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Indian Idols

Our obsession with statues and cut-outs is a mark of a completely de-ideologised political universe, writes Sagarika Ghose.
None | By Sagarika Ghose
UPDATED ON JUN 10, 2008 10:27 PM IST

A courageous newspaper editor, whose commitment to his home state of Maharashtra has never been in doubt was attacked last week at his home by fellow Maharashtrians. His windows were broken, his doorway was tarred and stones were hurled into his rooms. All for writing an editorial suggesting that the glory of Maharashtra cannot be achieved by the proposed plan to build an expensive 309-foot tall statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea. Instead, the editor wrote, the government should provide jobs and alleviate farmers’ misery.

For writing this, Kumar Ketkar was attacked by thugs from a little known group called the Shiv Sangram Sangathan. Alas, Ketkar should have known better. He should have known that in India statues are holy cows to be worshipped. Ketkar was writing about life, but our politics is increasingly about death. Death that is celebrated, death that is as cold and as sterile, as a mere statue.

Two years ago an alleged drunk committed the cardinal sin of ‘defacing’ a statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Kanpur. Within hours, in faraway Maharashtra enraged Dalit groups killed three, torched two trains and created such mayhem across the state that about 100 were injured in police firing. Today, statues of Ambedkar, Mayawati and Kanshi Ram are prominent in rural UP and Lucknow. All over India there Gandhi statues, Nehru statues, many statues of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in Kolkata.

A close cousin of the statue is the gigantic cardboard cut-out. Once the famous cut-outs of M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu were examples of Tamil political hero-worship. But now the cut-out culture has spread to Mumbai where even corporators create massive cut-outs of themselves. Even in Delhi giant advertisements proclaim the ‘greatness’ of a leader. ‘Greatness’ measured not by any oratory or achievement but simply by the size of the cut-out and the size of the statue.

Attached to this cut-out and statue is a thuggish and unthinking cult of hero-worship. Worshippers at the feet of MGR cut-outs or the Shivaji statue may not know how exactly to spell the leader’s full name, may have never read the leader’s teachings. Yet they are prepared to kill to defend a statue.

Why are we Indians obsessed with statues? In Maharashtra, the Shivaji movement is political. There is intense competition at this moment to occupy the most chauvinistic political space. So while Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) targets north Indians and demands jobs for the marathi manoos, and the Sambaji Brigade vandalises a library because it contains a book that contains a passing reference to the parentage of Shivaji, this new attack on Ketkar for opposing the Shivaji statue, is yet another attempt by an ambitious political outfit to carve out a place for itself in politics and the media by screeching as loudly as it can about Maharastrian pride. Yet there are other deeper reasons why Indians are fanatical about statues.

Our obsession with statues is a mark of a completely de-ideologised political universe. When there are no new ideas, when there is no ideology to bind a group together then the only glue is the worship of an inanimate object of a past hero, exemplified in the statue. How many members of the Shiv Sangram have bothered to read about the life and thoughts of Shivaji? How many of them would start heritage campaigns to rescue Shivaji’s forts that are falling to rack and ruin? How many of those who burn trains in the name of an Ambedkar statue have bothered to read his famous attack on hero-worship: “India is still par excellence, the land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion, there is idolatry in politics. Heroes and hero-worship is a hard if unfortunate fact in India’s political life.” A hero-worshipping culture has no place for debate and dissent with past heroes.

A hero-worshipping culture will have to create a Shivaji cult if there are no inspiring figures today. The political defenders of statues will say that statues are needed to create political movements and that Ambedkar, after all, did not have to compete in elections. BSP activists will argue, perhaps with some justification, that if caste Hindus can create gigantic temples then why should the BSP too not build its own rival pantheon by building statues. They argue that in competitive politics, to weld a party together to create motivation, you need a statue as a unifying symbol.

Yet the statue remains a glaring representation of one sad fact: that a political movement has run out of fresh ideas and simply does not know how to solve the real problems. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may argue about how to fix the American economy and the healthcare system. But in India where there is no competing economic and social contest of ideas, what’s the best way to demonstrate commitment to the voters and exploit their attachment to their identity? Build a statue.

In the Hindu tradition, idols, as the greatest teachers have said, are always representations. They represent the divinity, they are not themselves divine. To transform an extraordinary mortal into a god, that is to convert Shivaji or Gandhi or Ambedkar into unquestionable divinity is also paradoxically to make them irrelevant, to freeze them as mummies, as dead objects, without letting them remain living breathing influences who must be debated, interrogated and internalised. The worst thing that ever happened to Bapu, complained Munnabhai to Circuit, is that they made him into a statue. We pay crores for statues, kill for statues, seek votes in the name of statues. But we have forgotten the living men and women who those statues are supposed to represent.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN.

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