Talk

Statue of regulation

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on March 10, 2018
Past tense: Mahatma Gandhi’s statue will be removed from a University campus in Accra, Ghana, in response to a petition by Ghanaian professors. The petition called Gandhi a racist and cited several of his writings in which he called the natives “kaffirs”

Past tense: Mahatma Gandhi’s statue will be removed from a University campus in Accra, Ghana, in response to a petition by Ghanaian professors. The petition called Gandhi a racist and cited several of his writings in which he called the natives “kaffirs”   -  Gandhi Smriti

Ambarish Satwik

Ambarish Satwik

Damnation of history should be reserved for legacies, not statues on plinths or names of roads and universities

I know of at least one purabiya from Gorakhpur who spent three years studying history (quickening his faculties and confounding his tutors) in that old “city of aquatint”, Oxford. It was, according to him, one continuous sugar rush, brought on by the medieval quadrangles and libraries and grand cloisters and dinners and the forging of new friendships. All paid for with blood money from a hundred years ago. Awarded by a trust established in 1902 under the terms and conditions of the will of a genocidal Empire-builder, financier, diamond magnate, politician, land-grabber (by the time he was done, Britain controlled a million square miles of the African continent; some of it by gifting small-pox infected blankets to the Matabele) and Prime Minister of Cape Colony. Cecil John Rhodes is perhaps the only person in history to have two countries named after him: North and South Rhodesia. The Rhodes scholarships started off as ‘colonial scholarships’ for ‘young colonists’ to ‘instil into their minds the advantage to the colonies as well as to the United Kingdom of the retention of the Unity of the Empire’. Rhodes’s recurring wet dream was actually the enthronement of a racial imperialism, the making of the Anglo-Saxon race as the pre-eminent Empire. His will also bequeathed the sum of £100,000 to his alma mater Oriel College in Oxford, at a time when the income of the college was not more than £7,500 per annum. On the façade of Oriel’s Rhodes building is a statue of the man himself, with the inscription E LARGA MVNnIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES. By means of the generous munificence of Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes Must Fall, the protest movement, came to Oxford from the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. In March 2015, human faeces was hurled at the bronze statue of Rhodes in the UCT campus by students — descendants of those he’d called the most despicable specimens of human beings. Three days later, more than a thousand students occupied the courtyard, demanding the removal of the statue. For a month after this, the mass of students kept growing, drawn and magnetised by the singing of anti-apartheid songs, the beating of drums, and the al fresco lectures on apartheid history in the quad. The bronze Rhodes in UCT wasn’t a harmless object any more. It was consonant with the locus of Blacks in South Afrikan society 21 years after transition to democracy — Black landlessness, income inequality, deficiency of Black professors and administrators in universities. For the ontological reinstatement of Black Africans, Rhodes had to fall. On April 9, 2015, following a UCT council vote, the statue was amputated from its pedestal.

The movement metastasised to Oxford towards the end of 2015. According to its leaders, Rhodes has to fall from Oriel to decolonise education and the mind. The governing body of Oriel has refused to remove the statue after being warned by donors that endowments worth about £100 million might be withdrawn if Rhodes leaves the building.

The purpose of statuary is the commemoration of worthies. The making of totems out of people. As a first principle, the statue is a monument that is meant to survive the civic life of its milieu. So that it may go on reminding. Monere, the Latin root of monument, means to remind.

If the point of statues is to preserve the memory of a person, it might be useful to ask when is damnatio memoriae, the damnation or condemnation of memory, a good thing? How execrable should the subject be to qualify for damnation? How necessarily banal (and flagrant) must their cache of vileness be? Can this be offset by redemptive traits? What form should this obliteration take? And who is to be the arbiter of that?

Rhodes Must Fall wrenches its own levers of tribalism and pride. Like any other enactment of iconoclasm, it seeks the advancement of a political agenda. Which makes it essential to pose the corollary question: when is one entitled to feel historical pain? When is it just the narcissism of minor differences? Also, while we’re at it, when should we be year-zeroing history?

Would the persecution of Hindus under Aurangzeb qualify? The razing of at least a few dozen temples is a matter of historical record. As is the reimposition of the jizyah, the tax for being non-Muslim. The following is an extract from Audrey Truschke’s monograph on Aurangzeb: “It is not difficult to identify specific actions taken by Aurangzeb that fail to meet modern democratic, egalitarian, and human rights standards. Aurangzeb’s ideas about violence, state authority, and everything else were conditioned by the time and place in which he lived. It makes little sense to assess the past by contemporary criteria.” That there is undeniable truth to this is hard to dispute, but would an equivalent apologia for Rhodes pass muster at the Oxford Union debate?

At the height of the UCT protests in Cape Town, the South African writer Veli Mbele wrote a blistering piece on why Rhodes must fall. He ended his argument thus: “The liberal establishment wants Blacks to believe that the statue of Rhodes is just a harmless object... It is not for whites to decide whether or not the statue of Rhodes poses any harm to Blacks. This is exclusively a Black matter.” By that reckoning, who gets to decide if the memory of Tipu Sultan is benign for the Christians of Mangalore and the Mandyam Iyengars? If confederate statues in New Orleans remind African-Americans that their ancestors used to be property, what is the statue of Robert Clive in Whitehall supposed to signal to desis? And Manu’s statue in the Rajasthan High Court?

A bust of the Marathi playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari in Pune was recently vandalised by the Sambhaji Brigade and thrown into River Mutha because it was considered an affront to Maratha pride. Gandhi’s statue will be removed from a University campus in Accra, Ghana, in response to a petition by Ghanaian professors. The petition called Gandhi a racist and cited several of his writings in which he called the natives “kaffirs” and considered Indians “infinitely superior” to them. The petition stated: “We can do the honourable thing by pulling down the statue. It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a Eurasian superpower. Some harm has already been done by erecting the statue. We have failed the generation that looks up to us, namely our students.”

Pride, dignity, historical grievance are unknown quantities. They are the flint for revolutions. For intemperate tribalism as well, that has a tendency of swelling into sectarianism. With the possible exception of the white heat of ferments and revolutions, or unless sanctioned by a republic’s common conscience, I submit that dead people should be left alone. Damnation must come not upon the memory of Rhodes, but his legacy. Statues on plinths and names on streets and universities are reminders that we live our national lives in museums of history.

It might be said that the Gorakhpur purabiya got to St Peter’s, Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship in spite of Rhodes and his ilk.

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer; asatwik@gmail.com

Published on March 10, 2017

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