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The Politics of Falling Statues

2018: A statue of Lenin is demolished in Belonia, South Tripura
2003: US troops pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad
1991: A statue of Lenin is taken down in Vilnius, Lithuania
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India is not the only country where anger is vented at mute relics of history

IN THE HEADY days after the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was common for the Soviet politburo to hold long, often interminable, meetings to discuss pressing matters. In one such meeting, Lenin received a curious note that said: ‘have arrested 3,000 counter-revolutionaries. What should I do?’ The piece of paper was from Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, the newly-formed secret service. It is not clear what happened, but the note reached Dzerzhinsky scrawled with a red cross over it. Within no time, 3,000 counter-revolutionaries were executed. Later, Lenin clarified that that was not his intent and all he had meant to imply by the cross was that the note had been read. This story is possibly apocryphal. But in the ‘Red Terror’ that followed in the wake of 1917, thousands were killed on the mere suspicion of being against the Bolshevik regime.

By today’s standards, Lenin would be held guilty of mass murder. But that’s not how his Indian followers, especially those in Communist parties, think. The felling of his statue in Tripura’s Belonia town has provoked a series of protests that put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had just won power there, on the backfoot. So much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to take note.

Within days, a series of other statues and memorials put up in commemoration of leaders as diverse as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Periyar were vandalised across India. The chain of events within a span of just a couple of days is sufficiently complex to not draw any inference. But one thing is clear: it was tit-for-tat vandalism between followers of mutually opposed ideologies.

India is not the only country where anger is vented at mute relics of history. In the US, for example, a number of statues of confederate leaders who participated in the Civil War were removed last year. Notable among them was one of Robert E Lee at Charlottesville in Virgina. But unlike India, a healthy—if rather bitter—debate preceded the removal of these monuments. The debate was whether these memorials represented heritage or hate. There is, as Americans found, no easy way to resolve this simple-sounding question. To mostAfrican- Americans there, the answer is hate; to many Whites, that is not so. Ideally, the answer should be left to historians. But even that might be to assume too much: aren’t historians human, as liable to be swayed by emotions as others? This could perhaps be condoned, though at the cost of some degree of truth.

The events in India, however, put an entirely negative gloss on this matter. Vandalism is one thing, and it can never be justified. But historians taking ideological positions is far more dangerous. In the debates that have followed, historians of a particular hue came close to justifying Leninist ideology. India, as a country and as a place of origin of ideas, is so far removed from anything that Lenin did that it is natural to be surprised at the passion with which the Belonia incident was discussed. Worse, the debating class has ring-fenced itself with ideas that prevent any full discussion. To take an example, the mere mention of Mookerjee’s bust being vandalised along with that of Lenin is held as an example of ‘moral equivalence’, a liberal taboo that loosely amounts to barring a tit-for-tat (in discussion or action). It is not that conservatives like such argumentation: that would be abhorrent to any civilised order. What irks many Indians is the silence when leaders like Mookerjee are mentioned and the championing of the likes of Lenin. That too is a tit-for-tat, or at least an adulterated version of it.

These one-sided debates have everything to do with contemporary politics and one’s position along the political spectrum and virtually nothing to do with history. The danger here for establishment historians—or rather anti-establishment historians, now that the BJP is in power—is that by doing so, they abandon their discipline and turn into participants in the country’s political arena, a place not known for mercy.

So what should India do in such matters? At the very minimum, history should be left alone: there is no Left history or Right history, but just plain history, as Nirad Chaudhuri observed long ago. Trouble began when in Independent India history was pressed into the service of politics. The class of historians who are at the ‘commanding heights’ of the field continue to behave in a political manner. Until that ends, and the falsification of India’s past is stopped, statues will continue to be vandalised, shrill debates will get shriller, and a general distrust of historians will persist.