Efforts to instal statues of Indian icons in Britain have often been controversial, and the move to instal Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square here in early 2015 has also attracted its fair share of criticism, including from people of Indian origin.
The Gandhi statue plan was announced with much fanfare in India in July during the visit of Chancellor George Osborne and the former Foreign secretary William Hague.
Amidst indications of low enthusiasm in the Indian community to donate funds for the Gandhi statue, the David Cameron government is said to be keen that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates it early next year. However, Modi is said to be unlikely to oblige, given the political implications of the gesture before the May 2015 elections in Britain.
Opposition to the statue is based not only on Gandhi’s controversial life but also on money for it being raised from public subscription instead of it being funded by the Cameron government.
London-based historian Kusoom Vadgama launched a petition against the statue on the ground that Gandhi allegedly ‘dishonoured women’, while Dalit and Sikh activists accused him of discriminating on the basis of the Hindu caste system.
A trust has been formed to collect donations to pay for the statue. A planning application has been submitted by the trust to the Westminster City Council to instal the statue, to be produced by prominent sculptor Philip Jackson.
Prominent industrialist Swraj Paul told the House of Lords last week: “Initially the Indian people were delighted by this generous gesture, but I am afraid that a degree of doubt has crept in because the funds are going to be raised by public subscription”.
He added: “The Chancellor himself has said that the British economy is in great shape, so I find it rather surprising that Her Majesty’s Government are unable to fund this modest project”.
There was much opposition when Gandhi’s statue was installed by the Labour government in 2009 in Leicester, a town with a large minority of people of Indian and Gujarat origin. Rammohun Roy’s statue in the Bristol city centre in 1997 also faced much local opposition.
British politicians and commentators have also attacked the move. Some believe that the statue is a ‘cheap and cynical stunt’ to buy favours with New Delhi at a time when Britain is desperately trying to sell arms to India.
Former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott called it a ‘statue for arms’ scandal, dubbing it a move to ‘trade off an arms deal with the statue of a man who typified peaceful protest goes against all that he believed in’.
Gandhi’s statue would be inappropriate in Parliament Square, some believe, because he was never a parliamentarian; instead, they say a more suitable choice would have been Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian origin MP elected to British Parliament in 1892.
When installed in Parliament Square, it will be Gandhi's second statue in London; the first was installed in Tavistock Square in 1968.