to help develop your new roads, railways and ports, and our defence and aerospace companies to help bring India more cutting-edge technology, skills and jobs."
Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi, a social activist, peace campaigner and author who runs the Gandhi Foundation in India, points out George Osborne announced the statue of the most celebrated advocate of non-violence resistance in history the day after a £250 million arms deal between India and Britain had been secured. "The chancellor made the announcement about Bapu-ji's [Bapu means father and Gandhi, as the father of independent India is often called Bapu-ji] statue when he came to sell weapons to India, which I find amusing and hypocritical," he says.
Tushar feels it's "false worship" to use his grandfather's image to symbolise a brave new world of corporate trade between Britain and India, particularly when Gandhi rejected British goods in favour of Indian goods and actively cultivated and championed traditional industries in rural India.
"This statue represents the development of the haves, it does not care for have-nots – trade represents one of the biggest differences we have in India between the haves and have-nots," explains Tushar.
Indeed, the Gandhi Statue charity reveals the majority of the £1 million funding for the statue came from corporate donors, including Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy (£200,000), Indian industrialist R Bajaj (£200,000), multi-billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal (£100,000) – whose Arcelor Mittal Orbit tower looms large in Stratford's Olympic Park – and UK businessmen Vivek Chadha (£100,000) and Rami Ranger (£100,000).
Considering that, after the unveiling, India's Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, will meet with George Osborne to discuss closer UK-India ties and, as well as meeting top business leaders and investors, it's apparent Gandhi is being cynically exploited. I repeatedly contacted the Department of Media, Culture and Sport press office for comment on the problematic nature of the Gandhi statue, but my phone calls and emails weren't returned.
"Gandhi would probably find it incongruous that there's a statue of him being erected in Parliament Square, although he did acknowledge parliament as the mother of all parliaments," observes William Rhind of Britain's Gandhi Foundation. "Hopefully it will help people focus on what he stood for – non violence and religious harmony. It's better than another statue of another general or military man."
There's also a stark contradiction with India's Hindu nationalist government making capital out of Gandhi and an inclusive, pluralistic attitude to religion when arson attacks on churches have dramatically escalated since the BJP came to power last summer, and this year a bridge was named after Gandhi's murderer, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.
"When it comes to religious harmony Modi didn't cover himself in glory with 2002's riots in Gujarat [1,000 people died, 25,000 were displaced – mostly Muslim – in Hindu-Muslim violence when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat], and I've read about the recent rise of forced conversions to Hinduism and talk of putting up statues in India celebrating Gandhi's murderer, Godse. At least India's a vibrant democracy where these things can be discussed – that is something Gandhi would be proud of," says Rhind.
Both Tushar and William take on Gandhi's principle of seeing the best in people or in a bad situation. For example, rather than being riled by seeing Gandhi share Parliament Square with his arch-nemesis Winston Churchill, Tushar is sanguine.
Churchill notoriously said of Gandhi: "It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir of type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the Vice-Regal Palace while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King."
Tushar's take is: "It's nice to have Bapu and Churchill facing off in front of Parliament, but I would have preferred if the statue Churchill had to stare at was of the 'half-naked fakir' as he contemptuously dismissed him, rather than the photos of Bapu on the steps of No.10 that have been used for the sculpture."
To paraphrase Churchill, it is alarming and nauseating to see an anti-colonial icon celebrated globally for non-violent resistance, tolerance, humanity, religious harmony and animal rights being re-appropriated and manipulated for cold, naked corporate money-making.
Tushar, however, is an optimist and looks for the positive. "I hope the statue will remind British MPs of their responsibilities to do what is right, not what is selfish," he says. "Hopefully the statue in such a prominent place is a reminder of the mistakes of the past and a lesson for the future – that's the only hope we can take from this statue."
When I remark to Tushar that he's a clearly a positive person to be able to see the silver lining, he says, laughing: "I think we have to clutch at straws."
He much prefers the Gandhi statue – sitting cross-legged, head bowed – we already have in Tavistock Square: "That is beautiful, it's been done in a very down-to-earth manner."
Unlike the £1 million 9ft, bronze statue that seems to stand for everything Gandhi stood against.
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