crimes against design
Statue of Unity
The $400 million, 600ft-high memorial to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is a poor way to honour a Gandhian freedom fighter – and an even poorer way to bring together a divided nation, writes Sonia Faleiro
A MONUMENT TO unity wouldn’t go amiss in India right now. Newspapers are awash with reports of mob lynchings and Amnesty International warns of a rising tide of hate crime again minorities that goes mostly unrecorded. WhatsApp, the messaging service that The Hindu newspaper grimly dubbed ‘India’s leading university’, enables fake news to spread uncontrolled and violent mobs to gather quickly.
And yet, when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Statue of Unity in the western state of Gujarat last October, so many people protested, and were then promptly arrested, that the local jails swelled.
The towering statue depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a freedom fighter who served as India’s first deputy prime minister from 1947 to 1950. In a dhoti with a shawl thrown over his shoulders and slippers on his feet, Patel stands benignly gazing over the Narmada River.
A statue of such a significant figure might have been expected to be welcomed. India boasts memorials to fellow independence leaders with proud histories of bringing people together. Raj Ghat in New Delhi, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, attracts visitors from all over the world, despite amounting to little more than a platform topped with an eternal flame. Barack Obama visited it twice as US president.
The understated Raj Ghat accurately represents the life and values of Gandhi. The simplicity of the memorial doesn’t so much elicit a reaction as encourage introspection. Visitors fold their hands and bow their heads as they encircle the monument in silence.
Pre-independence, Patel gave up a lucrative career as a barrister to work alongside Gandhi, whose humility and drive he found inspirational. So why was a Gandhian memorialised with a $400 million statue?
India, despite recent economic gains, remains very poor. Growth is
“In December, residents of nearby villages registered their protest by abducting a government official”
slowing and job numbers are down. What’s more, the statue was built on land appropriated from indigenous communities, who were promised financial compensation and jobs that some say have not been delivered.
Like the price tag, the size of the statue also runs contrary to Patel’s values. At 597ft, the Statue of Unity is more than four times as tall as the Statue of Liberty (from feet to torch). It can be seen from outer space, an Indian TV channel reported proudly.
The very tall, very expensive statue made so many people uncomfortable that it was inevitable that attention should shift to the man who had commissioned it – the prime minister. The official website promoting the statue features nearly 100 images of Modi touring the site, far outnumbering the images of Patel himself. Some people wondered if the statue wasn’t so much about Patel as about how Modi – recruited early on by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group modelled on European fascist ideology – wished to be perceived by the world.
In December, residents of nearby villages, who are still awaiting promised jobs, registered their protest by abducting a government official.
The Statue of Unity hasn’t lived up to its name, but that hasn’t dulled the excitement of members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party for monumental gestures. In Maharashtra, construction has begun on a statue of the warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, measuring nearly 700ft and costing upwards of $500 million. And in Uttar Pradesh – the northern state where living conditions are so poor they have been likened to living in a war zone – chief minister Yogi Adityanath has built six statues in two months. His pet project is a statue of the mythical Lord Ram. For those wondering how his constituents will react to the expenditure, Adityanath shrugged: ‘All seers and saints (are) with me.’
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