The unmaking of a hero

Omair Ahmad | Updated on May 15, 2020

Opposites attract: Édouard Manet’s painting The Execution of Emperor Maximilian depicts the death of an Austrian aristocrat who had republican leanings   -  IMAGE WIKIPEDIA

Heroes aren’t enough to bring in change; you also need people to accept and be the change

In the last column, I wrote about a painting by Édouard Manet titled The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. It is, actually, a series of paintings. The one I have seen is on display at The National Gallery, London, and it is striking for many reasons, not the least because the canvas was cut up and reassembled. This made me curious about the painter and the subject, even though my knowledge of art is little and I visited the gallery chiefly because entry was free.

As its public library, the internet was free too, for slots of half an hour, and it told me a bit about Manet, and a bit about Maximilian. Both were odd European characters, who didn’t figure in any of the history books I had read until then. Both Manet and Maximilian were enamoured of liberal, republican ideas that would have been at odds with their elite family backgrounds.

Maximilian, in particular, a scion of the Austrian imperial line of the Habsburgs, stood out. The story goes that before his execution in June 1867, he gave each member of the firing squad a gold coin and said, “Shoot straight”. This is most likely a myth, as the execution was botched. In that sense it was part and parcel of Maximilian’s rule as Emperor of Mexico, a position offered by Napoleon III of France, from 1864-67. He had made his role contingent on a plebiscite in his support, which actually never took place — just like his coronation. He was, strangely, backed by monarchists, and opposed by republicans, while the policies he wanted to pursue were closer to the republican thought. Land reform, for example, and the extension of the vote as well. But Maximilian also signed a decree that allowed military courts to try rebels, leading to the execution of thousands.

I was reminded of this while watching a Netflix series called Thieves of the Wood, based on the story of Jan de Lichte in 18th-century Belgium. De Lichte was a Robin Hood-like figure, who led a motley crew of outlaws. One of the most interesting characters in the series was Bailiff Baru. Unlike the villainous sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood stories, Baru was more complicated. He wanted to end crime, but also the exploitation that bred outlaws. He suggested that the cruelties inflicted by the city’s authorities are leaving the outlaws with no choice but to rebel. And yet, he was also the main actor in punishing people he thought should be punished in the interest of the rebellion.

These characters, Maximilian and Baru, were potential heroes that failed. They wanted to deliver justice and even tried to pursue policies towards reform, but they floundered because their situations got the better of them. In a way, they serve to highlight the fallacy of people who think that all we need is one wise leader to transform society, to set laws, and put everything to work.

This was also part of conversations between Gandhi, Jinnah, and Ambedkar in the run-up to Independence and Partition. For Gandhi, social transformation was key; without internal reform, he did not think external freedom would help. Jinnah and Ambedkar were more focused on political power; laws and regulations that would help bring about that change. This, of course, is a gross simplification of the topics under discussion between these leaders. They were not the only people in discussion and the issues were as many, if not more.

To a certain degree, Gandhi lost this argument. In post-Independence India, the State — under the aegis of the Nehru government — was projected as the reformer of society. The laws, as Ambedkar pointed out, were promised on equal rights but society and the economy were actively unequal. The result was an unhappy bundle of contradictions.

The State — like Baru and Maximilian — had liberal leanings but its representatives were not the most powerful actors. In fact, often the most regressive forces backed these failed heroes.

Unlike Maximilian or Baru, though, the country doesn’t end or cease to be. But heroes aren’t enough to bring in the change. You need people, too, to win them over, to accept and also be the change.

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for the Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for the Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Published on May 15, 2020

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