The present is always informed by the past
William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is because it seeps into our present, informs it, even has a bearing on our future. The past cannot be wished away; neither can it be denied. Which is why destroying statues — which has been happening across the country and across political divides over the past few days — that are signifiers of a certain kind of past is an exercise in futility. It amounts to tokenism. Besides, it is the sort of tokenism we can do without.
Erasing the legacy of leaders by removing references to them and destroying their statues started in ancient times. The Emperor Domitian was, after his death, sentenced to what was described as a condemnation of memory. The rulers who followed Tutankhamen tried to erase his name from all public records and the results are there for all to see even today. He is perhaps the most visible Pharoah of all time. A change in government or a revolution is followed by some amount of iconoclasm. Reminders of a previous political regime are often targets of vengeance. Those who attack statues or other symbols which they consider as belonging to the defeated rival often do so because they are fairly confident that there will be no repercussions. But such symbols of the past should be seen for what they are: a reflection of an ideology which was once powerful but is no longer so, an ideology or thought which is no longer threatening in the manner in which it used to be.
All societies will benefit in some way or the other from certain segments of history, even those which are considered repugnant or controversial. Destroying a statue amounts to diminishing cultural history. The significance of a statue should be seen in the larger context of the history of a society. We in India who celebrate our diversity should understand that to oppose an ideology, one must take it on from a position of knowledge, not engage in vandalism. We cannot give in to cultural amnesia the way we have gone about renaming roads and buildings in order to erase a past we can never really get away from. As Confucius said, “Study the past if you would define the future.”