Two statues of Indian icons – Gandhi’s in Leicester in 2009 and Rammohun Roy’s in Bristol in 1997 – were installed amidst much opposition from several quarters, and now the row is being repeated over plans to instal another Gandhi statue in Parliament Square in London in January 2015.
The plans were announced during the July visit to India by chancellor George Osborne and the former Foreign secretary, William Hague. The statue is to be produced by leading sculptor Philip Jackson, funded by a trust formed for the purpose, and some hope it will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But the plans have evoked strong reactions on two counts: for seeking to immortalise the man of peace when ministers go to India with arms dealers seeking major contracts, and for honouring someone who had opposed the British empire. Instead of Gandhi, many want a more appropriate British figure in history to be so be honoured.
John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, wrote: “The Prime Minister visited India last year with a group of ­businessmen and arms dealers. The visit was typically unsuccessful. The helicopter order they were angling for went to the French – and bumbling toff Cameron caused grave offence by denying visas to Indian students”.
“Three weeks ago the Chancellor George Osborne visited India with another group of arms dealers and offered to put a statue of Gandhi in Parliament Square. To trade off an arms deal with a statue of a man who typified peaceful protest goes against all he believed in”.
Trenchant criticism of the Gandhi statue plan is evident in thousands of responses from readers on news websites, epitomised by the Daily Mail, which provokes and reflects the passions and prejudices of ‘Middle England’.
“My question is why do we have to have a statue of Ghandi then there are hundreds of British citizens that are worthy of this honour. It's purely a political stunt”, wrote a reader, reflecting thousands of similar posts.
Wrote columnist Stephen Glover: “(I) take the view that the statue is a cheap and cynical stunt by ministers with scant knowledge of history, whose only interest lies in greasing up to modern Indian politicians. With little or no dignity, they shamelessly prostrate themselves in the most craven way”.
Similar strong reactions were expressed when the Gandhi statue was installed in Leicester, funded by charity organisation Samanwaya Parivar following a two-year campaign, and also when Roy’s statue funded by the Indian government was installed in Bristol in 1997, the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.
Announcing the statue plan, Osborne had said in Delhi: “As the father of the largest democracy in the world, it’s time for Gandhi to take his place in front of the mother of Parliaments. He is a figure of inspiration, not just in Britain and India, but around the world”.
The first Gandhi statue in Britain was installed in Tavistock Square in London in 1968. A Gandhi bust sculpted by Gautam Pal was installed in the Nottingham City Council Hall in January 2002. Rammohun Roy’s bust by Niranjan Sarkar was installed in the Bristol City Council office in 1995.